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Originally published February 7, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 12, 2007 at 8:54 AM

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One dead, one hurt in Sound Transit construction accident in Seattle

One person is dead and another was injured early this morning when a transport train they were riding in at a Sound Transit tunnel construction site crashed into another train, officials said.

Seattle Times staff reporters

A 49-year-old mechanic was killed and another worker was injured early this morning when the supply train they were riding out of a Sound Transit tunnel crashed into another train at a construction site on Airport Way South, according to the Seattle Fire Department and transit officials.

The two men were on a small train that is used to shuttle workers, sections of the concrete tunnel wall, metal pipes and rails in and out of the one-mile tunnel that is being constructed through Beacon Hill, as part of a new 16-mile light rail line. This morning's crash is the second time in less than four months that a supply train at the site has been involved in a collision.

The collision occurred just before 4:10 a.m. at the west portal of the tunnel that is being bored through a wooded hillside beneath Interstate 5, just north of the Tully's Coffee plant, formerly the Rainier Brewery.

The two were riding on an open-air seat in back of a small, 30-ton locomotive. The operator was still in place after the impact, while a mechanic fell and landed next to the track, said Richard Sage, Sound Transit's construction manager for the Beacon Hill area. He said it was unknown whether the mechanic, who died, was thrown from the train or jumped. Neither man was identified.

Bruce Gray, a Sound Transit spokesman, said he didn't know how fast the supply train was going or why it failed to stop. The trains, often weighted with supplies, don't normally go faster than 20 miles per hour.

Both men had started work at 11 p.m. and were midway through the shift when the accident occurred, Gray said.

The workers had made their way into the tunnel when they realized they forgot a piece of equipment and were coming back out to get it when they couldn't stop the train, Gray said.

Their locomotive crashed into a parked locomotive. The force caused the moving train to derail and spill pieces of tunnel wall. The contractor, Obayashi Corp., shut down its operation for two days.

Obayashi could resume work Friday on an underground station, and a short aerial trackway just east of the tunnel -- but the main tunnel boring must wait until state investigators "release" the jobsite, said Joni Earl, Sound Transit's chief executive officer.

A similar accident involving a train that failed to stop happened at the site in October 2006, Gray said.

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, who took a tour of the Beacon Hill tunnel on Monday, visited the accident site around 8:30 a.m. At a news conference at City Hall two hours later, Nickels said investigators would conduct a thorough investigation "to make sure there are no repeats" of the morning's fatal crash.

Nickels said work at the site had been going well. The long tunneling machine is 60 percent of the way through the hill, heading east, Sage said. After reaching the end, it will begin working on a second tunnel by late March. The mayor said he could not comment about an October crash involving another train at the same site that failed to stop.

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But a spokeswoman for the state Department of Labor & Industries, which is investigating today's fatal accident, said the department was aware of the Oct. 27th incident in which some workers jumped off of a locomotive, but had not undertaken a official investigation into the incident.

"We had consultations in which we talked with the company and we were satisfied that they were taking all of the steps to do an internal investigation, find out what happened and correct the situation," said L&I spokeswoman Elaine Fischer.

Today three state investigators were sent to the scene of the accident..

In light of the new incident, maintenance records, other reports and the first incident may be re-examined, she said. "It's one of the things we will look at."

In the October crash, a locomotive rolled off an elevated staging area, but a worker had jumped off first. Since then, Obayashi installed a steel barrier at the end of the track, and told operators to use only the lowest three of the locomotive's five gears, said Sage. The company also added training and safety meetings.

"We don't know whether it's human factors, or mechanical," Sage said of Wednesday's mishap. "I think Obayashi's done a good job of trying to prevent things like this."

Normally, a train should be going 5 to 10 mph in that area, he said.

Fischer said she has reviewed the safety history of the construction company and found that L&I had performed a safety inspection at one site in May 2006 and that no safety violations were found.

Full-fledged investigations can be triggered by complaints from workers, referrals from non-workers, or an accident such as occurred today.

Injury rates for the light-rail line have been slightly lower than the national average, according to Sound Transit's latest monthly progress report.

Ron Gai, Tully's vice-president of sales, witnessed the Oct. 27 crash.

He said he was leaving Tully's corporate headquarters around 7 p.m. when a supply train crashed into a wall at the end of the tracks.

"A rail car came out of the tunnel and didn't stop and knocked over a big backhoe," he said. "It was out of control . . . It was just really loud and lots of equipment was flying off the end."

Gai said he and about six other witnesses were certain somebody had been killed in that crash although it turned out workers suffered only minor injuries.

"They were lucky somebody didn't get killed then," Gai said. He said he was surprised to hear of a similar incident less than four months later.

Earl, the chief transit executive, said she prays every day that everyone working on the huge rail project goes home safe. "I wake up every morning with that thought, and I go to bed with that thought," she said.

Officials said the halt in tunneling should not affect the scheduled opening of the $2.7 billion 16-mile light rail line from Westlake Center to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport by the end of 2009.

Seattle Times staff reporter Mike Lindblom and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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