WALNUT CREEK, Calif. — Federal authorities launched an inquiry Sunday into the deaths of two Bay Area Rapid Transit workers who were struck by a train in the midst of a tense labor walkout that has disrupted travel for hundreds of thousands of commuters.
Investigators for the National Transportation Safety Board will try to determine what went wrong on the BART line in Walnut Creek where the two workers were hit Saturday afternoon as they inspected the track for defects, officials said.
The deaths brought heartbreak to the labor dispute that had simmered for several months before triggering the strike Friday by a pair of unions.
"We are hurting because we are family here," said BART employee Nucion Avent, tears streaming down his face as he addressed about 100 people who gathered Sunday evening in a candlelight vigil for the dead workers.
Officials did not release the names of the victims, but colleagues identified them as BART employee Christopher Sheppard, of Hayward, and Larry Daniels, a contractor from Oakland. CBS in San Francisco said Sheppard was a senior track manager who was looking forward to retiring in a couple of years.
The employees at the vigil hugged one another, observed a moment of silence and prayed. Some were dressed in their BART uniforms and others in union T-shirts. Several questioned whether the deaths were due to managers filling in for better-trained workers.
"It was a preventable accident," said Richard Stingily, a foreman and former train operator who has worked for BART for 23 years. "This is senseless and ridiculous."
With service halted on the sprawling rail network, political leaders and others called on BART and union negotiators to settle the strike before it plunges the region into turmoil, beginning with Monday morning's commute.
"This weekend was shocking and tragic," said Christine Falvey, spokeswoman for San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, who was cutting short a trip to China and South Korea because of the strike and the deaths.
Oakland Mayor Jean Quan said in a Facebook post that the "it's more than time to compromise" to get the roughly 2,300 employees back on the job. "The impact on the Bay Area economy and stranded workers is too costly."
BART carries 400,000 round-trip passengers each workday. San Francisco deployed extra buses and traffic officers in preparation for the expected crunch.
There was no official indication that the strike was a factor in the deaths, but NTSB lead investigator Jim Southworth said the inquiry would examine the possible effects of the walkout.
"Whether the strike plays a role in that, I can't say at this time," he said. "We will be turning over every stone and opening every door."
Southworth said the investigators' work at the scene would take up to 10 days and a final report could be months or even a year away. "We're at the very start of this investigation," he said.
He said investigators would review video shot from inside the train cab and interview the operator as soon as Monday. They also plan to check the line's signaling system and other mechanical features.
Southworth declined to confirm reports that the dead men were not certified for track safety. There also were unconfirmed reports that the train operator was wearing a vest that said "trainee."
The two victims were inspecting the line for a dip in the track when they were struck shortly before 2 p.m., according to BART officials. One was acting as a lookout, and both had extensive experience with trains, the officials said.
The train that hit them was returning from the Richmond yard after delivering cars to have graffiti removed, according to the officials. Several people — none of them commuters — were aboard when the incident occurred, between the Walnut Creek and Pleasant Hill stations, they said.
Officials said the train was running in automatic mode with the operator at the computer controls.
The two labor organizations for the striking workers — Service Employees International Union Local 1021 and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555 — had warned of hazards if managers were allowed to operate trains during the walkout. Officials for the unions did not respond to interview requests Sunday.
At Sunday's vigil, veteran train driver Eileen Walsh, 54, said she had to complete 16 weeks of instruction before she was allowed to drive, with vigilance and safety a priority.
"You have to be 100% on when you're in that seat," Walsh said. "You're watching the tracks the whole time. It's a taxing job. Your eyes are always outside that window.
"It boggles me how you can't see two people with vests on the tracks."
Ric Horrocks, 40, a train operator for 17 years, said the automated mode was similar to cruise control in an automobile, with the driver in command.
"There was definitely someone sitting in that seat," Horrocks said. "In order for someone to get killed, basically everybody had to make a mistake."
A radio transmission captured the moments after the incident. The train operator said: "BART emergency! BART emergency to Central! We just struck some individuals [at a track location] ... Central be advised it may be BART employees." Later, he said: "Both are deceased and definitely BART employees."
Meanwhile, no new talks were scheduled between the unions and management, but a BART spokeswoman said in a statement that the agency's board would hold a special meeting Monday to pursue an end to the strike. "The tragedy has redoubled everyone's commitment to a quick resolution," the statement said.
The stalemate followed a week of marathon negotiations. The two sides parted ways over job rules rather than wages and benefits.
Workers had staged a four-day strike in July before Gov. Jerry Brown stopped it by imposing a 60-day cooling-off period. On Friday, a Brown spokesman said the governor did not intend to intervene again.
Dolan reported from Walnut Creek, Schaefer and Pringle from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Christine Mai-Duc in Los Angeles contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun