Wade L Stokley, 28, somehow collided with a light rail train at Sycamore and Main in Mesa Friday afternoon, ultimately killing him. At about 12:40 p.m. Friday, a caller notified police of a severed body on the tracks. The torso had been dragged nearly 2 miles from the start of the light rail line in Mesa, and the train continued for miles into Tempe before it was brought to a stop.
The gruesome death was the first fatal incident in four and a half years of light rail service in the Phoenix area. Mesa police, who are investigating, say the grisly incident began at the Sycamore/Main station in Mesa and ended at the Priest/Washington station in Tempe, where the train was stopped. As the train pulled into the Smith-Martin/Apache station, seven stops ahead of the Priest station, only part of the body was with the train.
The incident brought an hours-long halt to light-rail service east of Priest Drive. Transit officials set up a bus bridge to carry passengers between the Sycamore and Priest stations. The stopgap service on Friday allowed officers to collect clothing and the body from along the track.
The incident came as Mesa and Phoenix are building extensions to the system and after Metro had shed an early image of being crash-prone. In the first year after the 20-mile system opened in late 2008, there was a collision a week, mostly involving cars. Few resulted in serious injury. Officials at the time chalked that up to growing pains, as motorists got used to sharing the road with one of the longest in-street systems in the country.
Metro worked with local street engineers to tweak street signs and signals, and to put out safety messages. It worked. In 2010, the number of collisions fell by half and has stayed there since. By late May, Metro had logged a total of 152 collisions. Until Friday, none was fatal.
The most recent Federal Transit Administration national figures put light-rail system fatalities at 78 between 2006 and 2011. Knowing of the dangers associated with these types of systems Valley Metro designed trains specifically to ensure that collisions would not be deadly. Typically light rail deaths occur when people get trapped in the wheels of a train. Because of this Metro added an apron to the bottom of the chassis to push anyone who was in front of the train off to the side rather than to the undercarriage.
The operator of the train had a clean accident record and had been with Valley Metro since the light rail launched in 2008. The operator is cooperating with the investigation and was placed on paid administrative leave.
Police are looking for any witnesses who can help them determine how the accident happened. Anyone who can help should call Mesa police, 480-644-2211, who have taken over the investigation.
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