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Editor's Note: Story updated 7/6, 2pm PST. Here's a direct link to the added section.

One Cast Member was killed late Saturday night (technically early Sunday morning) when two monorails collided at the Ticket and Transportation Center (TTC). 21-year old Austin Wuennenberg, a computer science student at the nearby Stetson University and multi-year Walt Disney World Cast Member (CM), was piloting Monorail Purple. He was pronounced dead on the scene.

This is a horrifying event, and my thoughts are with Mr. Wuennenberg’s family and friends for their loss.

What happened will doubtless take many months of official investigations by multiple law enforcement and regulatory agencies to fully unravel. This being the age of Twitter, Facebook, and ubiquitous video cameras, however, word has spread even quicker than usual from eyewitnesses, and some parts of the story are beginning to coalesce.

Several photographs surfaced immediately by news agencies. Some showed Monorail Purple smashed up against Monorail Pink while in the TTC station (at the loading platform), while one showed the two monorails just south of the station. This led to much early confusion in the blogosphere. Did the accident take place outside the station, or at the station? Did the impact maybe knock the trains out of the station? Ensuing reports clarified that the impact did occur at the station itself, and the photo taken outside the station was snapped during a brief move of the monorails post-accident, to get another driver out.

A video popped up early on www.clickorlando.com, clearly taken mere moments after the impact. A family of several people and a stroller are seen exiting Monorail Purple from the first "normal" cabin door (meaning they were right behind the pilot’s cabin), and several CMs and bystanders try to see if the pilot of Monorail Purple was all right.

Many posts in the MiceChat discussion forum speculated about possible causes, but several voices of experience--former Monorail pilots--spoke up and provided details. Some of them had heard through their informal networks (in other words, from current Monorail CMs) what had happened, and it appears that they have pieced together the story pretty well.

It may be best to simply relay the events as they explain it via a series of chronological snapshots, rather attempt a cohesive narrative. I must stress that the following account has not been vetted by Disney or law enforcement, and must be considered speculation (though speculation backed by years of their experience, at least). Any errors that creep into this account are probably my fault, since I was myself never a Monorail CM, and some of the terminology is new to me.

Monorail Pink is running on the EPCOT Line. It is near 2 a.m. on Sunday morning, meaning it’s the very end of a long, long Fourth of July holiday. This is typically the busiest day of the year for the Magic Kingdom, and thus for the monorails, too.

Monorail Purple is also running on the EPCOT Line. While Epcot itself closed several hours ago at 10pm, the monorails are still running because the Magic Kingdom was open until 1 a.m., and it takes more than an hour to clear. Since some visitors park at Epcot and venture over the Magic Kingdom, the monorails have to keep running until the latter of the two parks is finally closed and cleared. So it’s the Magic Kingdom’s operating schedule which dictates how long the EPCOT line has to be staffed.


A typical view of the Concourse as a train pulls into the TTC, returning from Epcot.

Monorail Pink is scheduled to come off the line after this final stop at the Ticket and Transportation Center (TTC). To come off the line and retire for the night, Monorail Pink will have to depart the TTC on the same EPCOT Line for a few hundred yards, long enough to navigate a semi-circle "U-turn" in the track and point in the direction of Epcot. Then, it will stop while a Y-intersection switch that it just passed by will be moved to the alternate position. Once moved, that switch will enable Monorail Pink to go backwards onto a different track, a spur line, which will then deposit Monorail Pink onto the Magic Kingdom Express Line (still going backwards, at first). Then, Monorail Pink can head toward the Magic Kingdom, put in a quick stop at the MK Station to switch piloting duties to the "other" end of the monorail (they have dual and identical pilot cabins on both ends, to enable this kind of forward and backward flexibility), and then take one last spur line around Space Mountain and home to the Monorail Shop deep backstage, a kind of roundhouse used to store and maintain the monorails.


The view from Operating Cab 1 on the Magic Kingdom Express Line. Up ahead you can see the
last part of the spur line. Monorail Pink was supposed to come down that spur line and end
up where this photo is being taken.


The spur line just before the Magic Kingdom, which curves around Space Mountain
off to the right side of the image.

Monorail Pink leaves the TTC Station (this side of the station is called the "Concourse") without mishap, and makes it to the stopping point to await the switch.

The Monorail Pink pilot radios in the need for the switch. Monorail Shop is the place that controls the track switches. Shop allegedly tells Monorail Central Command (the person "in charge" out on the platform) that the switch is done and now in place. It turns out later that this is incorrect; they switch did not get moved. But Monorail Central Command apparently thinks it is, and so authorizes Monorail Pink to head in reverse. (It is not clear to me if the details in this bullet point constitute "inside information" or merely a surmise by the monorail pilots who pieced together this narrative, so we must employ the usual grain of salt. But clearly this is one of the possible critical errors in the entire series of events, if not the fulcrum itself on which everything else turns, and the official investigation is sure to focus on it particularly.)

Monorail Purple approaches the Concourse, pulling in a few minutes behind Monorail Pink. Because the switch is about to occur, Monorail Purple cannot simply operate with the usual electronic safety equipment turned on. The MAPO system (so named for the manufacturing arm of Walt Disney Imagineering that also built the monorails, and hardcore fans will remember that MAPO was named after the movie MAry POppins) will normally cause the trains to automatically brake and disallow them to come too close to each other.

I’ve personally been in the pilot’s cabin (Operating Cabin 1) when they brought a new monorail online on the Express Line and had to go through the MAPO tests, and I watched the pilot try to accelerate until the system didn’t let him. But MAPO’s effectiveness works against it in this case. Because the MAPO sensors would disallow trains to get close, the only way to perform a track switch, like Monorail Pink is attempting to do, is for both Monorail Pink and Monorail Purple to operate in "MAPO Override" mode. Normally, this is quite safe. The folks in Monorail Shop act like air traffic controllers and know where each car is. The individual pilots can see each other, and just have to watch the track. It’s been done many times each and every day for 38 years with exceedingly few fender benders as a result.

Monorail Purple may either be arriving, or be parked and taking on a single party of several adults and children, and a stroller.

Piloting Monorail Purple is Austin Wuennenberg. Mr. Wuennenber’s Facebook page indicates he has worked long hours lately: a 12-hour shift on May 30 and a 14-hour shift on June 9 are cited as examples, but the implication is that he worked many others. It’s never good to assume anything, but it’s not an unreasonable guess that the busiest day of the year might also have yielded a long shift, especially since other recent days did so without the same crush of crowds.


Wuennenber’s Facebook picture

Monorail Pink heads in reverse in MAPO Override, which is capped at 15 miles per hour. The pilot must think he or she is on the spur line. One assumes his or her cell phone and text message logs will be looked at by authorities. Or perhaps the pilot is simply distracted/detached. Maybe the lateness of the hour contributed to fatigue, and maybe this pilot worked a very long shift. At any rate, he or she did continue on the track, and with enough speed that Monorail Purple will soon be impacted forcefully.

The pilot of Monorail Pink is normally supposed to look behind him or her as the vehicle moves in reverse by using the rear-view mirrors. The lateness of the hour and the darkness of the region may explain why the rear-view mirrors wouldn’t be especially helpful at first, since it would probably be quite dark. But those mirrors should definitely show a looming Monorail Purple.


The rear-view mirrors look a bit like tiny ears on the Monorail.


A view from Operating Cab 1 in 2004 at nighttime; even with the headlight,
you don’t see much. And this is facing forwards!

We have no eyewitness accounts regarding the speed at which Monorail Pink hit Monorail Purple. It is unknown at present if the pilot of Monorail Pink realized the mistake and attempted to slow down, though online chatter by other pilots indicates that the brakes are quite responsive, especially if the emergency brake is engaged as well.

We have no indications whether the Cast Members on the platforms used their remote control "clickers" to kill-switch the monorails in the area. Did they not see the coming vehicle? Or did they not realize the import? Or did they simply freeze? The answers to these kinds of questions will have to wait until the investigations are complete.

We do not know where Monorail Central Command was located physically. There is a command post on the Concourse platform, a somewhat imposing structure near one end and facing away from the Magic Kingdom (meaning that the brick wall at the back of the post would obscure the view of a backing-in Monorail Pink, anyway). It is apparently common that the Monorail Central Command person would roam, and control the movement of vehicles by mobile radio.


The Concourse platform. Photo taken in 2006.

The biggest unanswered question is probably why Austin Wuennenberg took no "evasive" action in Monorail Purple. Did he not see the approach of Monorail Pink? Was he otherwise occupied? (One assumes his cell phone and text message logs will also be examined.) Or, was he simply not experienced enough to slam Purple into reverse and accelerate away? He was a seasoned ride operator, though, having worked on Rock ‘n Roller coaster before the monorails, and he has been working the monorails as a Full Time employee since October 2008.

Maybe the gates (and monorail doors) were still open, and he was worried about moving away at high speed lest a Guest be thrown free? But the video taken right after the accident shows the doors and gates closed, with the one cabin door pried open to let out the shaken visitors. Maybe Mr. Wuennenberg tried to escape but only got so far as to close the doors in preparation for rapid departure?

It could also be that the MAPO brakes *did* prevent his train from moving, and he saw the incoming train and tried to escape. For this to be true, he would not have been entering the station in MAPO override mode to begin with, just regular mode, and then MAPO clamped down on him as pink came closer. Had he thought of it, going into MAPO override mode on his own recognizance could have let him go backwards and keep pace "ahead" of pink.

Or maybe a completely different set of circumstances was in place here: did Monorail Purple suffer a power outage that required a restart? Not only can that sort of thing happen, it happened to me two times within the past sixty days… both times on Monorail Purple. I recognize that’s a shaky correlation at best, and one shouldn’t draw too many conclusions from that. Bottom line: this, too, will have to wait for the official investigation to bear some answers.

Immediately after the crash, the video was taken until monorail CMs forbade any further videotaping. First-responders were on site in 10-15 minutes, and several minutes were needed to pry out Mr. Wuennenberg, who was pronounced dead.

Monorail Pink then backed further into the station, so that the pilot of Monorail Pink could reach the platform and disembark (some reports indicate this pilot was taken to the hospital). While the pilot gets out, the now-joined monorails jut out behind the station, and it is at this moment that the other photograph is taken. Later, Monorail Pink again tows the attached Monorail Purple, this time back to the station, and there they remained, while investigations are ongoing.

Again, it is important to note that there may be errors in the account listed above. We will certainly know more as the official investigation proceeds.

Update 7/6, 2pm PST: The 911 tapes seem to imply a collision behind the station, out in the parking lot. Here's the apparent sequence of events:

1. Monorail Pink leaves the TTC station on the EPCOT line. It intends to go a little distance on the line, then back up onto a spur line and reconnect to the Express Line.

2. Monorail Purple, also on the EPCOT Line, is told to hold just outside (south) of the TTC.

3. Monorail Pink radios that it is ready for the switch.

4. Monorail Shop (the backstage facility that controls the switches) allegedly tells Monorail Central (the guy in charge out on the TTC platform) that the switch has been made. This turns out to not be correct.

5. Monorail Pink allegedly gets the all-clear from Central, and starts to back up, thinking it's on the spur line. In reality, it's on the same line as before, and now heading toward Monorail Purple.

6. The anti-collision devices are turned off (both Pink and Purple are in MAPO-Override mode, which is required for the switch to occur), so Pink hits Purple just outside the station. It's unclear why Purple does not slam his monorail into reverse gear and keep ahead of Pink - maybe he doesn't see it coming.

7. Monorail Pink realizes there was a problem after the crash, and pulls forward again into the station, suddenly towing Purple. At this point, the clickorlando.com video was taken, and the guests from Purple were evacuated.

We'll continue to update this page today as information warrants it.

Mr. Wuennenberg’s family issued the following statement:

Austin Wuennenberg was a senior at Stetson University, studying computer science. He always enjoyed his work at Disney, and especially enjoyed his work as a monorail pilot. He has many great friends whom he has positively influenced; everyone will truly miss this dynamic young man. Austin's family would like to thank friends and well-wishers for their kind thoughts and prayers. We appreciate sensitivity and respect from the media during this difficult time.

Our thoughts are with Mr. Wuennenberg’s family and friends. I can only imagine what they are going through.

Glossary:

  • TTC: Ticket and Transportation Center. This is the monorail "hub" at the ostensible parking lot for the Magic Kingdom.
     
  • Concourse: the EPCOT Line platform.
     
  • Shop: short for Monorail Shop, this is the storage bay and maintenance facility for the monorails, located deep backstage.
     
  • Monorail Central Command: the person "in charge" of the monorails at any given moment, often (but not always) found in the booth at one end of the Concourse.
     
  • Spur: a section of the monorail track used to connect the EPCOT Line to the Magic Kingdom Express Line.
     
  • MAPO: the automated anti-collision system that normally disallows trains from approaching each other too closely, even despite pilot inattention.
     
  • MAPO Override: the mode of traveling needed to allow monorails to switch from one track system to the other; capped at 15 MPH.
  • 2009 Kevin Yee


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    Kevin's Disney Books

    Kevin is the author of many books on Disney theme parks, including:

    • Mouse Trap: Memoir of a Disneyland Cast Member provides the first authentic glimpse of what it's like to work at Disneyland.
    • The Walt Disney World Menu Book lists restaurants, their menus, and prices for entrees, all in one handy pocket-sized guide.
    • Tokyo Disney Made Easy is a travel guide to Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySeas, written to make the entire trip stress-free for non-speakers of Japanese.
    • Magic Quizdom offers an exhaustive trivia quiz on Disneyland park, with expansive paragraph-length answers that flesh out the fuller story on this place rich with details.
    • 101 Things You Never Knew About Disneyland is a list-oriented book that covers ground left intentionally unexposed in the trivia book, namely the tributes and homages around Disneyland, especially to past rides and attractions.
    • 101 Things You Never Knew About Walt Disney World follows the example of the Disneyland book, detailing tributes and homages in the four Disney World parks.

    More information on the above titles, along with ordering options are at this link. Kevin is currently working on other theme park related books, and expects the next one to be published soon.

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