OAKLAND — It was just “another day at work” for BART supervisor John O’Connor — until a disoriented man in his 20s suddenly stumbled from the BART Coliseum platform onto the tracks right in front of an onrushing train and startled bystanders.
When O’Connor saw him fall, he sprung into lightning-quick action, yanking him up like a feather from the tracks and back onto the platform with not a second to spare.
“When I looked, I saw the headlights (of the train), and I saw him and it was like, ‘He ain’t going to make it,’ ” O’Connor said Monday afternoon from the same platform, where BART officials made him available for a group interview a day after his heroic action saved the other man’s life.
O’Connor said he didn’t consider his own safety, thinking only “I don’t want to see this kid die today” in that split second.
“God put me there for a reason, right?” he said, adding that the young man “has a lot of life ahead of him” and he hopes it’s a good one.
O’Connor repeatedly told the gathering of BART officials and news reporters he felt awkward talking about what happened Sunday and doesn’t want to be called a hero. Surveillance video released by BART shows the harrowing moments at about 5:30 p.m. following the Oakland Raiders’ victory over the Detroit Lions at the Coliseum.
O’Connor got emotional when he talked about how police, fire and military personnel are the real heroes. “It’s what we’re supposed to do,” he said, pausing to gather his thoughts. “We’re all human beings. Life is precious. Thank God he gets to see another day.”
A video captured by another rider, Tony Badilla, shows O’Connor embracing the young man on the platform, as both likely were still in shock. O’Connor said he later gave him a fist bump and told him to “pay it forward.”
The young man, who BART officials described as intoxicated, was “disoriented” and didn’t say much to O’Connor except some “thank-you’s.” O’Connor admits he initially was a little angry with him at first, but then the gravity of what happened hit him. So he gave him a “big ol’ hug.”
The young man, whose identity has not been released, was taken to a hospital to be evaluated to make sure he was OK. O’Connor said later he helped retrieve the man’s cellphone from the tracks.
When asked if he thought the man was heavy, O’Connor said “not at the moment,” with a laugh, adding he doubts he could lift him again. When he saw the video BART released of the rescue, he was shocked that it was such a close call.
O’Connor has worked for BART 24 years, most of that time as a train operator, and as such he has seen his share of people falling onto the tracks in front of trains or jumping onto the tracks to retrieve fallen items such as hats. He’s now a transportation supervisor and was working Sunday to keep people safe on the platform after the game and to maintain crowd control.
“We preach safety. We practice safety,” he said.
His boss, assistant chief transportation officer Tara Hankins, said the two started working at BART around the same time.
“We’re so proud of John. He’s a very humble person,” she said.
BART has had at least six fatal collisions on its tracks this year alone, and death tolls seem to be rising from recent years.
BART General Manager Bob Powers in September postponed a pilot program to install a barrier between the platform and tracks at Oakland’s 12th Street BART station to prevent people from falling or jumping onto the tracks. The program was delayed until the agency phases out its older fleet of train cars.
When asked whether such barriers could help keep people safe, O’Connor said probably, but he still thinks they can’t replace humans completely.
“Anytime you have moving parts, things break down. You need people on the scene, too. Anything that makes anything safer, you can’t argue with that,” he said.
©2019 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)