By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
In March 2006, retired Queens College professor Esther Levine, 82, was on her way home from the grocery store, with the light giving her the right of way at 20th Street and First Avenue, when she was run down in the crosswalk by an out-of-service bus making a left turn.
Levine's son, Robert, an author and college professor living in California, says his mom was very fit and active for someone of her age. She often described herself as "in mint condition."
"She was very physically vital," he says. "Swimming, tennis, bridge. She was getting ready to come out and visit us."
Despite her vitality, Levine was in the most at-risk group in bus/pedestrian collisions: women over 65. Her case was also one of five in the 16 bus-collision deaths examined by the Voice that involved empty or out-of- service vehicles.
And hers was one of seven cases involving a bus making a left turn when it fatally struck a pedestrian. In most of those cases, the drivers told investigators they never saw the victim.
At the driver's disciplinary hearing, Levine's daughter Alice learned that the driver was taking an unauthorized route to the depot when the accident occurred. "He was trying to [get] back to the depot on time, and he took a route that he wasn't supposed to take," she says.
It was also at the disciplinary hearing that the bus driver approached her to express his condolences. "He said, 'I just want you to know how upset and sorry I was,' " she recalls. "He told me, 'I wanted to send you flowers, but I was told not to.' "
In the end, something positive resulted from the tragedy. A group of activists convinced city officials to double the time of the walk signal, says Granville Leo Stephens, who was involved in the effort.
"That corner was outrageous, like an accident waiting to happen," Stephens says.
The Levine family is now suing the Transit Authority over Esther's death. Alice Levine says she decided to back the family's decision to sue largely because the Transit Authority failed to contact her to express condolences over the accident.
"It was like my mother just disappeared," she says. "I felt like someone has to say to me that your mother was killed unnecessarily, but they never contacted me. It's like you're an ant, a speck. It's like human life has no meaning."
Robert Levine agrees. "I would like to see a more humane face from the MTA, a certain understanding that while they need to protect their own, there is a certain responsibility that even a large bureaucracy has," he says.
Just as disturbing as Levine's death is the case of Helen Skillman, a 79-year-old Bayside woman who was on her way to care for a sick sister when she was hit, run over, and then run over again by a Transit Authority bus just after dawn on June 2, 2006. Skillman, the state report says, had stepped off the curb at the bus terminal on Merrick Boulevard in Queens to cross behind a bus when the vehicle backed up. The bus driver had just boarded several children, then checked his mirrors, tapped his horn, and started to roll backward. The rear bumper of the bus hit Skillman and knocked her to the ground. The rear wheels of the bus ran over her legs. The driver, still unaware of what happened, shifted gears and rolled forward, running over Skillman's legs a second time. Finally, a motorist jumped out of his car and shouted a warning to the driver to stop, but it was too late.
State investigators found that the Transit Authority was supposed to have someone present in the terminal to monitor the buses as they back up, but at that time of the day, there was no monitor. According to regulations, the driver should have checked himself, but he didn't.
It may be more troubling that despite looking in his mirrors, the driver still couldn't see Skillman crossing behind his vehicle. That's because the blind spot on the rear of buses can be as wide as a car.
The TA fired the driver, records show, but he appealed the decision and was able to keep his jobthough he was banned from driving a bus again.
The job of investigating the most serious bus accidentsfalls to a largely unheralded state agency called the Public Transportation Safety Board. A Voice examination of 73 PTSB investigations from the past year or so shows a range of collisions in which drivers made serious errors or ignored proce duresoften with tragic consequences.
"Most of these accidents are due to human failures," says John Fabian, chief investigator for the PTSB. "There is always a constant need for oversight and accountability. At the same time, pedestrians need to be just as responsible for their own lives, and not assume the driver will see them."
In all, the reports detail 47 collisions that caused 16 deaths and 241 injuries. (The Voice also found 11 other deaths for which the PTSB had yet to issue conclusions.) The reports also describe 26 cases of fires and serious mechanical problemsincluding instances where wheels literally fell off, brakes malfunctioned, and mechanics failed to do proper safety checks.