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Two monorails collide at Walt Disney World, killing driver

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Published: July 5, 2009 at 2:25 PM

Two monorails collided at Walt Disney World Resort early this morning, killing one driver.

The incident happened at the Ticket and Transportation Center at around 2 am. The monorail was returning a handful of guests to the TTC from Epcot.

Eyewitnesses say one train slammed into the back of the other.

Updates from Robert: The driver, Austin Wuennenberg, 21, of Celebration, Fla., was cut from the wreckage at the scene and pronounced dead.

The Disney monorail system remains closed today, Sunday, pending an investigation of the incident.

Dsney's monorail system is equipped with a system that is supposed to shut down the trains automatically when they come too close to another train. Drivers who trip the system during their checkout test, or more than twice during operation, are removed from the monorail fleet and transferred into other departments. This was the first fatality in the history of the Disney World monorail system.

Here is a YouTube video of the immediate aftermath, and guests try to find a way to extract the driver.

Still image from YouTube video

I can't tell from the video if it was Monorail Pink hitting Blue or vice versa. I think it was Blue hitting Pink, but I am not certain.

Here is the statement from Disney spokesperson Mike Griffin:

"Today, we mourn the loss of our fellow cast member. Our hearts go out to his family and to those who have lost a friend and co-worker. The safety of our guests and cast members is always our top priority. The monorail is out of service and we will continue to work closely with law enforcement to determine what happened and the approximate next steps."

Let's also not forget that this has been a bad week for Orlando-area theme park employees, with this incident following the serious injury of an employee at Universal Orlando earlier in the week.

From the comments: "Monorail pink was clear of the station and stopped (waiting for the track switch to switch for another beam), and monorail purple was given clearance to enter the station. For some reason, someone gave monorail pink authorization to reverse to back into good position after a slight overtravel. Apparently they never switched it back to forward and monorail pink ran full speed in reverse back into the station hitting monorail purple. The CM [cast member] who died was not at fault, and was doing his job. The fault CM was either the one in the Control Tower, The Pink driver, or the Manager who was supervising the transfer procedure."

Monday update: Disney's running the Magic Kingdom route today, though the Epcot line remained closed to guests. The NTSB is going to investigate, which could have chilling results for Disney. The NTSB ain't OSHA, and has much more weight to throw around in these things.

But they could help set things right, too, if that's what's needed to make sure something like this never happens again.

Readers' Opinions

From Gareth H on July 5, 2009 at 2:39 PM
Monorail remains closed today as they remove the trains from the track.
From Robert Niles on July 5, 2009 at 2:53 PM
First, disclosure - I never worked monorails but I know several people who did. And my understanding was that it should be impossible for two trains to collide at TTC. Even if a driver were incapacitated, the system is designed to shut down the approaching train and stop it short of the station if the station is occupied by a second train.

I can't imagine a situation, therefore, in which driver error would allow an accident like this to happen. It's been anticipated and the system designed to prevent such an incident from happening. That leads me to wonder about a catastrophic system error being at fault here.

I know it's too early to know about a cause, but I did want to reiterate that there was supposed to be a system in place to prevent exactly this type of accident.

From Ben James on July 5, 2009 at 2:54 PM
It is my understanding that there is software and sensors design to keep two sections clear between monorails. There had to be an override of some sort or a failure of the computer system to allow this to happen.

I will send my condolences to the family of the pilot. But I am more thankful that there were not any guests in the nose of the train with the pilot. Could you imagine what a PR nightmare that would be for Disney World?

It will be interesting to see if ever what the exact cause of this accident was.


Does anyone know if the removed the trains from the track? And, does anyone know when the monorail may re-open?

From Gareth H on July 5, 2009 at 3:08 PM
Scary. I rode the pink monorail 3 times just 2 weeks ago, and this was one involved, once in that day I even rode the front with the driver!
From Frank Forrester on July 5, 2009 at 3:52 PM
From what i hear on WDWmagic forums it looks like the pink hit the purple one. The purple monorail was in the station and the pink was somehow backed up into it causing the accident. The CM killed was in the purple monorail.
From Raul Araoz on July 5, 2009 at 4:00 PM
I can only hope that this isn't a sign of managerial neglect due to cost-cutting measures caused by the economy.
From Robert Niles on July 5, 2009 at 4:02 PM
Hmmm. Frank's post, and the fact that this train must have been close to if not the very last train of the evening, makes me wonder if someone was switching around modes to send trains to storage or something. I have no idea where that is done on the WDW monorail track, but the timing at the end of the night opens the possibility of systems being manually switched as trains are shut down or stored for the evening.

Still, I can't imagine a zone intrusion sensor ever being shut down or overridden, unless the tracks were completely cleared by ops and turned over to maintenance.

From Dan Babbitt on July 5, 2009 at 4:04 PM
I knew the cm who was driving the train.

I only knew him in passing at the Tower but was very excited the day he got transfered from RnR Coaster to Monorails. It was his dream job.

From Robert Niles on July 5, 2009 at 4:21 PM
One thing is for certain, I suspect that the policy of "no one but the driver rides up front" will be back in force for a good long time now.
From 68.202.40.192 on July 5, 2009 at 5:33 PM
This is so sad. I'm still trying to figure out why there was a monorail coming from EPCOT, which closed at 10PM and had no EMH, going to the TTC at 2am. Who was still at EPCOT and why?!?! Don't they stop those runs a couple hours after the park closes? I know MK was open 'til 1am (I was there myself until 11pm), so I when I first heard about it, I assumed it was one of the MK/TTC monorails or MK Resort trains - didn't occur to me it would be an EPCOT train. Still, horribly sad. :-(
From Dan Babbitt on July 5, 2009 at 5:37 PM
I was thinking the same thing just imagine the what could of happened if the family was in the cockpit!
From 67.232.186.46 on July 5, 2009 at 5:37 PM
Submitted anonymously for fear of termination - Monorail pink was clear of the station and stopped (waiting for the track switch to switch for another beam), and monorail purple was given clearance to enter the station. For some reason, someone gave monorail pink authorization to reverse to back into good position after a slight overtravel. Apparently they never switched it back to forward and monorail pink ran full speed in reverse back into the station hitting monorail purple. The CM who died was not at fault, and was doing his job. The fault CM was either the one in the Control Tower, The Pink driver, or the Manager who was supervising the transfer procedure. Any of these news reports about 'suicide attempts' are inappropriate and sorely mistaken. He followed his Tower's commands and died because of their mistake.
From Amy Tupper on July 5, 2009 at 5:39 PM
I'm still trying to figure out why there was a monorail coming from EPCOT at 2am when that park closed at 10pm and had no EMH?!?! Don't they stop those runs a couple hours after park closing? Who would still have needed a ride at that hour, and why not just go with busses that late?

Regardless, it's definitely a tragedy. My family spent the 4th at MK and left by 11pm. Our trip from the TTC to MK on the monorail was a ride up front with the driver. I understand why these special rides may come to an end, at least for a while, so I'm glad my daughter got to experience it.

The driver killed sounds like someone who loved his job. I only hope he didn't suffer in this tragic accident. The pictures are just horrific. :-(

From Anthony Murphy on July 5, 2009 at 6:25 PM
I heard they were taking them off to put away in the hangers.

Its very sad a Cast Member died, but I was wondering why he was so young (21) and driving the monorail. I have never seen a young person run the monorail in my life. Really sad that a life was cut short so soon at such a happy place. The video is almost unwatchable due to its sadness now knowing what is happening.

From Robert Niles on July 5, 2009 at 6:50 PM
If the anonymous comment is accurate, and I'm hearing more and more chatter that it is an accurate description, then this is both a operational failure and a design failure of colossal proportions.

This is going to be a nightmare for Disney World, along the lines of what the Columbia disaster was for Disneyland.

From Vincent S on July 5, 2009 at 7:06 PM
First:

Like others have said here, Why would the monorail be running at 2am from EPCOT with passengers? I thought the only monorails running with service at that time were the MK Resort rails.

Why would Disney let a young person run the monorail. I been up in the front of the monorail atleast several times, and all the drivers look middle aged to older folks.

For the person who submitted anonymously, why would the pink train backup towards the TTC at full speed? Even if the pink driver thought that the purple train was waiting before going to the TTC, the pink driver would had slowed down, not go full speed.

The story so far sounds real fishy, with the passengers supposedly coming from EPCOT, with the young monorail driver. Who knows, maybe the one of the drivers was getting carried away and was speeding on the track. And trust me, I have been on the monorail where sometimes it feels like the train is going faster than normal, esp. during after park closing.

From Kelly Smith on July 5, 2009 at 7:39 PM
Vincent, I read the anonymous comment as suggesting that the pink monorail was inadvertantly left in "reverse" mode after backing up slightly to correct an overshoot. After that, instead of the pink monorail going forward as intended, it backed up in to the purple monorail.

As for the timing or the age of the monorail driver, I don't know anything, but neither of those things seem particularly fishy to me. Certainly not fishy enough to start worrying about conspiracies or anything of the sort.

From Dan Babbitt on July 5, 2009 at 8:09 PM
Commenting about the age thing if I or any cm puts you on any ride you can get injured just as easily! If we dont lock your seatbelts, if you dont put your seatbelt on, or we just dont do what we are TRAINED to do then you can get hurt on "its a small world" just as easily as the Tower or water craft or monorail transportation.

Also water craft and monorail postions are one of the most coveted positions to have at the WDW. They are second to being waiters and waitresses (or any tipped positions)! So he got put onto the list for transfer and when someone retired or terminated he got selected to go. Those 3 positons have huge transfer lists and he was the next one. Those positions also have very low turnover compared to atractions, housekeeping, food and beverage and especially custodial so I wouldnt be surprise if you see older people work those positions because you just dont leave them! He probably would have stayed there for a very long time!

Age is a bocus excuse!!!

From Anthony Murphy on July 5, 2009 at 8:16 PM
From the comment, the poor cast member who was killed was not at fault so it seems that he had nothing to do with the malfuncion.

That still is the youngest driver of the monorail I have ever seen or heard. Still very sad! If Dan is correct, which I think he is, this guy really sounded like he knew and loved his job. Interesting tidbit about monorail drivers. I would have never thought it was a coveted job. From seeing the pay scales for a majority of park roles, it pays pretty well comparativly!

I don't think this will be as much of a nightmare as Columbia at Disneyland due to few guests and it happening at 2am.

I think they might have turned off the safety features to put them away, but who knows.

From Robert Niles on July 5, 2009 at 8:26 PM
I was talking from a legal and financial perspective, Anthony, though you make a very fair point about the relatively few number of guests around. (Though, in a telling development about how life is different then than 10 years ago, one of those few people this morning had a camera and uploaded to YouTube. There was no public video of the Columbia accident.)

Since this was an operational screw-up, made possible by the monorail's design, Disney faces scrutiny from OSHA and the state of Florida... heck, is it possible that even the NTSB could be involved? And that's before the inevitable court case, should Disney not overwhelm the victim's family with a multi-million dollar preemptive settlement.

The Columbia accident led the state of California to implement state oversight of theme park attraction safety. Could this lead Florida to tighten the leash on Reedy Creek? Granted, the Florida legislature is much less critical of business management than California's, but a public investigation of a fatal accident that was 100 percent the company's fault can change a political environment. Whether it does to make any lasting changes to state oversight of Disney's Florida operations does not minimize the headache that this incident will be causing for Disney's management for months, perhaps years, to come.

From Anthony Murphy on July 5, 2009 at 8:32 PM
Yeah, I share the same thoughts!
From Dan Babbitt on July 5, 2009 at 8:39 PM
I think it will be inevitable Robert! The only thing I can see Florida not doing this is one not having money in there budget or pooling money from ALL theme and amusement parks in Florida. Also if one of the involved cm had a "pre-excisting condition" and somebody had a medical problem.

Robert on a side note if you could please answer this question how old were you when you did the keel rafts to Tow Sawyer's Island?

From Robert Niles on July 5, 2009 at 10:16 PM
I was 20 when I first started driving the TSI rafts. (The keelboats were another attraction, FWIW.) There were several attractions hosts and hostesses younger than me on the rafts, then. I believe that 18 was the minimum age for ops.

Let's remember that you can drive cars at 16 in most states, and join the armed forces at 18. I'm not worried about a 21-year-old driving monorails. Heck, a 19-year-old just won a Sprint Cup NASCAR race, and I'd say that's a heckuva lot more dangerous than driving a Disney monorail. And, again, the 21-year-old victim was not in any way at fault, given what we've heard so far. Now, we don't know who was at fault, or their ages or experience (or how many hours they'd been working that day).

Those factors might turn out to be relevant. Or not. We just don't know yet.

That said, though, when I wrote my piece last Monday, I should have mentioned that certain attractions did have limits on where you could work after a certain number of hours on the job. After a certain number of hours (8 or 10 - I don't remember), you couldn't work tower at Thunder, for example, so you'd have to bump around that position if you were on a double shift there. I would assume that a similar restriction would be in place on monorail drivers and tower ops.

I always tried to pull my double shifts at parade audience control, because that basically required little more than socializing with guests, something I found refreshing at the end of a long day. It certainly did not require any mechanical work.

From rick stevens on July 5, 2009 at 11:13 PM
Reading all of the comments, I really don't think the age issue is relevant. As Robert pointed out, we let 16 year olds drive on our nation's highways, in some states the driving age is lower. I think this is an unfortunate accident that should be seen as just that. My prayers go out to the family and friends that lost a loved one. It will be interesting to see what the actual reason for the accident turns out to be.
From Corey Romberg on July 6, 2009 at 1:19 AM
Im 19 and I drive the Backlot Tour trams, which arent even on a track...so again, the age isnt an issue....and from what Ive heard, hours worked isnt an issue either...from talking to people that knew Austin, he cared very much about safety, and his co-workers were shocked that it happened, but even more shocked that it happened to him...a lot of people have made snap judgements and said he probably fell asleep or he's too young or he was texting, but it seems as if this could be anyone's fault other than his
From Rob P on July 6, 2009 at 4:07 AM
My heartfelt condolences go to the family of the driver who was killed in the accident.

It's so hard to believe that this could happen on the WDW monorail. My experience of this particular mode of transport at Disneyworld, over the last 13 years, has been that it is the safest transport system anywhere. Considering the number of passengers it carries the monorail must have an excellent safety record. From Robert's comments it sounds as if the system has a " dead man's handle" in operation where the train stops if a driver become incapacitated. This is consistent with most train networks. So how could this happen ?

Despite all of this a young life has been sadly lost and we'll await the outcome of the investigation.

From Vincent S on July 6, 2009 at 4:14 AM
Hopefully the blackboxes on the trains will answer some questions. Cause this story sounds more like human error than computer error.
From Domenik Jost on July 6, 2009 at 7:45 AM
Breaking News: The local news station News 13 is now reporting that Disney is testing the monorail system and that the monorails are up and running and they may start picking guests up starting at noon.
From Corey Romberg on July 6, 2009 at 7:52 AM
Yeah, according to the Orlando Sentinel, the monorail is back up and running, with added safety features and sensors to monitor track switches..OSHA cleared it for reopening
From TH Creative on July 6, 2009 at 8:42 AM
I was interested in the opinion that the company may make it a policy to not allow guests in the cockpits. I would think that guests in the cockpits would keep the pilots from getting bored and losing their concentration.

Just a thought.

From Brian Afdahl on July 6, 2009 at 9:12 AM
Out here in California ive ridden many times up in the cockpit. Last time was with a kid maybe no older then 21 or 22. Now from the person that said he drives the backlot tour. With the length of those isnt a comercial license required?
From Gareth H on July 6, 2009 at 9:18 AM
It is amazing how quickly changes can be added, regarding the mention of sensors being added etc.

Surely if they had these items available they should have installed them before.
I can't see how assessing changes needed, then ordering, then having them delivered then fitting them, can be done in 24 hours, unless it was all on site and available anyway.

Its such a shame that it takes a tragedy before they are installed.

I guess the old saying' If it ain't broke don't fix it" springs to mind!

From kerri kosmas on July 6, 2009 at 9:21 AM
People are talking about how long hes been working with the company and his age, he was 21 and was a college program student. College program gets paid well under minimum wage, because it is an internship and they dont need to pay you. so there is just enough money for paying the rent of your disney supplied apartment and food. The length of your working period can be 3 months to whatever you extend it to. I was a college program student myself, and one of my friends was at the monorails. It just takes a short period of time to get into driving the monorails. You just need to be trained and pass the test.

It just annoys me that disney would work them so hard. This day, he was working a 14 hour shift (which disney tried to coverup until a friend pulled his facebook page for the news to see) the day before he worked a 12 hour shift. during peak seasons, college program is given 14 our shifts about 5 to 6 days a week (only 5 if you have a disney given college course or religous reasons)days like that, scheduling would give you a 8 hour period in between(so they cant pay you extra for a double shift), but that isnt even enough! getting home, you need to be transported to the cast bus area, which you need to wait for room on a bus, b/c everyone leaves the same time, once you get on the shuttle, you need to wait for your special bus to transport you to the apartment areas. the whole process can take forever. then in the morning, you have to do the whole thing over again, but the opposite way around. the only sleeping time, is on the bus rides. Dont even think about being one minute late, because you get points which give you reprimands, 3 reprimands (9 points) gets you terminated. we were forced to "call out sick" just so we can get a day of sleep, its rediculous. I was actually sent to the hospital as a cp, because my feet were getting cut up bad from standing in the rain (worked an outdoor ride during hurricane season) all day long everyday.

From Gareth H on July 6, 2009 at 10:57 AM
911 call just released - http://www.myfoxorlando.com/dpp/news/osceola_news/070609monorail_911

Sounds very paniced and confused. 911 operator should have sent, and advised that emergency response was being sent straight away.

EDIT** After listening to this again I'm actually shocked at the 911 operator.
The callers have obviously been told by a supervisor to call 911 due to the nature of the incident and in circumstances like that there is no time to find out exactly what went on, number f guests involved, fatalities etc, just call and get emergency response there immediately.
Considering this is Disney Property and Disney has the largest gathering of people in, no doubt, the world, especially at the tail end of July 4th, he should have seriously advised that ER was on way rather than making them go and find out exactly how bad the situation was.
The 911 op needs to be taken off of the phones and re-trained immediately.
And I'm pretty sure I"m right in guessing that Disney, along with Universal, bypass the regular 911 callng system and therefore the 911 op shouldn't hesitate in sending someone out.

If it were me and I heard Monorail and incident I'd be despatching before I found out the magnitude of it all!

From Domenik Jost on July 6, 2009 at 12:29 PM
I hope for them that they just collect information to pass along after they have already sent out emergency crews to the scene after finding out the location.

From reports I've read and watched emergency crews did not arrive for 10-15 mins to the scene. If this is true that is unacceptable especially knowing firestations and routes etc. are planned to have a 5 minute or less response time.

My deepest sympathy at this time goes out to family and friends of the Pilot.

Here is a thought for Disney, honor and remember Austin by putting in a memorial at the station or renaming it in his honor as it is only fitting.

From 82.71.60.7 on July 6, 2009 at 5:11 PM
You all have to understand there is a large amount of damage limitation going on.

- The emergency services are unhappy with their response
- Disney is unhappy that this could be linked to job cuts
- Florida commerce unhappy with bad publicity

A lot of the stories will no be played down or talked over.

The whole situation regarding the new sensors and verification process sounds like a plan to monitor the actual operation of the trains, ensure dispatch mistakes are checked, and possibly building up a case regarding a bad dispatcher call causing the reversing incident.

I am also concerned by the short memories of the media - forgetting the 1985 monorail fire or the 1966 WDL fatality on the monorail - smells like Six Flags again, with white wash being applied hurriedly to avoid major bad PR.

From Corey Romberg on July 6, 2009 at 7:45 PM
Actually, no, we dont need a CDL to drive the Backlot trams...the cars on each tram are connected by hydraulic wires that send signals from one car to another...so you just have to worry about driving the cab, and the rest of the cars follow suit
From TH Creative on July 7, 2009 at 3:17 AM
Can we pause and make note that this is only the second collision between two monorails in 35 years of daily operations and that this is the first death as the result of a collision. Hundreds of millions (perhaps more than a billion) of guests and CMs have ridden the system safely.

Meanwhile:

"Two passenger trains collided in Washington DC, on the afternoon of June 22, 2009. At least seven people were killed and over 70 people were injured."

and

September 13, 2008 - "Rescue teams worked frantically into this morning after a Metrolink passenger train carrying 225 people collided Friday with a Union Pacific freight train on a sharp curve in Chatsworth, killing at least 17 people and leaving more than 135 injured."

and

July 3, 2009: "Italy's state railway company suspended GATX Corp. from transporting freight in the country after a June 29 accident, pictured right, that killed 19 people."

and

June 28, 2009: "CHICAGO - When derailed freight train cars carrying ethanol burst into flames just 50 miles from her Chicago suburb, killing a motorist who tried to flee, Barrington (Ill.) Mayor Karen Darch saw her worst fears realized."

We mourn the loss of the young man and send our prayers to his family and friends. We encourage qualified parties and agencies to investigate the cause of this tragedy and hold anyone who may be negligent accountable.

However, having acknowledged this, in all fairness, it should be noted that, as a means of mass transportation, the Walt Disney World monorail system's safety record is exceptional -- due to the efforts of the company and its cast members.

From Steve Smegner on July 11, 2009 at 10:39 AM
It is really not helpful and quite damaging for folks here to ascribe their own interpretations and draw conclusion when they do not have all the facts. The truth will eventually be known but until then pointing fingers usually damages the innocent.

Regarding the 911 dispatcher and response: There is a piece of information that you may not have. 911 dispatchers can dispatch fire, medical, police with a click of a button and normally do so immediately after confirming the location. You cannot tell from voice recordings when this was done. The dispatcher on the phone with the caller is NOT the person that speaks with emergency personell. That role is usually a supervisor or lead dispatcher. The 911 dispatcher's role is to keep people on the phone and gather as much additional information as possible which is then fed to the emergency team enroute. Disneyworld has their own phone company for the property and if the emergency call came from a park phone they immediately know where to dispatch without hesitation. If the call came from a cell phone it would go to an external 911 call center and could induce additional delays.

Taking 10-15 minutes to arrive is totally within reason. If you have been to Disneyworld you know how spread out the place is. A racing emergency vehicle would have to contend with other guest vechicles and Disney buses. If you have driven around Disneyworld you know that guest drivers frequently get in the way as they navigate the roads and signage on the property. Hopefully park security and first aid were the first to arrive anyway. There is a first aid station in the buildings at the side of the Transportation and Ticket Center.

There are several safety systems on the monorail system that keep the monorails seperated from each other. If a driver trips the system during check out they will not be approved as a driver. If they trip the system twice in their career they are reassigned. There are also speed limiters and braking limiters. This controls the top speed and also keeps the driver from braking too fast and knocking all those standing guests to the floor. But this is not a problem because of the safety system that keeps the monorails seperated. I believe it requires management or park maintenance level to override the safety system.

I have read speculation that Austin was texting, sleeping, inexperienced, etc. I find this speculation pathetic. Even if he was the safety system would have prevented the crash the crash.

Right now Austin, the other drivers, the dock supervisors, park guests that witnessed the accident and the children on the monorail ALL require and deserve our prayers, support and respect. I have ridden in the nose cone many times. The EPCOT run was my favorite. I am very saddened that something like this happened at my personal favorite place on earth. But the Disney employees and monorail safety records are unmatched anywhere in the world.

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