Walking away from tragedy

Non-Fiction | published in Real Change on Nov. 26th, 2008
Subject: Bus Crash on the Aurora Bridge (in Seatte, WA) in 1998

Ten years later, memories tied to a bus that went off the Aurora Bridge in Seattle still linger

First Place, Social Issues, 2008,
Society of Professional Journalists, Western Washington Chapter

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Nov. 27, 1998: the day after Thanksgiving. The day shots rang out and a bus, half-filled with passengers, dove off the Aurora Bridge. The day things changed, not only for crash survivors, but for many who ride public transit today.

It was that afternoon a decade ago when Laethan Wene left his Shoreline apartment, thinking only of the start of Winterfest, the holiday extravaganza at the Seattle Center downtown. He’d attended many times before, enthralled by the spectacle, the lighting of the tree, and looked forward to taking part in the tradition again.

Wene, 24 at time, had no driver’s license — he still doesn’t — so he hiked over to the Aurora Village Transit Center on N. 200th St. to get downtown the best way he knew: by bus. “Without transportation,” he says, “I’m stuck.” So he waited for his chariot, the #359 Express, to depart.

Nearby stood Mark McLaughlin, the bus driver. At close to 6’ 5”, McLaughlin was a big dude, one you wouldn’t want to mess with but, at heart, a nice guy. Often, on his route, he joked with the public, handing out Bazooka bubblegum to kids, or anyone who asked. A real gentle giant. Wene knew him, had seen McLaughlin at union meetings, which he sat in on out of interest. “How’s everything going?” Wene asked him, as McLaughlin drank a mocha, his regular caffeine fix.

Eventually McLaughlin boarded the bus, sliding behind the steering wheel. The passengers got on, with Wene choosing to sit in the articulated section, on the vehicle’s left side. From his seat, he had a clear view of the rear double-door opposite him, set right behind the accordion-like ribbing. With everyone seated, the bus pulled off, heading south on Aurora Ave.

Like some people, the #359 had a reputation, and it wasn’t a pretty one. With the gambling establishments on Aurora, the cheap motels, the prostitutes that brought in criminal elements, the drunks, the fights, the bus route was out of control. More than 200 drivers from the North Base, where the #359 was stationed, had signed a petition some 18 months before, asking for more security. Something, anything.

Cops pulling overtime had already been acting as a transit security force, so Metro pulled some from southern routes and shifted them up north, encompassing the #359. Enacting their own safety measures, McLaughlin and most other drivers on the route didn’t wear seatbelts. Because if somebody took a swing at you, you didn’t want to be strapped down.

Passengers embarked, passengers alighted. Somewhere during the journey, a man with a name that would have done Dickens proud stepped on board: Silas Cool. He sat down on the banquette that ran along the front right wall, directly behind the door. All that separated him from McLaughlin was the aisle. The 60-ft.-long bus wheeled down Aurora Ave., approaching the Aurora Bridge.

In his seat mid-bus, Wene, watching the world pass by, thought they were almost there, that his carriage was closing in on the Seattle Center, when he heard them: the blasts. POPP! POPP!

Gunshots. From a gun Cool held in his hand. The first for McLaughlin, catching him in the abdomen. The second self-inflicted, right to the head.

Immediately after the shots, the bus, just entering the Aurora Bridge, took a hard left, veering out of the southbound middle lane and crossing four lanes of traffic, crunching into a van, its driver shaken up, but safe.

On the bus, Wene was struck with a thought: “That my life was over,” says Wene. So he held on — tight — to his seat.

The #359 crashed head on into the eastern rail of the bridge. And the bus — nearly 19 tons of metal, glass, plastic, and rubber — plunged off the side, hurtling Wene and the 34 other riders to the ground below.

Paul Bachtel’s cell phone started ringing off the hook: Did you hear what happened?

The bus radio had just informed Bachtel, chief shop steward for North Base, that an accident had occurred, though information was kept purposely vague. A network of drivers, using cell phones while behind the wheel — a company no-no — pieced together that a bus had gone off the Aurora Bridge. Which Bachtel himself would soon drive under.

He piloted the #31, which traveled south on Stone Way N., turned right on N. 35th St., and motored several blocks before cutting under the bridge and past the statue of the Fremont Troll. But “[Metro] rerouted us,” says Bachtel.

Metro directed Bachtel along N. 34th St., hewing close to the Lake Washington Ship Canal, while the cell phone calls kept coming, word running rampant. He did his best to finish the 20 minutes left of his route before ending up in Magnolia. He headed back up to North Base, hopped in his car, and drove back to where he thought the bus had landed. By the time he arrived, an hour had passed. He looked at what remained of the #359. “It was just ripped to smithereens,” he says.

Like a roller coaster. The bus, falling more than 40 ft. off the Aurora Bridge, felt, to Wene, like a ride at the Seattle Center, where he’d been heading.

On its way down, the bus tore at trees, ricocheting off the roof of a two-story apartment building on N. 36th St. before landing, miraculously, on its wheels. But tangled with the miracle was chaos: shattered glass, diesel fuel, twisted rubber, broken bones, screams.

Through the crash and descent, Wene had held on to his seat for dear life and, when the bus hit the ground, he watched the back door pop open. Then he heard two voices. The first, he says, belonged to the Lord. “He told me, ‘I’m not through with you yet.’ He told me to crawl out the door.” So Wene got down on his hands and knees and crawled right out the bus. Not even a scratch.

The second voice said, “Go call 911.” Wene, in a daze, stood up and walked east some 12 blocks to Stone Way N. — the same road Bachtel drove on the #31 — to a Safeway, where he called the Fire Department.

Wene feels confident the voice telling him to call for help belonged to McLaughlin, who, at that moment, lay bleeding on the rooftop of the apartment building the bus had struck. Without his seatbelt on, he had been thrown through the windshield by the impact.

A fire deputy chief found Wene at the Safeway and took him back to the scene. He just stood there, witnessing the trauma: the injured passengers, their wails. And then the impact of what had happened hit him. “I just had a big bawl,” he says.

Bachtel looked at the mess before him in shock. The bus had been torn in half. How would he explain this to his fellow employees? One Metro employee was McLaughlin’s fiancée. And McLaughlin had kids. What about them?

As a result of the gunshot and being thrown out the bus, McLaughlin lost his life. Silas Cool had ended his own with a bullet. And one other passenger, Herman Leibelt, died from injuries sustained in the accident. But the rest, even those suffering life-altering injuries, survived. “All these people walked away,” says Bachtel.

But what remains, 10 years later, are memories that hang around.

Bachtel, the current recording secretary for ATU Local 57, the transit union, says he walked away from the crash with some amount of guilt. Could he have done more to prevent it? Should he have pressed for more security on the #359? He says that shortly after the crash, he gave copies of the North Base drivers’ petition that asked for more security to local newspapers and TV stations. “They all just ignored us,” he says. Should he have given up with that? “You never stop asking those kind of questions.”

Two or three times, not long after the crash, he drove over to Cool’s former apartment in the U-District, just to see where he lived. Surely Cool had been a tortured soul. Press reports revealed that Cool had serious mental health issues, with a fascination for guns. Bachtel thinks that if our country had a better mental healthcare system, perhaps the accident could have been avoided.

Even now, it’s hard not to think about Mark McLaughlin nearly every day. To get to work, Bachtel rides his bike across the Aurora Bridge several times a week. And each year since the accident, a memorial has been held for McLaughlin, both at his gravesite and at the North Base. This year as in years past, Bachtel will be there.

Attending, while allowing him to pay respects to a friend, doesn’t stop him puzzling over the senseless nature of death: namely those deaths when someone gets killed for no damn good reason. “That’s just…” he begins, his voice cracking. “It’s really hard to put that anywhere in your psyche.”

Wene believes that if it weren’t for the grace of God, he wouldn’t be alive. He says he prays every day for those bus drivers — who are now aided by the King Country Division of Transit Police and on-board cameras. He credits McLaughlin with saving his life.

He, too, travels over the Aurora Bridge, at least once a month, to visit his counselor. Still living in Shoreline, he now rides the #358, the route having been renumbered since the crash, the number 359 retired to honor the slain driver. The journey doesn’t scare him. “I just say that it’s just another day,” he says.

On Nov. 28 of this year, 10 years and a day after he crawled out of an open door of a mangled bus, he says he’ll attend McLaughlin’s memorial. And he has another plan for the day, too. “I’m planning to go back to WinterFest,” he says. To get there, Wene will take the #358 over the Aurora Bridge. Just like he’s done before.

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