SAN JOSE — Union President John Courtney wasn’t expected to speak at the memorial for the nine VTA employees gunned down by a coworker in May. He wasn’t even listed in the program.
But at SAP Center on Sunday, in front of dozens of mourning relatives and hundreds of friends and coworkers, Courtney lashed out at the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, accusing the agency of failing to make any “substantive changes” since the tragedy and demanding that the VTA make mental health a priority among its workforce.
“It can’t be swept under the rug any longer,” said Courtney, president of Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 265. He was in the break room at the VTA’s Guadalupe Yard when Sam Cassidy opened fire the morning of May 26. “If we don’t do something about the way VTA management handles our people, nothing will change.”
One of the widows, Gloria Rudometkin, made a similar charge, also taking the stage and saying the tragedy that made her a widow at the age of 40 “could have been prevented had proper actions been taken.”
The two-and-a-half hour event at SAP Center was otherwise somber and heartbreaking, with photos streaming on big screens of the nine fallen men, tearful family members remembering their loved ones and the sheriff’s department’s pipe and drum corps playing Amazing Grace. But when Courtney finished speaking early in the program and Rudometkin near the end, those in the audience erupted in applause.
It’s been more than seven weeks since Cassidy, a 20-year VTA veteran who has been described by Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith as “highly disgruntled” targeted his coworkers then killed himself. Ever since, the sheriff’s department has been tight-lipped about the investigation, except to say it has taken more than 100 statements. Cassidy’s mental health status remains unclear: he was known to have taken antidepressants over the years, but his family said they were unaware of any other mental health diagnosis. His ex-wife has said that for years, Cassidy had harbored hatred and resentment for the VTA and coworkers.
Families arrived at SAP Center in a solemn procession of VTA buses, but as widow after widow took the stage, nearly all asked how such a tragedy could have happened.
“What plan could this have been a part of? What possible lesson could be learned from this?” asked Annette Romo, whose 49-year-old husband, Tim, was killed. “Unfortunately, there are no easy answers.”
Rudometkin, whose husband Michael was killed, expressed anger that has been simmering among a number of victims’ families. She wanted to know why she and other victims’ relatives had to wait an excruciating 12 hours to find out whether their loved one was alive or dead and that “we were the last to be told the truth.”
She also chastised the agency for failing to heed warning signs that could have prevented the tragedy, alluding to reports that at least one coworker had expressed being scared of Cassidy last year, saying that “if someone was to go postal, it’d be him.”
“I implore you to make a change going forward,” Rudometkin said. “If someone says they fear a coworker, you need to listen.”
It was a message not lost on VTA General Manager Carolyn Gonot, who started her top job just last week after heading the Utah Transit Authority for two years prior.
What she heard from the union president and the widows, she told the crowd, “I take to my heart. To move forward, we must change the trajectory of what may seem a downward spiral.”
She’s been told, Gonot said, “that VTA is broken. Some say VTA will never recover. But what easily could be our final breaking point must become our turning point.”
As hundreds of people filled the cavernous arena that is home to the San Jose Sharks hockey team, photos and videos of the victims flashed across the huge screens hanging from the rafters.
There was Taptejdeep Singh, 36, holding his two small children and Paul Megia playing in the snow with his wife and four children. Both men were in the second building that Cassidy targeted after killing six coworkers in the first. Singh and Megia had helped their coworkers to safety before their deadly encounters.
Megia’s wife, Nicole, called her husband strong and courageous and “every day I think what could have been done, how this could have been prevented, how my husband must have felt, the terror on his face.”
The photos on the big screens showed joy — family events when no one could imagine such horrors.
There were images of Rudometkin dancing with his wife, and Romo in a formal suit, laughing heartily. Videos showed Jose Hernandez III, 35, smiling and taking off on his motorcycle.
Hernandez’s mother, Karrey Benbow, had worried that her only son might die one day in a crash racing his motorcycle, but “to lose it in this heinous tragedy,” she said, her voice shaking, “is the equivalent of waking up to a constant nightmare.”
Adrian Balleza, 29, who left behind a wife and young son and “didn’t have a mean bone in his body,” was pictured with a big smile, wearing a tuxedo. Abdolvahab Alaghmandan, 63, an immigrant from Tehran with a wife and sons, was remembered as a resourceful problem solver.
A photo of Alex Fritch, who left behind his wife and three children, shows him holding a cocktail in one hand and his dog in the other. His widow, Terra Fritch, said the two were planning to celebrate their 20th anniversary and renew their vows in Hawaii in September.
“He took the night shift so he could be with me and the children during the day,” she said. “We were lucky to be together almost every day, all day long. We did the grocery shopping together, housework and dirt biking, everything together. Now he’s gone and I’m left to pick up the pieces.”
Twenty five members of Lars Kepler Lane’s family filled two suites at the arena Sunday, a testament to a man who had a big heart and was always the first to welcome new neighbors and loved cooking for his wife and her friends. Courtney, the union president, “knew every single one of them,” he said.
Courtney has rarely spoken about shooting. He was in the room where Cassidy gunned down six of his crew members in a break room with just one doorway in or out, but spared Courtney and at least one other person there.
From the stage, Courtney said he has been haunted by night terrors, and has trouble dining out with his back to the door, something he said “pales in comparison” to what the victims’ families are experiencing.
While he criticized the VTA and urged officials to take “courageous action” to deal with mental health issues in the workforce, he also thanked the agency for the memorial and “an amazing show of unity” with the bus procession to the event center.
“But it’s not enough,” he said. “Not nearly enough.”
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Author: Julia Prodis Sulek