The death of a 29-year-old man struck by a SMART commuter train in late August was an accident, Rohnert Park public safety officials said Friday morning.
An investigation, conducted by Rohnert Park public safety and SMART officials along with the Sonoma County Coroner’s Office, concluded Joseph De Frates, who was walking east on Golf Course Drive, appeared unaware of his proximity to the railroad track crossing or an oncoming northbound SMART train before he was hit and killed on Aug. 30 in Rohnert Park.
Nancy Kern, De Frates’ mother, said investigators told her just before her son was hit by the train he bought a pair of noise-isolating headphones at the local Walmart and he was likely listening to music at an extremely high volume when struck. Kern, who lives in Round Rock, Texas, north of Austin, said it was likely he did not hear the horn before the train hit him.
It was the third pedestrian fatality involving a SMART train for the year-old North Bay commuter rail service. The previous two deaths were determined to be suicides.
The area where De Frates collided with the train was designated a quiet zone, where engineers do not routinely sound the horn as a warning, a SMART official said Friday. However, the official said engineers do have the discretion to sound the horn in such areas.
“I’m devastated. I think that SMART has lacked in their responsibility to pedestrians and cyclists,” Kern said. “I’m afraid we’re going to see more of this the way people are plugged into their phones.”
SMART officials expressed condolences to the dead man’s family Friday and said they will continue to evaluate the incident to ensure the safety of the commuter train line.
”This is a response that we do after every incident, and we’re certainly doing that now,” SMART Police Chief Jennifer Welch said. “If we do find that improvements could be made, we will then evaluate feasibility of those improvements.”
Officials said the investigation of the latest fatality included reviewing a video from the train showing the man walking toward the track unaware the train was coming and conversations with the family of De Frates, who relocated to Rohnert Park last November and worked at a local gas station.
The northbound train was traveling roughly 66 mph when the train engineer saw De Frates approaching the railroad crossing. That’s when he began sounding the horn.
“According to the Engineer’s account, De Frates was looking down and did not make any movement to indicate he recognized his proximity to the tracks,” according to a Rohnert Park public safety press release. “When the Engineer realized De Frates was not going to stop, he applied the emergency brake of the train. Unfortunately, based on where De Frates was located, he was struck by the left front corner of the train.”
Officials said the investigation showed De Frates “did not recognize the train as a hazard until he was in the path of the train.”
Rohnert Park Public Safety Cmdr. Aaron Johnson confirmed even though the area was a designated quiet zone, the engineer “was sounding the horn longer in duration than he would have in a nonquiet zone.”