A death on the tracks | March 13, 2019 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


News - March 13, 2019

A death on the tracks

Months after a young man is killed in a Menlo Park Caltrain incident, questions remain

by Kate Bradshaw

Nobody saw what happened to 22-year-old Connor McElroy late last year between the time he stepped off the train at the Menlo Park Caltrain Station at about 1:06 a.m. and the time the train left the station, when he was run over and killed by a rear car of the train

It was Nov. 24, and the death of the young Redwood City man might have stayed under the radar, quietly marking the tenth train fatality of the year on the tracks, because Caltrain did not publicly report the death, as it does at other times when a person is struck and the train is delayed.

The Palo Alto Daily Post reported McElroy's death after finding out about it in a report from the San Mateo County Coroner's Office. Caltrain spokesperson Dan Lieberman explained to The Almanac that the agency did not report the fatality because there had not been a disruption in train service since the incident occurred with the last train of the night. Caltrain generally defers to the county coroner's office to handle fatalities unless there are train delays, he said, but noted that this was the only fatality during his tenure that has not required public notification.

For McElroy's family, however, the dearth of answers about what happened that night is far from satisfying.

"It makes it difficult to move on and progress without having closure," his mother, Antoinette McElroy, told The Almanac.

She noted that her son was married, and his wife is also struggling to make sense of what happened.

She has pieced together what she can from that night.

As she understands it, she told The Almanac, her son was exiting Caltrain on the last train of the night when something happened at the platform that caused him to fall into the train.

Earlier that night, she said, he had spent time with friends playing pool and drinking cocktails. His wife had picked him up and then taken him home, near Sequoia Station in Redwood City. Later that night, he left home to pick up some cigarettes. Antoinette McElroy thinks her son was headed to the 7-Eleven near the Menlo Park station, since it's open 24 hours a day.

What she wants to know is: What happened between 1:06 and 1:09 a.m. that led to Connor ending up on the tracks in the path of the train? Why isn't there more information available? And what's being done to prevent future Caltrain-caused deaths?

The coroner's autopsy report raised more questions than answers, McElroy said.

According to the official report, completed by Deputy Coroner Heather Diaz and based on the limited available evidence, Connor McElroy's death could not be ruled either a suicide or an accident.

On one hand, Diaz reported, it may have been a suicide. Connor McElroy had a history of suicidal ideation due to the depression and anxiety tied to his having epilepsy, according to his family, and in 2013 he had been put on a mental health hold by Belmont police, the autopsy report noted.

"Space between the train and the platform as well as space underneath the train appeared large enough for Connor McElroy to have crawled underneath the train and placed himself onto the train tracks," it stated.

But Diaz's report also acknowledges that the death may have been accidental.

McElroy had epilepsy, and it is possible, she reported, that he "had a seizure and fell onto the train tracks."

A toxicology report indicated that McElroy was found with an elevated blood alcohol level of 0.16 percent — double that of the legal driving level — and an elevated presence of temazepam, a drug used as a sedative.

Antoinette McElroy said temazepam was used as part of her son's treatment for epilepsy. He had temporal lobe epilepsy, she explained, and he had been a candidate for a procedure at UCSF to help with the seizures. The procedure was expected to be done shortly after Connor's death occurred, she said.

In addition, the autopsy report notes that witnesses who were on the train that night with Connor stated that he appeared impaired, "which was confirmed by the toxicology results," the report states.

While no one saw the train strike occur, people on the train noticed that he seemed inebriated in some way, Assistant Coroner Emily Tauscher said.

She explained that both alcohol and temazepam "impair someone's ability to function." Temazepam, she said, can have serious side effects, especially with alcohol use.

These factors, paired with limited witness information, coalesced into a big question mark for the coroner's office, which is somewhat rare, she explained.

"Usually, we have really clear-cut witness statements, or we have video surveillance," Tauscher said. In many Caltrain-related deaths, conductors, engineers or other bystanders witness the person's behavior and officials can more easily determine whether a train strike is an accident or a suicide, she explained.

For instance, if a train strikes a person seen to be clearly distracted — say, simultaneously reading a Kindle and listening to music when a train is approaching — the coroner's office is more likely to rule the death an accident than if a witness sees a person lying down on the tracks. The office is careful to make a determination of suicide only when it is confident that is the case, given the stigma that such a determination can carry, she said.

"With Connor's case, we don't have anybody who saw how he came to be on the tracks," she explained. One witness saw him one second, and then saw he had disappeared — but in that time, and without any further evidence, it's impossible to determine whether he fell or jumped, she said.

"Unfortunately, it doesn't provide the answers that the community and the family would like," she said. The inconclusive finding is "the best we can come up with the information at hand."

For her part, Antoinette McElroy challenged the coroner's finding that her son's death may have been a suicide.

"Truth be told, this wasn't a suicide," she told The Almanac. "The pathology is leaving us with more questions than answers."

In particular, she dismisses the premise that Connor could have crawled beneath the train while it was stopped. "Connor didn't crawl," she said. "My son was a big person," she added, describing her son as 5-foot-11-inches and "incredibly broad-shouldered."

"He was found on his back. There's no way (he could) crawl under there and flip over," she said. She's curious as to how nobody saw what happened to her son, and why there are no cameras in place recording what happens at the platform. She also wonders where the rear conductor of the train was during the incident, and whether he or she was interviewed during the investigation.

No cameras

Caltrain has no video footage of what happened to McElroy that night, Lieberman, the Caltrain spokesman, confirmed. "From what we can tell, he fell into the train as it was moving. It couldn't have been captured," he told The Almanac.

While the trains have cameras mounted on the front, which can aid in many train-strike investigations, few cameras observe the tracks from an outside angle, he explained.

Antoinette McElroy expressed dismay about the lack of camera footage observing the tracks and the platform, which might have recorded what happened to her son.

"I can't believe they're not being held accountable for that," she said. "That should be mandatory in my mind."

Tauscher also told The Almanac that a surveillance camera trained on the platform would have helped the coroner's office come to a clearer determination of what happened. Even if investigators had footage of which way he was facing on the platform before the incident, that would have aided the investigation, she added.

So far, only the city of Palo Alto has installed cameras along the Caltrain corridor that observe the tracks, Lieberman said. That system was put in place last year to replace the people who had been stationed along the tracks to deter suicide attempts. The system uses a series of cameras that have thermal-tracking capabilities to detect people on the tracks, even at night. The cameras are monitored remotely and use artificial intelligence to alert law enforcement.

"It behooves the city of Menlo Park to really start looking into getting that in place," McElroy said.

What's being done?

In the last five years, at least nine train-related deaths on the Caltrain tracks been ruled accidental by the coroner's office. The office has 11 Caltrain-related fatality cases from 2018 and early 2019 still pending, and has not yet determined whether those deaths were accidents or suicides.

In Menlo Park, a man in his 50s was accidentally struck by Caltrain on Feb. 24 at the Oak Grove Avenue crossing. As of March 11, he had been released from the hospital, according to Lieberman.

Haroon Malek, another Caltrain spokesperson, explained in an email, "The majority of Caltrain-related deaths tend to be ruled suicides by the county coroner's office, but it varies from year to year."

Lieberman said that Caltrain plans to expand its camera system when it launches its electrified fleet, which will have wi-fi. "Once we have wi-fi in the system, it is a more achievable goal than it is currently," he said.

Adding cameras to the Menlo Park station might be complicated by the fact that the station is considered historic, and that may limit how much work can be done to install equipment, Lieberman said, adding, "If a city wanted to pursue putting in cameras, I think we'd be happy to work with them."

A devastating loss

For now, Connor McElroy continues to be mourned. Antoinette McElroy noted that her son grew up in Half Moon Bay and was a person who "loved the outdoors and loved people." He was always on a bike, skateboard, surfboard, wakeboard or motorcycle, she said.

He also volunteered at the Ronald McDonald House at Stanford, a nonprofit organization that gives families a place to stay at little to no cost while their children access specialized medical care. Every year since about middle school, she said, Connor would work with a local farmer to donate pumpkins to the nonprofit house for Halloween.

"His loss is felt throughout the community," she said.

He also worked daily with his father in the building industry, helping to run the family business, she said.

His was a life that was "totally cut short," McElroy said. "It's very devastating for our family."


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