Woman struck and killed by SMART train in Rohnert Park identified by police

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A Central Valley woman trying to outrun a SMART train was killed Thursday morning, at the same Rohnert Park intersection where a man died in August after he was struck walking across the tracks.

This is the fifth fatality on North Bay’s passenger rail line since it started running in August 2017.

The woman, Jimmie Joy Qualls, 30, of La Grange, walked under the gate crossing arm on Golf Course Drive near Commerce Boulevard and then was hit by a northbound Sonoma-Marin Area Transit train about 8 a.m., Rohnert Park Public Safety Deputy Chief Aaron Johnson said.

“She was struck right there on the railroad track and died on impact at 7:51 a.m.,” he said. The investigation continues, but officials don’t think her death was a suicide.

The train had pulled away from the Rohnert Park Station near the Rohnert Park Expressway and was about two miles north of the station when the crash happened. It was believed to be going between 65 mph and 70 mph when Qualls was struck, said Jennifer McGill, chief of police for SMART. Transit agency officials said they would review video footage to check the exact train speed at the time of the collision. Train speeds in that area top out at 79 mph.

“All protocols were followed in a situation like that by the engineer,” McGill said. “The gate arms were down, lights were flashing and horns were ringing alerting the pedestrian who blatantly went under the safety equipment. Nothing else from our end could have prevented this death.”

Despite law enforcement officials saying there were no eyewitnesses, Alphonse Tramutolo said he was waiting in his car at the Golf Course Drive train crossing when he saw Qualls wearing a peach-colored dress walk onto the tracks. Moments later, he saw her body flying through the air.

“I do not remember hearing or seeing the train stop anytime soon” after hitting her because the “it was going so fast, unusually fast,” said Tramutolo, who lives near the SMART tracks and drives daily through the Golf Course Drive crossing. “I was listening to music and then I heard the (train) horns, looked up and saw the impact.”

The train operator told authorities he first spotted Qualls after she ducked under the crossing arm at the Golf Course Drive intersection and she was only about 50 yards in front of the fast-moving train.

SMART officials said earlier this week the agency’s code enforcement officers spoke to Qualls and warned her multiple times not to walk on the train tracks.

McGill said when code enforcement officers talked to her near Golf Course Drive they didn’t know her name or whether she was one of the handful of people in the area living in homeless encampments alongside the train tracks.

Rohnert Park Public Safety Director Timothy Mattos said the city’s police officers were unable to find Qualls after SMART officers relayed their concerns about her recent presence on and near the tracks.

“SMART contacted her this week about the dangers of being on the tracks,” Mattos said. “I believe she probably thought she could get across and had done it many times before, so it is an unfortunate incident.”

Despite the woman’s apparent recklessness around the rail line, Rohnert Park Mayor Gina Belforte said when there is an accident in the city involving the commuter train local officials need to talk about whether additional safety measures should be implemented to try to prevent more fatalities.

Her main focus is examining whether steps like adding pedestrian arms or if train speeds should be slower at certain areas along the SMART line where pedestrians, motorists and bicyclists can cross the tracks.

“I understand SMART is trying to put together a fast commuter service but to an extent I think speed may have been an issue,” Belforte said.

McGill said that if the trains slowed at each of the 60 public track crossings it would take upwards of 10 hours to complete the 43-mile public transit rail line between Sonoma County airport in Santa Rosa and downtown San Rafael.

“We already have pedestrian arms installed at a few areas and we also follow train speed protocols as set forth by state and federal regulations,” McGill said. “In this instance, with this woman, she completely disregarded everything we put in place for safety.”

Of the four previous deaths involving SMART trains, the most recent occurred in November when a Rohnert Park man walking on the tracks was hit and killed by a southbond train in south Santa Rosa near the pedestrian train crossing at Hearn Avenue. In January 2018, a woman took her life by standing on the tracks near the same Hearn Avenue crossing and was struck by a southbound train.

The other two earlier fatalities both occurred in August 2018. One incident involved a 72-year-old woman who crawled on the tracks near the Hamilton Station in Novato and was killed by train. The other death happened at the same Golf Course Drive rail crossing, when a 29-year-old man wearing noise-isolating headphones was run over by the train walking across the tracks where Qualls died.

Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who also sits on the SMART board of directors, called Thursday’s incident a horrible tragedy that will be thoroughly investigated and reaffirmed safety is the top priority of the transit agency’s board.

“After two deaths at this same crossing, we are obviously going to ask ourselves if there is more we could do there to make it safe,” Zane said. “But ultimately you can’t stop someone from making bad decisions.”

Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Alexandria Bordas at 707-521-5337 or alexandria.bordas@pressdemocrat.com.

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