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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Silent Cell Phone and Other Musings (LONG!)

Disneyholics have strange triggers. One thing that's always guaranteed to take us back, mentally if not physically, to the Happiest Place on Earth is the monorail "doors opening" announcement:

"Please stand clear of the doors. Por favor mantengase alejado de las puertas."

It's a classic. Anyone who's ridden the monorails in Disney World knows the announcement, and it's a favorite among Disneyholics.

So I found the recording online and made it the ring tone for my cell phone a while ago. Did I mention I love the Disney monorails? I even have the T-shirt.

I've kept my cell phone on silent since Sunday. It started out because I read the news as soon as I woke up, and couldn't stand the thought of having the phone ring with that particular ring tone right then.

Then I started finding out more information about Austin Wuennenberg, the 21-year-old driver of Monorail Purple, who died in the crash. I found out he was an only child whose dad died of cancer when Austin was 2. I found out his mom used to leave the TV on so that when Austin came home after a late shift at Disney he'd turn it off, and she'd wake up in the morning and know he's home safe. Except she woke up on Sunday morning and the TV was still on.

I found out he had a loving girlfriend who's struggling to understand what happened and why. And that he LOVED his Disney job and was the quintessential perfect Disney Cast Member. Helpful, cheerful, conscientious. There is a video shot by a guest who rode with him up front in the monorail several days before the crash. Practically every person who watched it has cried. This guy was what Disney is all about. And he was smart, to boot. Friends describe him as brainy. His aunt said people always had high expectations of him and he'd meet or exceed them.

I am still keeping my cell phone on silent, in memory of this remarkable young man. His funeral was today, I thought I should keep it silent at least this long.


Here's something that really got me today: The NTSB report of the crash events states that Austin tried to reverse the train when he saw Monorail Pink barreling down at him.

Somehow, all this time I had the irrational hope he never knew what hit him. But the thought that he saw it coming is really upsetting. Some online discussions commented on the fact that he might have been able to jump out if he hadn't tried to reverse, but, knowing he had passengers right in back of him (there was a family in the first car of the monorail) he tried to get them to safety. If that theory is correct, he should be hailed as a hero even more than he already is.


There were no mechanical failures involved in the accident, per the NTSB, and as speculated (see my previous post) the accident happened during an attempted track switch. Given that no mechanical failures were found, but the switch never happened, I'm guessing someone (or several someones) will have to live the rest of their lives knowing that whatever it is they did or didn't do that night resulted in someone's death. There must have been, however, quite a cascade of problems to pass through all the safeties and redundancies in a system with such an amazing safety record. I mean, the monorail can be shut down manually from the platform, according to several past pilots (Disney monorail drivers are called pilots). And there's always someone on the platform, to the best of my recollection. What HAPPENED??


This might be the most jarring aspect of the accident to me -- that it happened at all, in a system that carried over a billion people in 38 years of operation without a single fatality, until Sunday. It doesn't change my trust in the safety of the monorail system one bit, but it is astounding that something like this could happen. And seeing the picture of Monorail Pink's rear cab embedded in the driver's cab of Monorail Purple looked, to me, obscene, for lack of a better term. I mean, imagine seeing a favorite book or toy mutilated. It's obscene. It shouldn't happen. I think, in part, that's why I can't wait to ride the monorail again in August. I need my life to be right again, though it feels selfish right now to say it. The lives of Austin's family and friends, especially his mom, will never "be right" again, though I hope they attain peace and comfort, in time. For me to complain about the affect the accident had on me seems...wrong. Really wrong.


I'm thinking tonight, also, about the driver of Monorail Pink, who had to be checked at the hospital after the accident, mostly (according to some reports) because he was so distraught. I saw an interview with a former pilot and read online comments from former Disney monorail pilots who describe a very close community which takes safety ultra-seriously. I can't imagine what it feels like to be the direct cause of a fellow pilot's death.(Though he may not be at fault? I'm not clear on whether he could have known he wasn't switched in time to prevent the crash).

Monday, July 6, 2009

Monorail -- Yes, Again

I'd like to reiterate some statistics, because I've been hearing far too many "I'm not riding the Disney monorails again" comments around me.

In 38 years of operation (since 1971), the Disney World Monorail System carried an estimated billion+ people. In all that time there was 1 fatality -- this past Sunday night. You have a better chance of dying in a car crash driving in your home town than dying in a Disney monorail crash. Disney has had 3 monorail crashes in its history. One was during a commercial filming event when a tractor drove too close in front of the monorail. One at the Magic Kingdom station where the driver and 2 guests were hurt (in 1974), and the tragic crash on Sunday, when Austin Wuennenberg, the driver of Monorail Purple, was killed. I challenge you to find a SAFER transportation mode in the world today.

Disney reopened the monorail system today with additional safety sensors on the track switches, one of the few places where there were none and a manual override of the anti-collision system was required before.
NOTE: Unconfirmed speculation ahead: The current theory (there is no confirmation from Disney), based on Disney's actions and information from ummm...monorail "sources" that Monorail Pink was being switched off track but somehow that switch either didn't happen or the track it was switched into was the one Monorail Purple sat on. Because during track switches the collision system had to be overridden, Pink (going in reverse) never realized Purple was stationary behind him. Why nobody figured out this track was occupied before it was too late is still a matter of investigation, but the anti-collision system is now in place on switch-track areas as well. This system automatically stops the monorail if it gets within a certain distance of another monorail. End Speculation.

I'm 5 weeks away from my Disney trip and I can't WAIT to ride the monorails again, with my son and our friends. Currently there are no rides up front, though. I don't know if these will resume in the future...I hope so. I would love to ride with the drivers again.

Oh and if you Twitt -- #Austin!!!!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Hats and mouseears off in memory of Austin Wuennenberg

Austin was the 21 year-old driver of Monorail Purple. He died in the monorail crash this morning. He is the only Disney World monorail fatality in 38 years of operation, in which the monorails carried over 1 billion people to date. That's an astounding safety record, though unfortunately it probably won't comfort his loved ones. Please keep Austin and his family and friends in your thoughts and prayers.

Austin's picture and a short tribute are in the following link.
Hats and mouseears off in memory of CM Austin Wuennenberg

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An Incredibly Sad Day at Disney World

Riding the Disney Monorail is one of our favorite things to do at Disney, and we've ridden up front with the driver many times (you just have to ask).

This morning at 2am one of the Disney monorails crashed into another that was standing at the station, killing the 21 year-old driver of the stationary monorail. Thankfully, very few passengers were on the monorail at this time, and while they were shaken, none were injured. There are no other details currently available, and of course speculations are running rampant.

Let me start by saying that my heart goes out to the driver's family. Losing someone in an accident, no matter what age, is always a cruel, incredibly painful incident (I know, because we just went through that in May). The young age of the driver also makes my heart ache for the parents who lost a child who must have just been starting to build a life of his own. As a mom with a son of my own, thinking about the driver's mom literally hurts. I am so sorry!

Secondly, I still believe the Disney monorail system is safe. I don't know and won't speculate about what caused the accident. Whenever we were on the monorail, it always stopped far outside the station when another monorail was standing at the station. Whatever happened last night, in my opinion, was a a freak accident and I have every confidence Disney will get to the bottom of it and fix anything that needs fixing, if anything does. What gets me is the people who IMMEDIATELY start blaming "Big Bad Corporation Mentality" whenever anything bad happens at Disney, without having all the facts, and without stopping to think that even with every safety mechanism in place, you can't protect 100% against mechanical and / or human flukes. (NOTE that I'm not ascribing blame here. But in a monorail crash, the cause is going to be either mechanical or human, and possibly both. Weather wasn't an issue, as far as I glimpsed from the news.)

Will I be riding the Disney monorail in August? You bet, if it's back up and running (the entire monorail system is shut down today, for obvious reasons). Will we try to ride up front, with the driver? Yes (if Disney still allows it), because it's a great experience. Will this incident be at the back of my mind when I do? Absolutely, and I'll be saying a prayer for the driver who died. But unless some colossal negligence on the company's part shows up in this accident investigation (and I don't believe for a moment that it will), I will keep doing what I've always done, because I think the monorail's safety record to date speaks for itself. I don't think people stopped riding the DC Metro after last month's tragic crash, and in that case it turned out that Metro was TOLD to phase out the cars in question.

Come to think of it, light rail systems aren't having a good year so far.

For today, we should just pause and say a prayer for the driver of Monorail Purple and his family...and leave the blame game out of the conversation until we have facts on our side.

About Me

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When not planning my next Walt Disney World vacation, I write about medicine and science for various publications. I'm a bookworm and have recently fallen in love with knitting. I am owned by 2 dogs, 1 cat, and a 12 year old son who loves Disney as much as I do.