Drivers say Wolfline buses have had problems with fumes
Posted December 23, 2011
Raleigh, N.C. — Drivers for the North Carolina State University campus bus system say the buses frequently have problems with fumes, such as those a family has linked to the death of a driver last week.
Joann Veronica Griggs Sewell, 50, of Raleigh, died Saturday, three days after her family says she was overcome by fumes on a Wolfline bus on N.C. State's Centennial Campus.
Sewell worked for First Transit, a Cincinnati-based firm that contracts with N.C. State to provide bus services across its campuses.
Patricia Ray, the union representative for Teamsters Local 391, which represents First Transit's Wolfline drivers, said Friday that she was driving on Dec. 14 and was aware of problems with Sewell's bus.
"From my bus – I'm inside of my bus – I could smell the fumes from her bus," Ray said. "She was saying that she couldn't breathe and her chest was tightening."
Sewell called dispatch to report the problem and was told to continue with her route, Ray said.
A man who called 911 that afternoon said a bus driver told him she couldn't breathe and asked him to seek help. The man said the woman was still on her bus near the College of Engineering complex, and he urged paramedics to hurry.
Ray said two other drivers complained about fumes on the same bus earlier that day.
"We drive these buses every day. We get firsthand experience of what is going on with these buses. What may not seem to be a major problem to (managers) could be major to us," she said.
First Transit spokesman Timothy Stokes said the bus has been pulled out of service, and the company is looking into possible problems with it.
Stokes said he was unaware of other complaints about fumes on buses and said the 35 buses in the Wolfline fleet are inspected routinely by company mechanics.
"The safety and security of our passengers is a core value," he said.
N.C. State spokesman Mick Kulikowski said he also was unaware of any complaints about fumes on the buses.
Former Wolfline driver Addie Elliott said students would complain "all the time" about fumes and ask her to report it, she said, and she would respond that she had already told managers several times about the problems.
Elliott said she quit driving for First Transit in June because she felt managers weren't properly addressing safety concerns.
"You can't really smell the fumes on it until you operate the bus for a while. When it's on the street for a while, then the fumes will start coming up in the bus," Elliott said. "I remember one time I had the bus when there was a lot of fumes coming up in it, and I was losing my voice."
Managers responded only after she threatened to report the issue to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, she said.
First Transit has operated the Wolfline system since 2007. N.C. State spokesman Matt Shipman said Thursday that the university has no plans to investigate First Transit's handling of the situation.
Sewell's family requested an autopsy after her death, but the results aren't yet in.
The North Carolina Department of Labor is investigating her death.
Sewell, who worked for First Transit for 12 years, suffered from asthma, diabetes and high blood pressure, said her daughter Sherese Brown. But Brown said her mother's asthma "wasn't bad," and she was shocked to be called to the hospital last week.
Sewell often complained about problems with the buses, her daughter said.
"She continued to go to work because she had to provide for her family," she said. "You know, jobs are hard to come by."
Elliott and Ray said they are concerned about the health and safety of other drivers and of the N.C. State students who ride the Wolfline buses.
"We would like to see that they have better buses for their passengers," Elliott said.
"That was my friend, and it hurts. It hurts, and I'm very angry," Ray said of Sewell's death. "I feel like they took something from me."