Little mention of fatal Red Line incident at MBTA board of directors safety subcommittee meeting

Four days after the death of a man who became trapped in a subway car door on the Red Line, the MBTA board of directors’ safety subcommittee, charged with overseeing safety at the sprawling transit agency, did not ask MBTA staff a single question about the tragedy at a public meeting.

Instead, the members of the MBTA Safety, Health, and Environment Subcommittee — Scott Darling, Mary Beth Mello, and Bob Butler — offered condolences Thursday to the family of Robinson Lalin as well as Peter Monsini, a construction worker who died when the Government Center Garage partially collapsed last month.

“It’s a tragedy that happened, and we feel the pain,” said Butler of the deaths.

“Same here,” said Mello.

“I would like to put that into the meeting minutes,” said Darling. “The whole committee has those same thoughts.”

Transit advocates were appalled that a board whose job, in part, is to help ensure the safety of the traveling public didn’t ask about Lalin’s death.

“It’s unacceptable,” said Stacy Thompson, executive director of LivableStreets Alliance, a public transportation advocacy group. “What’s the point of the board? Someone died, there should be an immediate response. I would have liked to see the board ask for what the public can reasonably expect. It goes beyond a dereliction of duty. Someone died in a horrible way.”

The regularly scheduled meeting, which included a presentation from the T’s safety engineering team, lasted over an hour before the members went into a private meeting to “discuss strategy with respect to litigation,” Darling said. During the public portion, Darling asked MBTA staff to provide an explanation if the agency misses its targets for things like customer injuries, collisions, and derailments for three consecutive months.

“If it’s in the red for three months in a row, I’d like to have an explanation of what we’re going to get it into the yellow or into the green,” he said.

Darling, who chairs the safety subcommittee, Mello, and Butler did not respond to requests for comment about why they made no inquiries into Lalin’s death.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the incident. T spokesperson Joe Pesaturo said via e-mail Thursday, “The NTSB had made it clear that preliminary findings will be provided at the appropriate time. It’s for this reason that MBTA Board members today chose not to ask MBTA Safety Department officials to comment on the active investigation.”

Darling is an independent consultant, a former T official, and a former safety chief for the Chicago Transit Authority. Mello is a consultant who has worked with the MassDOT Rail and Transit Division and a former longtime Federal Transit Administration official. Butler serves as president of the Northeast Regional Council of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers.

All three were appointed to the newly formed MBTA board of directors by Governor Charlie Baker in October. The board replaced the MBTA’s previous oversight authority. Butler was chosen from a list of three people submitted to Baker by the Massachusetts AFL-CIO.

Gregory Connly, an attorney who represented the family of a 14-year-old boy who died in a Red Line incident in 1999, said there is no law or administrative rule that he was aware of preventing the MBTA board members from asking about Lalin’s death.

“It’s kind of troubling that there wouldn’t have been some basic questions about this incident,” he said. “It happened four days ago.”

How exactly Lalin, 39, died at the Broadway T station after he got trapped in the door is still unclear. Citing the ongoing federal investigation, the MBTA is not releasing details, including basic information like whether he was exiting or entering the train or how many people were on the platform.

Lalin’s nephew Kelvin Lalin said Thursday that his family had not been contacted by the transit agency or its board of directors.

“What eats me the most is we haven’t heard from the MBTA,” he said. “We don’t know anything from them, we’re restless. We’re going to continue to be restless until we get some answers. My aunt, my mother, we are all sick.”

On Thursday, Pesaturo said the MBTA Transit Police extended condolences on behalf of the MBTA when they informed Lalin’s family of his death.

“It’s important to allow the NTSB’s investigative work to proceed without interference, and for that reason, the MBTA feels strongly that it should not be making comments about the investigation, at this time,” he said via e-mail.

“The NTSB has implored the MBTA to not share any details of the incident,” Pesaturo added later.

Transit advocates are urging the board of directors to take a more hands-on role in overseeing the MBTA as it grapples with a recent series of grave safety incidents and a fast-approaching financial cliff.

In January, a commuter rail train struck a woman’s car, killing her, when the crossing gates and flashing lights meant to keep cars off the tracks in Wilmington did not activate in time.

Last September, a Red Line train derailed and hit the platform at Broadway station with 47 passengers on board. No injuries were reported.

The derailment came two days after an ascending escalator malfunctioned at the Back Bay Station and suddenly plummeted in reverse, causing a bloody pileup of people at the bottom. Nine people were sent to the hospital.

In July, a Green Line train crashed into the train ahead of it, sending 27 people to the hospital, including three MBTA crew members. The driver of the train pleaded not guilty to negligence charges.

The lack of information about Lalin’s death has left his family to describe a nightmarish turn of events in which he was dragged to the end of the platform and smashed against the wall.

MBTA subway train car doors are designed to open when something is stuck in between them, and trains are not meant to move forward unless all doors are closed, experts say.

Earlier this week, officials said the train car, which is over 50 years old, was impounded and the driver placed on administrative leave.

On Tuesday, MBTA general manager Steve Poftak described administrative leave as standard procedure.

The MBTA is still waiting for delivery of hundreds of new Red Line train cars from a Chinese company first contracted in 2014 that are supposed to replace the old cars like the one involved Sunday.

On Thursday, the two NTSB investigators had wrapped up the on-scene portion of their investigation and returned to Washington, D.C., according to agency spokesperson Keith Holloway.