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MIAMI (CBSMiami) — Laquita Alvin’s daughter, Terrinisha, could barely hold back her tears or her anger after learning that her mother’s death could have been prevented if the county had properly maintained a warning system on Alvin’s bus.
“It never should have left the garage if it had a defect,” the 20-year-old mother said. “So they made a mistake.”
Alvin’s sisters and aunts gathered at her mother’s home in Overtown Tuesday morning, telling CBS4 News that county officials have kept them in the dark about what happened on December 5 when Alvin, who had been working as a county bus driver for only six months, was run over and killed by her own bus. They learned from a CBS4 News report Monday night that a so-called “seat alarm” wasn’t working.
“I think if the alarms were working, maybe she’d be sitting here with us,” said Alvin’s sister Katrella. “Maybe it would have been prevented, you know, but obviously it wasn’t.”
There is good reason to believe she would be alive if the alarm was working; because when she tried to leave the bus on that fateful day, the alarm would have let her know she had forgotten to engage the parking brake.
Investigators found the cable for the seat alarm unconnected and dangling, tied in a knot, from the back of her seat. As CBS4 News first reported Monday night, Miami Dade Transit officials ordered an immediate review of all buses with seat alarms after the accident. The survey found 92 percent of the seat alarms on county buses were broken or disabled.
The union representing bus drivers and mechanics believes the problem centers on budget cuts by the county which has left them with an aging bus fleet and not enough mechanics to fix them.
Hugh Chen, Deputy Director of Miami Dade Transit, said he realizes his department has to sometimes defer maintenance on vehicles, but said that had nothing to do with Alvin’s death. He repeatedly laid the blame for the accident entirely on Alvin for not properly setting the parking brake. He absolved the county of any responsibility and said the broken seat alarm played no role in what happened.
“I want to stress again that it’s a warning device,” he said, distinguishing it from the required safety devices on the bus like brakes and headlights. “Yeah we put it on. It’s not provided by a manufacturer, this is something we install on the buses. But that doesn’t relieve an operator from following the procedures.”
Chen did acknowledge how challenging it is keeping the county buses on the street.
“It’s harder, the buses are old,” he said. “Probably 70 percent have exceeded their life.”
Chen said the buses should have been retired by now, but unfortunately the county doesn’t have the money to replace them.
“Well in normal [circumstances], if everything was aligned, the stars were all aligned yes [the county would replace them,]” he said. “And the county is moving that way.”
Chen, however, refused to say how the county planned on acquiring new buses or when they would be on the road.
Despite the questions about the age of the county buses, Chen repeatedly stressed the county would never do anything to risk the safety of its passengers or employees.
“We are not going to put out vehicles that are unsafe,” he said.
Melvin Gonzalez, the chief union shop steward in the maintenance department of Miami Dade Transit, disagrees, saying he believes the county is putting unsafe buses on the street.
“If we’re putting a bus out there with no seat alarm, that’s a problem,” he said. “If we are putting a bus out there that doesn’t have all of its lights working, that’s a problem.”
Gonzalez claims the weather can often determine if a bus is going into service.
“Wipers aren’t working, `Hey, it’s not raining.’ You know what I’m saying,” he shrugged.
And the brakes?
“They try not to play with the brakes,” he said. “But we do have buses that go out there that could use a brake job? They’ll work, they’ll work, they’ll work.”
As Alvin’s family continues to mourn her note and note the irony of how happy she was to get the job in transit eight months ago.
“She really wanted to work with transit so she did what she needed to do to get there,” said her aunt, Latrevia.
“She was a determined person and was not going to settle for less,” added her sister, Katrella.
The single mother of three was hoping to turn a part-time position into a full time job. Now her family is deciding who will raise her two sons – ages 11 and 16 – while her oldest child, 20-year-old Terrinisha, just gave birth to a baby boy.
The child was born just 13 days after Alvin died. “She was excited [about becoming a grandmother],” her sister Katrella said. “She was happy. She never got to meet him.”
Terrinisha said being a mother offers her a constant reminder of everything her mother did for her.
“He brings me so much joy, makes me feel like I got my momma all over again,” she said. “Every time I feel like a lost something I think about what I gained.”