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Go Round and Round: Muni's Reaction to a Preventable Death Reveals its True Self 

Wednesday, Nov 6 2013

Strange and terrible things find their way onto your desk when you work for a newspaper. Here's what's on the top of the pile: a press release about how "the Bay Area is dying to love death." It urges older Americans to eliminate "the negativity and fear surrounding death."

Apparently dying gets a bad rap: "Our end-of-life experience doesn't have to be rushed, hushed, or negative — instead it can be a natural process that is in harmony with the environment."

That may describe the "end-of-life experience" on some publicist's home planet. But not here. Not in San Francisco.

And not for Cheng Jin Lai.

On Oct. 18, the 78-year-old was pedaling through SoMa with a sack of recyclables strapped to his bicycle at 8:45 in the morning. That's a rough life for anyone, let alone a man a few ticks shy of 80.

It preceded a rough death.

A 27-Bryant bus knocked Lai off his bicycle, then rolled over him. He was crushed beneath the back-right tire. Lai died on the street.

It was not a natural process. It was not in harmony with the environment.

A series of SF Weekly stories following Lai's death revealed the bus that crushed the cyclist was missing an "S-1 Gard" — a polyurethane bumper mounted in front of the back-right tire and specifically designed to keep people from being crushed.

It was only after those stories were written that Muni called for a fleetwide inspection of its buses. It was only after this negative publicity that Muni crafted a rushed, hushed written policy regarding these safety devices. It was only after SF Weekly began asking questions that Muni boss Ed Reiskin's top lieutenants bothered to inform him of "the possibility" the S-1 Gard was missing. (Weeks after Lai's death and despite multiple eyewitness accounts, videos, and photographs clearly showing the device was not in place, Muni still refuses to confirm the S-1 Gard was absent.)

Cheng Jin Lai was unique. But Muni's reaction to his death was not — it fits into a larger pattern. The agency's response wasn't to protect the people of San Francisco.

It was to protect itself.

Ed Reiskin is not a transit guy. Prior to running Muni, he oversaw the Department of Public Works. Prior to that, he oversaw the 311 call center. And, prior to the day of this paper's first story about Lai's death, Reiskin did not know what an S-1 Gard was.

There is no shame in this. Reiskin's expertise is in management. His sterling reputation for competence is such that he may be able to execute even the most dubious of endeavors the agency has tasked him with. And, once news of the missing safety device reached Reiskin, he did everything right.

The fleetwide inspection of all Muni's buses was undertaken: Per the agency's self-reported numbers, only 14 of 801 coaches were without an S-1 Gard. A policy memo barring buses missing the device from city streets was belatedly produced. It is difficult to imagine Lai's fate befalling another San Franciscan (at least any time soon).

There is shame, however, that it took four days and external media pressure before a bevy of Muni managers — up to and including Transit Director John Haley — clued in Reiskin. There is shame that demonstrably lethal buses were allowed to roll through the city for a week while Muni managers scrambled to justify unjustifiable policies. There is shame that Muni continues to evoke Heller, Kafka, or Orwell — take your pick — in refusing to comment on the presence of an S-1 Gard that was clearly nonexistent. Multiple sources have confirmed to your humble narrator that it was known — and known damn well — within minutes of Lai's death that the device was not on this bus. One eyewitness noticed the S-1 Gard's mounting brackets were still visible — but the Gard was long gone.

Muni's official explanation for keeping its director out of the loop for four days is ambitious in its illogic. An investigation into whether a device that clearly wasn't on a bus was on a bus or not apparently needed to be carried out before Reiskin was brought up to speed. That investigation is ongoing — and yet Reiskin was brought up to speed anyway — on the very day the matter became public.

Muni managers, however, apparently figured something was awry, as an investigation of all the Orion buses of the sort that killed Lai was called for on the day of the incident. This is a bizarre and arbitrary move. Orion buses are no more or less likely to lose their S-1 Gards than any of the other half-dozen types of coaches in Muni's fleet — why inspect only the 50 Orion vehicles, but wait a week to review the 750 others in the fleet? And, in the wake of a gruesome and preventable death, why not mention any of this to the head of the agency?

Here's a thought: It was only after Reiskin became involved that Muni produced an actual written memo regarding care and maintenance of S-1 Gards — and proscribing a bus without one from rolling through city streets. Allowing those vehicles free rein while blithely shrugging your shoulders and claiming no written directive is being violated is no longer kosher.

That memo wasn't penned by Haley, incidentally, but Neal Popp — the agency's deputy director of bus maintenance. Muni spokesman Paul Rose claimed this wasn't unusual.

Perhaps it's also not unusual that Popp's memo was punched into a cellphone in text-message language at 6:06 a.m., when he was hundreds of miles from San Francisco.

In April 2010, attorney Scott Whitsitt ambled out of his office on Mission and Beale. He judiciously allowed a 14-Mission to pass him before stepping off the curb — right in front of another 14-Mission. Witnesses heard him shriek, "Oh God, no!"

And then he was gone.

His husband's resultant wrongful death suit against the city takes aim at the bus driver — and, Lord knows, she proved to be an ample target. Per the suit, she "mistook the brake pedal for the accelerator pedal." Also, she was "busy unwrapping a candy bar with both hands" in the moments before striking Whitsitt. A Muni source confirmed to your humble narrator that investigators even located the wrapper beneath the steering wheel.

Left unmentioned in this suit, however, was the mile-long record of problems ominously afflicting this bus prior to its lethal accident. Documents obtained by SF Weekly in 2012 reveal "Preventive Maintenance and Defects/Repair records 60 days prior to the incident date shows a history of 15+ defects to the Brake and Propulsion System." The coach was demonstrating "a pattern of vehicle malfunction as recently as two days before the incident."

But since the driver was such an easy legal target, none of this was ever seriously examined. We'll never know if the bus would even have stopped had the driver managed to find the correct pedal. Muni remains unchanged.

The cause of Lai's death, however, seems as unambiguous as it was needless. And yet powerful elements within Muni still battled to maintain the agency's ludicrous status quo.

It was deemed more expedient for Muni to cover its rear end than its rear wheels.

And, even after outside pressure shamed the agency into action, it still claims it violated no "regulatory" requirements. Its official position is that, in establishing a policy to install devices on the bus to prevent people from being crushed, it was doing everyone a favor.

S-1 Gards are a proactive device. But Muni remains a reactive agency.

The fleetwide inspection is complete. A policy has been crafted. We have, after all of this, arrived at the right place. But, just like a journey on a crosstown bus, it was lengthy, unnerving, and far from pleasant.

For Muni, perhaps, this is a natural process that is in harmony with its environment.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" is a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly, which he has written for since 2007. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers... more


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