PASSENGER SHOOTS DRIVER, KILLS HIMSELF, POLICE SAY
BY STEVEN GOLDSMITH P-I Reporter
Saturday, November 28, 1998
Section: News, Page: A1
A Metro bus carrying 35 people toward downtown Seattle plunged off the Aurora Bridge into a crowded neighborhood yesterday after a passenger shot the driver without warning.
The gunman then fatally shot himself in the head, police said.
The spectacular afternoon crash filled seven hospital emergency rooms with riders who suffered major injuries, including broken bones and head wounds. Amazingly, the only deaths were those of the driver and his assailant.
Like an action movie come horrifyingly to life, the Route 359 Express swerved through oncoming traffic, crashed through a guardrail and struck an apartment building before landing next to a busy Fremont street.
The fall of more than 40 feet split the 40,000-pound, articulated bus into a V, sending its front half onto the steps of the two-story apartment building and its rear half into the yard.
Responding to the worst tragedy in Metro Transit's nearly three decades, dozens of paramedics and firefighters pulled bleeding riders from inside and under the shattered bus.
``It looked like a training exercise," paramedic Chris Cornett said, ``with all the dirt on the injured faces."
The 44-year-old driver, Mark F. McLaughlin of Lynnwood, died at the scene, the victim of an apparent murder-suicide. Authorities said his body was found on the roof of the apartment where he'd been ejected before his bus slid onto the ground.
The assailant, believed to be in his 40s, was found near the bus with a gunshot wound to his head and a fired gun nearby, investigators said. It was not clear when he turned the gun on himself.
The man was arrested about four years ago for theft, but it's not known whether he knew the driver.
He was pronounced dead at Harborview Medical Center, where police reportedly recovered a second firearm.
The German-made bus, which lay across the street from the fanciful Fremont Troll, was its own distorted sculpture garden of shredded metal, concrete, blood and broken glass. The air reeked of diesel fuel.
The shooting happened so quickly that McLaughlin didn't have time to push his emergency alarm button before he was shot in the torso, police said.
His afternoon run had started routinely enough. On one of the year's busiest shopping days McLaughlin, a 20-year veteran driver, pulled his bus out of Aurora Village about 3 p.m.
Some 13 minutes later, he reached the girdered Aurora Bridge, driving down the middle of its three southbound lanes.
The attack, according to Rick Walsh, director of King County's Metro Transit division, came without warning from ``someone sitting across the aisle from the driver in the first seat behind the (front) door."
``There was no previous conversation," Walsh said. ``No tension was apparent and . . (he) pulled out a gun and shot the driver."
Jennifer Lee, 16, of Seattle, had caught the bus at North 85th Street and Aurora Avenue North. She was sitting in the middle, near the flexible joint, when ``I heard two gunshots and the bus swerved."
The bus continued southbound about 100 feet, authorities said, then swerved toward oncoming traffic. It clipped a northbound Ford Econoline van and plunged over the side.
Lee said she didn't realize the bus had run off the bridge until after it hit bottom.
``The next thing I know," she said, ``there were people falling over each other and there were people screaming and seats were breaking."
One of her shoes flew off as she was tossed around inside the bus. When the wreckage stopped moving, she was clinging to a metal bar.
Lacy Olsen, 13, who was going downtown to get her eyebrow pierced, was sitting not far away.
``I saw two flashes and heard a loud pop-pop," she said. ``I saw the bus driver and his blood."
The bus then went out of control. ``It like happened in 30 seconds. Everybody was screaming and crying."
Olsen said she didn't see anything before the shooting to indicate there was a problem between the driver and his assailant.
``I didn't hear them exchange any words."
When the bus hit the ground ``the floorboard flew up. I got kind of jammed up underneath," she said as she was about to be treated at Swedish Hospital's Ballard branch.
For residents of the lively Fremont neighborhood, the massive projectile from above interrupted a pleasant afternoon sunbreak.
Judy Jurgi, 52, was standing on the porch of her house on North 36th Street when she saw the bus go off the bridge.
``It was such a swirl of metal and glass," she said. ``I have never seen anything go over the bridge. I couldn't believe it. It was like a dream."
When it crashed to the ground, ``I heard a couple of voices saying `Help me.' "
More than 20 injured people were strewn around the bus, mostly within 10 feet of the wreckage. Many of them were bleeding from head injuries. Some were conscious, others were not.
Within minutes, more than 20 rescue units were at the scene, some rescuers trying to lift the bus to look beneath it for victims.
Chris and Auli Brown didn't see the bus fall - they heard it crash through the rail, and then the aftermath.
``There was a lot of crying and moaning," said Chris Brown.
He said he saw only a few people still inside the wreckage.
``A guy was trapped under the front of the bus," he said, and about five bystanders were trying to comfort him.
One woman was half-in and half-out of the bus, he said.
Her torso lay on the floor, and her legs were hanging out of the ripped-open side of the bus.
``A couple of guys pulled her out and put her on the ground." She was crying hysterically, and tried to get up. But one of the men held her until medical help arrived. ``I think she was OK," Brown said.
He gave his jacket to a man named Henry, who had a broken leg. He helped the man to the ground from his perch leaning against one of the bridge supports. He watched as a doctor slit open the man's pants to show the bone sticking out of his leg. When a medical team put it in a splint, the man yelled in pain.
The bus' fall sheared off part of the roof of the apartment building at 905 N. 36th St., just west of Winslow Place North.
There, post-Thanksgiving socializing turned to horror as Paul Lauren, a 35-year-old crab boat fisherman, tried to help victims.
``I heard moans and screaming," Lauren said.
``I have never ever seen anything like this in my life. It was like the wreckage of an airplane crash. People were twisted like dolls."
Lauren just got back from fishing in the Aleutians two days ago.
``I thought it was dangerous up there. We always were worried about getting killed. Now we're standing in the front of the house and a bus falls on us. It's a real question of what's more dangerous."
Police said they will not move the 72-passenger bus until today. They need heavier equipment and need to do it in the daylight. Meanwhile, the site was being treated as a crime scene.
Jerry Birt, assistant chief of northern fire operations, called the accident ``a once in a lifetime incident. "
``It looks like a disaster drill, but it was for real," he said. ``Everyone did everything by the book. Just right."
``I drive across this bridge all the time," Birt added, pointing to the bridge above him, ``and often wonder how strong those railings really are. Now we know they're not strong enough to stop a bus."
An off-duty Metro driver, Ron Dunn, showed up at the scene. He was in tears, shaken. He complained that Metro had not been enforcing rules when it comes to unruly passengers, not cracking down on passengers who were drinking or not paying their fares.
``Metro has gone overly liberal," he said. ``Drivers are going to be very outraged by this."
Walsh said Metro officials will talk to drivers about their security concerns.
``From everything I have heard. . . . it would have made no difference even if a police officer was sitting next to the driver. No words were exchanged before he shot the driver," Walsh said. ``This is one of those unpredictable things."
King County Executive Ron Sims said the county emergency response system, including Medic One, was a success.
``This is the biggest test we've had. It worked really well," he said.
Now, he said, ``we're worried about the bus drivers. They realize how vulnerable they are."
Sims said there would have been no way to prevent the accident.
``We can't have metal detectors on every single bus," Sims told reporters outside the emergency room at Harborview. ``It's virtually impossible."
But Sims said this incident must be put in perspective given that buses transport 84 million passengers annually. ``This doesn't mean our buses aren't safe," he said.
P-I reporter Steven Goldsmith can be reached at 206-448-8029 or firstname.lastname@example.org
This article contained at least one photo or illustration as described below:
Type: Photos, Diagram, Map
Description: (1) (Color) ROBIN LAYTON/P-I: A Metro bus lies split into a V, its front half on the steps of a two-story Fremont apartment building and its rear half in the yard, after plummeting more than 40 feet from the Aurora Bridge yesterday. Rescuers pulled bleeding riders from the shattered bus.
(2) MERYL SCHENKER/P-I: A helicopter's-eye view shows the chaotic scene after the Metro bus, broken in two at center right, landed in a crowded Fremont neighborhood.
(3) (Color) DUANE HOFFMAN/P-I
(4) (Color) P-I