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Man blocks bus, is jailed

Wheelchair lift malfunctioned

Friday, January 09, 2004

By Jan Ackerman and Jonathan D. Silver, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Using his wheelchair as a weapon, activist Donald Stancile took a Port Authority bus hostage on a brisk Wednesday night in Garfield after the bus's handicapped ramp malfunctioned.

Using his wheelchair as a weapon, activist Donald Stancile took a Port Authority bus hostage after its ramp malfunctioned. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)

When the driver failed to pick him up, Stancile rolled his motorized wheelchair in front of the 86B Frankstown and blocked the bus at Penn and Atlantic avenues. At that moment, his colleague at ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, showed up with homemade signs protesting the Port Authority's treatment of handicapped.

Passengers on the bus screamed and swore at Stancile, telling him to let the bus move so they could get home. Someone on the bus called 911 and a swarm of police arrived at the scene at about 8 p.m.

When it was all over, Stancile, 53, of Idlewild Street, Brushton, was arrested and charged by city police with obstructing traffic and disorderly conduct. He spent the night in the Allegheny County Jail and was not released until about 5 p.m. yesterday.

His preliminary hearing is at 1 p.m. next Friday.

"I'm going to continuously break the law," Stancile said yesterday, citing a mantra of "No rider left behind."

"I don't feel like I'm the defendant. I'm the victim," Stancile continued.

"Ninety-eight percent of the people who ride the bus can get on the bus. The other 2 percent are like me. Why can't we get on the bus? Why are we always the person at the bottom of the totem pole?"

Calling it an "isolated incident," Port Authority officials were trying to figure out why the bus driver, a six-year veteran, didn't lower the handicapped ramp manually, when its mechanical lever failed. Port Authority spokeswoman Judi McNeil said the bus, which was less than a year old, was equipped with a handicapped ramp that can be operated mechanically or manually.

"She should have been able to operate it manually," McNeil said yesterday.

Stancile, who said he has used a wheelchair since 2001 after an accident paralyzed his legs, estimates he has encountered buses with malfunctioning lifts or ramps about 50 times since then. He said he calls PAT after every bad experience but has yet to receive a satisfactory response.

On Wednesday, Stancile said he became frustrated with the driver because she did not address him directly. Stancile claimed the driver knew the ramp didn't work but pretended to try to use it anyway.

"She let the passengers confront me. She never got out from behind the seat and said, 'Sir, I'm calling another bus,' " Stancile said. "She could have gotten off the bus and explained, 'I've called another bus. It should be here any moment.' "

Maryellen Hayden, an ACORN organizer, said Stancile has been complaining about problems with handicapped ramps and lifts on Port Authority buses for six months. Stancile previously tried to block a Port Authority bus but was never before arrested for that.

"He has been warned in the past for blocking buses," McNeil said.

Stancile said Wednesday night's incident was the third time he has blocked a bus. He said he did the same thing about a month ago in East Liberty and last summer. He said he was not arrested either time.

When he blocked the bus with his wheelchair, Stancile was right in front of the ACORN office on Penn Avenue, where he had spent the day volunteering. Hayden said he called her on his cell phone and told her that "you had better come out. I am a bus hostage. I am not going to move until I get into a warm bus."

Hayden said she grabbed two old protest signs, turned them over, and wrote messages about the Port Authority. She hung one sign on Stancile saying "I am a cold ACORN president" and the other one on herself which said "ACORN demands fix the bus"

"This is like a crusade for Donald," Hayden said yesterday.

The driver called for another bus, but city police ended up arresting Stancile instead of allowing him to board the second bus.

Stancile contends that the Port Authority needs to do a better job with handicapped accessibility.

"I've been calling them and complaining and complaining," Stancile said. "Everything's falling on deaf ears."

McNeil said Port Authority drivers are supposed to check the handicapped equipment on the buses before they leave the garage and instructors do random checks to make sure the buses comply with Americans With Disabilities Act requirements.

Stancile, who was worried about getting frostbite, wanted to know why the driver didn't know that the ramp was malfunctioning before she started the route.

Port Authority buses either have hydraulic lifts or ramps for the handicapped. McNeil said the Port Authority is in the process of switching from buses with lifts to buses with ramps. The 86B Frankstown was less than one year old and had a ramp, not a lift.

Jeffry Parker, 50, of Brighton Heights, who uses a wheelchair, has served on a Committee for Accessible Transportation for the Port Authority, which brings together bus riders with Port Authority and ACCESS and other agencies.

He said the Port Authority has implemented advanced training programs to meet ADA standards and has been responsive to concerns raised by the committee.

"They put checkers on the buses to see how drivers are treating the handicapped," said Parker, who remembers only about five or six breakdowns in the handicapped equipment on the approximately 600 bus trips he took last year.


Jan Ackerman can be reached at jackerman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1370. Jonathan D. Silver can be reached at jsilver @post-gazette.com or 412-263-1962.

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