SMART train fatality in Rohnert Park ruled an accident

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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.”

He said there were witnesses, including passengers and those in the surrounding area who heard the train horn for a long period.

“That indicates that he was laying on the horn,” Johnson said.

Johnson called the accident a tragedy for “not only victim and his family, but also the engineer and staff on the train. It takes a toll on people without a doubt.”

Kern said her son recently had relocated to the North Coast because he had a childhood friend that was here who encouraged him to move. She said he loved golf and music and he had hoped to find his “niche” in life in California.

Kern described De Frates as friendly and giving, someone who could “make friends with a rock.”

“He didn’t see color or wealth,” she said. “He was always there when a friend needed help, even if it made him broke.”

Kern said Austin has a similar commuter train system and hearing its horn blaring often irritated her. She said that’s changed since the death of her son.

“Now please blow it as much as you can if it can save a life,” Kern said, adding that she fears more accidents will occur on the SMART rail line unless additional safety measures are implemented.

Kern said that includes fewer quiet zones, small rail crossing arms for pedestrians and cyclists and pedestrian overpasses at rail crossings where there are large numbers of pedestrians.

Johnson, the Rohnert Park public safety commander, said SMART officials have conducted an extensive public information campaign in schools and in the community about how to stay safe around the train line.

“We need to pay attention when we’re around a railroad,” Johnson said.

Welch, SMART’s police chief, said the rail transit agency frequently encounters unsafe behavior on the part of motorists, cyclists and others. She encouraged people to be more cautious and aware when approaching a railroad track because sometimes the trains travel at an average speed of 79 mph.

“Sometimes, you’ll have motorists trying to beat the gate arm instead of stopping and letting the train go by,” Welch said. “Some people are out for their morning jogs, jogging down the middle of the railroad tracks.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or On Twitter @renofish.

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