Written by Natalie Orenstein and originally posted on Berkeleyside.com
Service Providers from Easy Does It, which work with Berkeley Residents in wheelchairs, recalled the harrowing morning.
It was the first call John Benson fielded that morning.
A woman using a wheelchair, the dispatcher told him, had broken down on the railroad tracks, near Hearst Street, in West Berkeley.
Benson runs a wheelchair repair shop through Easy Does It, an emergency service provider for Berkeley residents with physical disabilities. When he’s not patching up equipment or organizing recycled parts at the shop, Benson responds to calls for assistance from people who’ve run out of batteries or gotten flat tires.
Benson said he did not immediately take in the urgency of the situation when he got the West Berkeley call on Wednesday, June 6. He serves many people, including many homeless clients in that neighborhood, with various needs, and he took his time gathering his tools and picking up his work van.
But when he arrived in the area, he saw a group of men frantically trying to help the woman, whose wheel had gotten stuck in a groove on the tracks between Second and Fourth streets. As Benson ran over, he could hear a train rapidly approaching.
The woman was trying to drive off the tracks, but her battery had also come unplugged. Benson could see that the chair had to be put into “free wheel” mode, which allows it to be pushed, instead of driven. But the men who were trying to help didn’t know that. They spoke Spanish and the woman English, so they hadn’t been able to communicate, nor was anyone likely calm enough to think completely clearly. On top of that, the woman had many bags with her, which were covering the free-wheel lever, Benson said.
“When I got there I saw exactly what was happening, but I couldn’t get it into free-wheel because of the bags,” he said.
As the lights came on around the tracks, and the train’s whistle grew louder, he began flinging her belongings off the chair.
“I was able to plug the batteries back in, and she was able to drive off the tracks” — just in the nick of time, Benson said. They turned around a moment later and watched the train run over one of the loose bags on the track.
The woman who’d wheeled herself to safety sat stunned, with her mouth open, Benson said. “A full minute later, she was like, ‘Oh lordy, thank you so much,’” he said. The men cheered.
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