Truck Repaired 4 Times in Week Before Crash

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In the week before a malfunctioning city trash truck killed two 8-year-old boys on their bus ride to school, the truck was serviced four times, with mechanics working about 19 hours on the trash-compacting system whose breakdown apparently caused the accident, according to city records obtained Friday.

"These are very high maintenance vehicles," fleet services director Alvin Blain said. Blain's boss, Department of General Services chief Randall C. Bacon, said he does not know enough about the mechanics of the truck to say whether four repairs in a week is excessive, but acknowledged that "it sounds excessive."

On Nov. 29, mechanics repaired the hydraulic line on the "packer" that compacts garbage, and the next day they fixed the packer blade, among other items, according to the maintenance history on truck No. 70. Five days before the fatal crash, on Dec. 1, mechanics went out to meet the truck on the road to work on the hydraulic arm that scoops up barrels of garbage and later replaced all the hydraulic hoses connecting to that "grabber arm," the records obtained under the California Public Records Act show.

Bacon also said Friday that the driver who filled out a "trouble report" on the truck Tuesday night was right on target when he identified the problem as "ram broke" and that that is a major hazard that "absolutely" should have kept the truck off the road the next day. The maintenance supervisor who failed to get the truck fixed or place it on the "hold" list has been suspended.

"We're going to get to the bottom of this," said City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, who represents the neighborhood where the accident occurred.

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As classmates at Glen Alta Elementary School held a memorial tribute to the dead third-graders, Francisco Mata and Brian Serrano, there were wide-ranging developments:

* California Highway Patrol officers who are investigating the freak accident served a search warrant on the North Central Collection Yard, where the problem truck was stationed, seeking all purchase and maintenance records of refuse trucks and manuals on operation, policies and procedures. The warrant also included an exhaustive request for records on truck No. 70.

* Trash pickup remained slow, particularly in the San Fernando Valley, as a special mayoral task force continued its inspection of the 390 automated garbage trucks. About 30 of the trucks have been returned to the manufacturer, Ontario-based Amrep Corp., for repairs in the hydraulic packer. An additional 200 require further inspections or repairs. Officials are planning weekend pickups and expect to be back on schedule by Monday.

* Bureau of Sanitation Director Del Biagi said some of his drivers have been called "murderers" while they are out on their routes.

* Mayor Richard Riordan asked all city department heads to review all equipment maintenance practices and report their findings to him within a month.

* The Los Angeles City Council paid an emotional tribute to the firefighters and paramedics who helped counsel the surviving children at the scene of the gruesome tragedy. Goldberg described them as "the caring strangers who make tragedy bearable." Fire Chief Bill Bamattre said that the department's mascot, Sparky, a firefighter dressed up with a giant Dalmatian head, will ride the bus with the students next week and that the department is planning a Christmas party at the school.

* Eight-year-old Mario Garay, who suffered severe head injuries in Wednesday's accident, improved enough to play Nintendo from his bed in the pediatric intensive care unit at Kaiser Foundation Hospital in Los Angeles, where he was listed in good condition.

"He has been receiving a lot of support from his classmates who have been sending him letters and cards," said hospital spokeswoman Sheri Inouye. "That has boosted his spirits."

The bizarre accident happened at the busy, fog-blanketed intersection of Temple and Alvarado streets when a 12-foot hydraulic piston burst through the body of the truck and plunged into the windows of an oncoming school bus, causing the first fatal bus accident in the history of the Los Angeles Unified School District. City officials said the mechanical failure was a unique, freak incident, but automated garbage trucks have a shoddy history of constantly needing repairs.

At a Board of Public Works hearing Friday, commissioners considered suspending purchase of the Amrep trucks--several of which arrive each week under an ongoing contract--but decided to wait until the CHP investigation is complete before making a decision.

"We're doing this on a truck-by-truck basis," Deputy City Atty. Christopher Westhoff told the board. "Those trucks that need work are getting work, those that don't are back on the street."

Sanitation officials said they are reviewing accident records for the last five years in search of problems similar to the malfunctioning piston. But union representative D'mitri Tatum said the city's 750 trash truck drivers have been complaining about the Amrep trucks since the city began buying them in 1993.

Tatum said one of his drivers was suspended for 10 days this year for refusing to take out a truck he believed was unsafe.

"It's just a poorly made truck. . . . They're cheap pieces of material," Tatum said of the trucks that were custom-designed for the city for about $103,000 each.

"The city has a habit of, 'Well, we take the lowest bid,' not the quality of the truck. The drivers, they want to come to work, pick up the trash, and go home," Tatum added. "They don't want to sit in the yard waiting on you to fix a truck that breaks down every other week or twice a day. It kills your motivation."

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Fleet services director Alvin Blain acknowledged that the city chose Amrep solely because it was the lowest bidder, but said the trucks are about average in performance. Automated trash trucks in general, Blain said, require a high level of service.

When Riordan took office two years ago, he railed at the inefficiencies of the fleet maintenance operation, which had 30% of the garbage trucks in the shop for repairs on any given day, and threatened privatization. At that time, Blain said, drivers sometimes sabotaged the trucks--deflating a tire, for example--to stretch out the day and collect overtime.

Blain says he has cut the out-of-service rate almost in half since Riordan raised questions in 1993, and that his operation puts about 83% of the trash trucks on the street each day. But at North Central, he said, about 20% of the 164 vehicles each day are placed on the "hold" list, preventing them from going out.

Tatum and two drivers said Friday that mechanics and sanitation supervisors are under pressure to get trucks on the road, regardless of their condition. More trucks now go on the road, one driver said, but "it wasn't that the mechanics were getting better--[they] just let [the trucks] go."

Drivers are also under pressure to pick up more trash more quickly, putting added stress on the trucks, he said.

Each day, North Central receives about 22 trouble reports like the one that Tuesday's driver of truck No. 70 filled out, Blain said. That accounts for about 13% of the fleet stationed there.

But the maintenance records show that truck No. 70 was repaired an average of 10 days each month since it was purchased in October 1993. Officials said, however, that they could not yet determine whether No. 70 had ongoing problems and should have been flagged for special review.

"These are very high maintenance vehicles," Westhoff said at the Public Works hearing. "That's why these trucks get attention on a weekly basis, sometimes on a daily basis. For the last two years, [No. 70] has had a steady stream of things that needed fixing, but I didn't see anything repetitive."

Amrep has received $7.1 million for the annual upkeep and maintenance of trucks in the city fleet since December 1987, according to records in the city controller's office.

Amrep is owned by Inland Empire businessman Jose Ghibaudo. The company is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy and lists $3.5 million in assets but more than $6 million in liabilities.

Meanwhile, at the North Central yard Friday afternoon, CHP officers spent about 90 minutes searching before departing with an eight-inch stack of documents. The CHP also served a warrant on the school district.

Drivers finishing their shifts milled around, most more interested in paychecks, Christmas shopping and weekend plans than the commotion surrounding the search.

Few would comment on the accident, but those who did defended the mechanics and praised Kenneth Wayne Fox, driver of the ill-fated truck, as fastidious about his vehicle, which was undergoing repairs Wednesday morning. Fox was therefore assigned a substitute truck.

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Times special correspondent Geoffrey Mohan and staff writers Jean Merl, Richard Simon, Bettina Boxall and Tom Gorman contributed to this story.

* A SAD FAREWELL: Classmates placed flowers at a makeshift memorial for two pupils killed in bus crash. B1

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