All three of the pedestrians who were accidentally struck and killed by Brightline trains in Palm Beach County had drugs in their system at the time they were hit, toxicology reports filed with the medical examiner’s office show.
Since Brightline began testing along the Florida East Coast Railway tracks last year, five people have been killed by the company’s trains in Palm Beach County. Three of the deaths were accidental, and in each of those cases blood samples taken from the victims tested positive for drugs, death records show. The remaining two deaths were suicides.
“This is part of a larger and national conversation around mental health and drug addiction,” the company said in a statement released Wednesday. “Brightline remains steadfast in its mission on raising awareness about rail safety through engineering, education and enforcement.”
Brightline began shuttling passengers between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale in January, operating as many as 22 trains a day through the downtown centers of several of the county’s coastal communities. The trains travel at speeds of up to 79 mph — about twice the speed of freight trains that have run on the FEC tracks for a century.
“These deaths are tragic and the circumstances do not diminish our concerns about safety,” said Brent Hanlon, chairman of Citizens Against Rail Expansion in Florida, or CARE FL, an opposition group fighting the project. “Our community is not designed to accommodate 80 plus mile per hour trains rushing through pedestrian downtowns.”
On Jan. 12, the day before Brightline officially opened to the public, 32-year-old Melissa Lavell was struck and killed by one of the company’s trains near the intersection of Northeast Sixth Avenue in Boynton Beach. Witnesses told police she attempted to beat the train when the gates were down.
Lavell’s blood tested positive for cocaine, opiates and fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times stronger than heroin, according to the medical examiner’s report.
On Jan. 17, Jeffrey King, 51, was struck and killed by a northbound Brightline train when he pedaled his bicycle around the gates near the FEC crossing on Ocean Avenue in Boynton Beach.
A video from a camera on the front of Brightline’s locomotive shows the crossing gates were down as King rode his bicycle into the crossing. King can be seen riding over one of two sets of train tracks on the FEC line before he was struck by Brightline’s locomotive.
Toxicology results included with the medical examiner’s report of King’s death shows his blood tested positive for cannabinoids, a synthetic compounds which produce marijuana-like effects but are much stronger and apt to cause adverse effects, and tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which gives marijuana its psychoactive quality.
On March 11, 56-year-old John Nitz was killed when he was struck by a southbound Brightline train near the rail crossing at Forest Hill Boulevard in West Palm Beach. Witnesses told police Nitz was standing on the tracks and refused to move out of the way of the oncoming train, but his death was ruled an accident by the medical examiner’s office.
Nitz’s blood tested positive for benzodiazepines, sedatives typically prescribed to help treat anxiety and insomnia, cocaine, opiates, oxycodone, and alcohol, according to the medical examiner’s report.
The reports did not address whether the three victims were impaired at the time of the accidents.
Dr. Darin P. Trelka, an Assistant Professor of Integrated Medical Science at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, said certain drugs can stay in a person’s system longer than others depending on the dose, pattern of use, the type of drug, and the individual’s physiology.
Trelka had not reviewed the three Brightline deaths and said he could not speak specifically to those cases.
In general, however, Trelka said the best way to determine whether a person is impaired is by physical examine, behavior, and their vital signs.
Zedrick Barber II, King’s family attorney, called the toxicology report “irrelevant.”
“There is a criminal justice system in this country for a reason,” Barber said. “Typically the penalty for being under the influence of any substance isn’t death.”
Barber said the report doesn’t address King’s “state of mind” at the time of the accident, adding that the drugs could have been in his system for days or weeks before he was hit.
Instead, Barber pointed to the speed of Brightline’s trains and the gates at rail crossings.
“It doesn’t matter,” Barber said of the toxicology report. “What does matter is right now there is a train on the tracks moving at 80 miles per hour and people continue to die.”
The safety of Brightline’s trains and the company’s use of tax-exempt private activity bonds to pay for the project will be discussed by a congressional oversight subcommittee on Thursday . Rep. Brian Mast, R-Palm City, a longtime Brightline critic, called for the hearing in February.
Among those expected to testify: Patrick Goddard, Brightline’s president and Chief Operating Officer; Robert Crandall, a member of the steering committee for CARE FL; Indian River County Attorney Dylan Reingold; and Dan Wouters, Division Chief of Emergency Management for Martin County Fire Rescue.
Brightline has stepped up safety measures since starting service in January. The safety effort is part of a larger campaign the company launched more than a year ago to educate the public to be safe around railroad tracks.
Last week, Brightline announced it had partnered with the Miami Heat on a public service announcement initiative centered on rail safety.