WALNUT CREEK -- The heated rhetoric of the ongoing BART strike gave way to sorrow Saturday after a train being run by an "experienced" former operator struck and killed two workers who were inspecting the track between the Walnut Creek and Pleasant Hill stations.
A BART manager was returning a train to the Concord yard around 1:53 p.m. after delivering vandalized cars to Richmond to be cleaned when he struck the two transit agency workers who were inspecting the track after reports of "dip" in the rail, a BART assistant general manager said.
The engineers were the seventh and eighth BART workers to die on the job in the transit agency's 41-year history. Officials did not release the workers' names, age or cities of residence.
BART officials said one of the workers was a BART employee and the other a contractor. Officials at AFSCME Local 3993 said one of the workers was in the union; members of AFSCME are free to cross the picket line but are encouraged to "stand in solidarity," according to President Patricia Schuchardt.
The accident came less than 48 hours after BART workers walked off their jobs Friday morning, following months of contentious negotiations. Despite repeated warnings from union officials that managers would create a dangerous situation by operating trains, BART management had earlier assured the public that those operators were certified, safe and would possibly shuttle a smaller fleet of trains if the strike dragged on.
On Saturday, neither BART management nor union officials would discuss those warnings or attempt to put the deaths in the context of the strike.
"Our hearts and prayers go out to the families of the two workers killed on the BART track," said BART General Manager Grace Crunican, who showed up to the scene Saturday afternoon.
When asked about union concerns over driving managers, a BART assistant general manager said, "We're not going there."
"We're dealing with a tragedy. The labor issues are not in the forefront of our mind," said Paul Oversier, standing near the accident site. "This is a tragedy of the greatest proportion for the BART family."
Added Antonette Bryant, president of Amalgamated Transit Local 1555: "This is a terrible human tragedy, and we mourn the passing of these two individuals. We pray for the families of those who lost their lives today."
On Saturday morning, several hours before the accident, ATU representatives said they planned to present BART management's final offer to its rank-and-file members for a vote next week, but added that they fully expected the deal to be turned down.
There were no plans to return to the bargaining table, and it's unclear how Saturday's accident will play into contract discussions. ATU officials said after the accident that they had canceled rallies planned for Sunday out of respect for those killed; SEIU workers carried both candles and picket signs in what union leaders called a "vigil" outside Lake Merritt station Saturday evening.
The accident happened on the Pittsburg-Bay Point line, between the Walnut Creek and Pleasant Hill stations, where the track runs parallel to Interstate 680 and Jones Road, near Chandon Court and Pimlico Drive.
A statement from BART management said the employees -- one BART employee and one contractor -- were performing track inspections at the time of the accident after a reported "dip" in a track. Both had "extensive" experience working around moving trains, according the statement, which said that procedures called for one worker to inspect the track and the other to act as a lookout for any oncoming traffic.
"What they were doing today was something they had done hundreds, if not thousands of times in their careers," Oversier said.
BART said the train was being run by an "experienced" operator, and was in automatic mode and under computer control at the time of the accident. The manager was operating the train to shuttle vandalized cars to get cleaned.
The workers' bodies could be seen near the tracks under tarps about 160 feet apart, with the train stopped about 600 feet north.
A review of BART radio communications indicated the train operator, who unnamed BART sources say was an operator supervisor who drove trains two decades ago, reported: "BART emergency! BART emergency to Central! We just struck some individuals (at a track location) ... Central be advised it may be BART employees."
The male train operator reported a few moments later that "both are deceased and definitely BART employees."
On another recording, a woman can be heard announcing: "There are no personnel wayside (adjacent to the tracks)." Within five seconds, a second voice can be heard contradicting that report: "Attention all personnel: We do have personnel wayside between C-40 and C-50 on the C1 and C2 tracks."
Central BART communication officers are among the workers out on strike. It was unclear who was operating the dispatch center while trains were moving.
"These people are not trained to do these jobs," said one anonymous BART worker, referring to managers who have been moving trains and running communications during the work stoppage.
Officials at the National Transportation Safety Board will investigate the accident.
The strike began Friday after days of threatened strike deadlines, then last-minute extensions. Both ATU 1555 and Service Employees International Local 1021 negotiating teams rejected BART's final offer. Talks between BART management and the unions continued, with the aid of a federal mediator, through Thursday when they collapsed over disagreements about work rules and salary.
The last BART worker killed while on duty was James Strickland, 44, who was killed on Oct. 14, 2008, as he was inspecting track on the same line near Oak Grove Road in Concord. In 2001, a worker was struck and killed in an underground section of track between the 16th Street-Mission and 24th Street-Mission stations in San Francisco.
Four other BART workers have died on the job in the agency's 41 years of operation.
Staff writer Paul Burgarino contributed to this report. Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.