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'We're a target sitting in that seat,' Charlotte bus driver says after co-worker's death

cats bus rip focus.jpg
Sarah Delia
/
WFAE
A CATS bus flashes a banner honoring slain driver Ethan Rivera.

Commuters waited at the transit center in uptown Charlotte to board their busses on Tuesday, an unusually warm February day. Some drivers exited one bus after their shifts ended and boarded others, now as passengers themselves.

Digital messages blinked across parked buses: "Masks required," "Not in service" and "RIP Ethan Rivera."

That last message is in honor of 41-year-old Ethan Rivera, a Charlotte Area Tranist System bus driver who was shot to death while on duty Feb. 11. Police say the shooting stemmed from a road rage incident.

Safety concerns for bus drivers is not a new problem. According to CATs, over the past five years, there have been 57 operator assaults and two operator shootings; including the one that killed Rivera.

In the wake of this shooting, drivers have called for more safety measures. But though safety is on the minds of many bus drivers, it was understandably difficult to find someone willing to talk on Tuesday.

One driver told WFAE he’s worried about his safety while on the job but could get in trouble for doing an interview. It was a message repeated five times before anyone was willing to talk.

Standing outside the transit center near a Burger King, one willing driver said she’s going into her 16th year on the job. She asked WFAE not to publicly identify her and wore sunglasses and a mask during an interview, periodically looking over her shoulder to see if anyone was watching. She had only seven minutes to talk before she had to catch a bus of her own.

She saidRivera's death hit close to home. Here's a transcript of her conversation with WFAE's Sarah Delia.

Driver: I was very scared. For not just me, but the rest of my coworkers ... because we're a target sitting in that seat with no protection.

Sarah Delia: And what protection is needed?

Driver: I would say bulletproof windows — bulletproof the bus for the drivers. To me, that’s the only thing. They did do a door for us, but they are still coming around, they are still hitting the drivers, spitting on the driver even with the door.

Delia: And is that a shield between you all?

Driver: It's like plexiglass and a bottom door with just the glass. Some of it is short and it's really open, so it’s still really no protection for the drivers.

Delia: What have you experienced as a driver?

Driver: Cursed out a lot, called all types of things and what they'll do to me... and I immediately call BOCC (Bus Operation Control Center). Sometimes they'll send someone. Sometimes they don't. So that's scary as well. When you don't get the protection, it's scary.

Delia: So it doesn't sound like you feel safe doing your job right now.

Driver: Right now, no, not at all. Because Monday after (Rivera's) death, a driver got spit at in the face. That's not safe. So no, a lot of us don't feel safe. A lot of drivers haven't been coming to work, just because they don't feel safe.

Delia: What makes you still come to work every day?

Driver: The No. 1 reason is pay. I still have bills, so that’s my reason for still coming.

The driver said she has conflicting feelings about whether CATS is taking care of drivers.

Driver: That is up in the air for discussion, depending on, I guess, what the situation is. Just for CATS to have more of our safety, our backs when it comes to the passengers because the passengers could very well be wrong, but they will fault us. So, they don't really have our back when it comes to the customer service complaints and things like that.

Delia: Is there anything else that Mr. Rivera's death brought up for you as a bus driver?

Driver: Just to be more aware of what's going on around you, even with the passengers. Just be more cautious in what you're doing and who’s around you.

And then the driver's time was up. She looked over her shoulder one more time before leaving and headed back to the stream of drivers and passengers — everyone trying to find and board their bus safely.

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Sarah Delia covers criminal justice and the arts for WFAE. Sarah joined the WFAE news team in 2014. An Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist, Sarah has lived and told stories from Maine, New York, Indiana, Alabama, Virginia and North Carolina. Sarah received her B.A. in English and Art history from James Madison University, where she began her broadcast career at college radio station WXJM. Sarah has interned and worked at NPR in Washington DC, interned and freelanced for WNYC, and attended the Salt Institute for Radio Documentary Studies.