EXCLUSIVE: Evidence finds mistakes, incompetence led to Zoo tra - WDRB 41 Louisville News

EXCLUSIVE: Documents say mistakes, incompetence led to Zoo train derailment

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Reporter:  Jennifer Baileys - Jbaileys@Fox41.com

LOUISVILLE, KY (WDRB, FOX41) - Emergency lights that didn't work and warning buzzers disconnected, WDRB has obtained exclusive details about what led to the Louisville Zoo Train derailment nearly two years ago.

"Zoo officials admit in deposition, sworn testimony that the train should never have left the track," said Attorney Ron Hillerich.

Train 312 or the "green" train as it's known took off on June 1st, 2009 filled with passengers. According to testimony in the depositions, 18-year-old Mary Clare Coffey was at the wheel for the first time on 312.

"She didn't have adequate training, she had some training," said Hillerich.

He is representing several victims who were on the train that day including Cheri McKenzie who was nearly scalped when it derailed.

"She [McKenzie] still needs a three level fusion in the area of her neck, she still has a large place on her scalp," Hillerich said.

McKenzie is one of 22 people including children injured when the train derailed near the Gorilla Forest exhibit.

State investigators found speed, poor condition and inadequate training caused the accident. But the depositions obtained by WDRB explain much more about what happened including proof mistakes leading to the crash were made a year before the derailment.

"This is the low-air warning light.  It's a red lens, but there was no light bulb in here," Hillerich explained.

"Not only had a zoo employee removed the entire bulb, but somebody had cut the wires and taped them with electrical tape to the buzzer," Hillerich continued.

WDRB also discovered in the depositions, convicted felons were working on the zoo trains. A maintenance employee testified the train's brakes were never measured to determine wear. The same employee also admitted to fudging safety reports.

One of the most glaring problems revealed in the depositions, was the lack of training. A supervisor testified he never even read an operation manual for the train and the 18 year old driver testified she had no idea what an emergency button was.

"Had she known that this button was an emergency stop button, she would have hit it and we would not be here today," Hillerich said.

Adding to that problem, the button was supposed to be red with a label identifying it.  Zoo employees testified someone changed and removed those.  Conflicting statements about brakes also emerged during the depositions.

"Some of the zoo personnel said they changed the entire braking system only one month before this. If you put new shoes on only one month before how come 55 or 58 are outside manufacturers specifications," explained Hillerich.

A question still unanswered, but we went to the zoo to get answers from the top official Director John Walczak.  He had little to say about the case.

"I really can't speak to those," said Walczak.

But he did tell us the zoo is working on improving safety.

"There's going to be a new braking system on the trains and we're going to be putting a second brake and a second engineer on every train," Walczak said.

The zoo is working to purchase three new trains at $300,000 a piece.  They're expected to be up and running sometime next spring.

"The trains will pay for themselves and we're working out the financing right now," Walczak said.

While Walczak will not speak to the pending lawsuits against the zoo, he referred WDRB to County Attorney Spokesperson Bill Patteson.  He revealed a conclusion to the law suits may be in the near future.

"We are negotiating with legal representation for those people in hopes of achieving a settlement," Patteson said.

Hillerich says a trial date could be set in court on Monday, May 16, 2011. 

Patteson says it's unclear how much the city is spending on legal fees. 

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