Linda Worch's husband, Norbert, worked for 37 years for Union Pacific. A brother, aunts, uncles and cousins also worked for railroads. The safety rules they drilled into her made her worry every time she crossed the Mid-Jordan TRAX line and saw a high sound wall that was built right up to the street.
"The only way you could see if there was a train coming is if you were standing on the track itself," she says. So she called the Utah Transit Authority to warn about the danger and noted that she comes from a long line of railroad workers.
UTA's written record of the conversation Â obtained through an open records law request Â shows that Worch predicted that problems would "result in a death," and that it was "just an accident waiting to happen."
That was last November. Seven months later on June 8, 15-year-old Shariah Casper was struck and killed by a TRAX train at a crossing on 3200 West near 8400 South. She and a cousin had waited for an eastbound train to pass. Casper then walked in front of a westbound train,Â which she did not see because of the 12-foot-high sound wall.
Records obtained through open records laws plus interviews show that UTA was warned at least twice about dangers at Mid-Jordan crossings that contributed to Casper's death, but no improvements were made until after she was killed.
UTA says it will not discuss how, or if, it reacted to the warnings because of an expected lawsuit by Casper's family. It also denied an open records law request for any documents about UTA discussions of pedestrian safety on the TRAX line before the accident. It claims, in part, that such records could include sensitive information that could harm "homeland security" if released.
The Casper family has hired attorney Dan Steele, who has filed with UTA a notice of claim,Â a precursor to a lawsuit.
"The intersection was obviously dangerous and took a life," Steele said. He added that after Casper's death, "They have made changes in the intersection that are helpful. It's just too late."
Of interest, UTA initially refused to identify Worch, blacking out her name and phone number on documents provided to The Salt Lake Tribune under open records laws. Even after appeal, UTA claimed it had no obligation to release her name to protect her privacy, but agreed to contact her to see if she was willing to talk to The Tribune. She was, and her name was finally released.
Early warning: In an interview, Worch of West Jordan said train safety was drilled into her by her many relatives who worked for railroads. "We always were taught that you don't trust the mechanical arm to come down" at crossings, so she said she always looks closely before driving over train tracks.
But she found she could not do that at a TRAX crossing on 2700 West, where she often traveled, because of the high sound wall there similar to the sound wall at 3200 West where Casper was killed, and at some other crossings.
"Every time I drove by that place, it drove me nuts because I couldn't see whether there was a train." She even started detouring far away to Redwood Road to avoid the crossing.
She started worrying that students at a nearby high school might have trouble at the crossing. "I just had this horrible feeling something would happen to a whole car full of kids." So she said her husband encouraged her to call UTA.
UTA's written record of the conversation says, "Customer said the wall built by the new tracks at 2700 West 8200 South is dangerous and will result in a 'death.' Customer added that you must actually be on the tracks to see if a train is coming. CSR [customer service representative] asked that there are crossing arms and this should prevent this. Customer said she is from a long line of 'railroaders' and it's just an accident waiting to happen. Customer wants a call back."
Little follow-up: Worch said a UTA official did call back about a week later, but she was not home and was dealing with medical problems. She says she never called back, and UTA never called her again either.
"I feel really bad that I didn't call back. I mean those walls were so high, I knew something would happen. I just knew it," she said but adds she felt the initial call back showed her that officials had received her warning about the high sound walls.
What UTA did in response is unclear. It refused to release documents that might show. UTA spokesman Gerry Carpenter did say that Worch's comment was shared with UTA's capital development department and "was discussed by appropriate staff members internally."
When asked if UTA looked at the problem with sound walls after the warning, Carpenter added, "In her case, basically I am limited to describing the process we go through because of the potential for litigation."
Another warning: Worch was not the only one warning about problems. On May 16, about three weeks before Casper was killed, a West Jordan High School driver education teacher saw a child peeking around a sound wall step back just in time to avoid getting hit by a train at a crossing at 2200 West. Jordan School District officials warned UTA about that the next day.
That had been reported in the news previously, but no records about it were provided to TheTribune in its open records law request that had sought documents about any such warnings.
Carpenter explained why: "No written record was made" of the call. He said school officials talked with the Mid-Jordan project community involvement specialist. "These conversations are not routinely logged like a formal comment made through UTA's customer concerns department."
Driver education teacher Dan Cowan told TheTribune that he saw the near-miss as he was driving with students. "They had those high sound barriers right up to the road. A little kid stepped forward, and stepped back just in time Â and the train blew through there doing about 40 mph. I about had a heart attack," he said. "One of the girls in the car halfway screamed."
He said he reported it that night during a West Jordan High School senior awards event to his principal, a school board member and the West Jordan mayor, who were all in attendance. The school district warned Westvale Elementary Principal Becky Gerber, whose school is near the crossing.
Details lacking?: Gerber called UTA. "I explained to the gentleman I talked to that we had a near-miss reported," and she requested information about train schedules and speeds so she could put a crossing guard there. She said UTA wanted more information about the near-miss.
"I spent three days investigating that. We could never identify the child," she said, but said she talked to Cowan and passed along what she had learned from him.
UTA's Carpenter said, "With the principal, there was no discussion of sound walls or other crossing safety features. She called and mentioned â¦ that she had heard secondhand of a near-miss but didn't know any details. Her request was to talk about crossing guards or other safety personnel at that location. There was no discussion of sound walls or other safety features."
He said UTA, therefore, did not have details "that would have enabled us to move forward with an investigation."
Carpenter said that before beginning test trains on the Mid-Jordan line, "UTA worked very hard to ensure that parents and students in the area were educated about the hazards of railroad crossings. UTA provided railroad safety outreach and presentations to all 15 schools located near the new line."
He also said that after Casper's death, UTA shut down test trains on the line to conduct a safety review.
Among changes it made afterward were removing sound wall panels that were adjacent to crossings; adding yellow tactile strips to improve visibility; relocating pedestrian train signals; adding audio notification of oncoming trains; installing pedestrian swing gates; and adding more "stop" and "look both ways" signs to reinforce safe-stopping distances for pedestrians.