An unlocked panel door leading to a battery shut-off switch made it easy for a group of teenage criminals to disable a CTA bus, then climb aboard the darkened vehicle and attack its passengers, transit officials said Monday.
“Although the external shut-off switch panels on buses are equipped with locks to prevent tampering, it has been determined that the lock (on this bus) was not engaged,’’ CTA spokeswoman Catherine Hosinski said.
CTA officials are investigating why the compartment housing the battery kill switch was left unlocked before the attack Saturday night in the 600 block of East 71st Street, Hosinski said.
Officials with the bus drivers union, however, said CTA policy requires bus mechanics to keep the compartment housing the battery-disconnect switch unlocked to allow easy access by firefighters in the event of an electrical fire or other emergency that would require shutting down power on a bus.
“The compartment should be closed by key, even though it is a flimsy lock. But maintenance is instructed not to lock it,’’ said Javier Perez, international vice president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 241, which represents CTA bus drivers and mechanics.
Decals near the compartment door are meant to alert the police and fire departments to the shut-off switch, but the stickers also serve as a tip-off to anybody with bad intentions.
“Bus operators have been complaining for years about kids turning off the battery power on buses as a prank, especially on school runs,’’ said Carlos Acevedo, an 18-year CTA mechanic and assistant to the trustees at Local 241. It requires drivers to get out of the bus and reset the switch, he said.
Even if the compartment is locked, it can be easily opened with a knife, Acevedo said. He added that bus drivers have asked for more secure locks, but the request was turned down because of emergency-response issues.
The incident Saturday night was far from a youthful prank, prosecutors said. Four teenagers beat and robbed passengers, police said. The assailants, two 17-year-olds and two 13-year-olds, were arrested on charges ranging from robbery to battery, police said.
The external shut-off switch is a safety feature that cuts power to a bus except for a few components, Hosinski said.
The switch allows mechanics to work on a bus without the risk of someone inadvertently starting up the engine, she said. It also enables emergency responders to quickly and safely shut off a bus engine and remove battery power, both of which can feed a potential fire, she said.
The CTA issued a reminder to all bus personnel to follow standard operating procedures and check buses to ensure the access panels are locked before taking a bus into service, Hosinski said.
“Prior to us implementing the locks, we conferred with Chicago Fire Department officials,’’ she said. “It was decided that emergency-responders could break into the locked compartments with their fire axes.’’
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