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Following AirTrain Accident,
A Community Mourns

By Shams Tarek

As investigators searched for clues and local elected officials waited for answers, a Springfield Gardens family mourned the death of their 23-year-old son this week.

A 23-year-old operator from Springfield Gardens died after his elevated train derailed at JFK Airport.
PRESS Photo By Shams Tarek

Kelvin DeBourgh, Jr., was the train operator who died on Sept. 27 hours after the elevated light rail he was driving at JFK International Airport derailed during a test run.

 He was laid to rest after a funeral mass at St. Mary Magdalene in Springfield Gardens on Oct. 3.

Thursday’s burial marked a milestone in seven days of sadness and anger at the DeBourgh house, which has been getting almost 200 visitors a day—many strangers, many old friends and family that haven’t been seen in years—since the accident occurred.

Home To Mourning

On the evening of Monday, Sept. 30, a large crowd of visitors talked among each other while holding beverages outside the tidy Spingfield Gardens house DeBourgh called home.

Wide open doors and curtains revealed a similar crowd inside.

DeBourgh Jr., left,
with childhood friend Duane Arbuckle.

Though occasional laughter rose above the rush of low-flying planes from the airport nearby, most greetings came in hushed tones and were accompanied by arms around shoulders, or hugs.

Kelvin DeBourgh Sr. ran back and forth among the guests, receiving condolences. 

He spoke in measured sentences about the untimely death of his son.

“It’s tough on everybody,” DeBourgh, Sr. said.  “It’s a great loss.”

DeBourgh, Sr. was driving home on the Van Wyck Expressway the afternoon of Sept. 27, he said, when he noticed a lot of cars backed up on the road going to JFK.

 “Can you imagine the traffic?,” he asked a co-worker.  When he got home, he found a crowd similar to the one  that would become a regular presence in his home for days later. 

His son had died at Jamaica Hospital just hours before he knew anything about the accident.

“When I got out of the car my daughter came out and said, ‘We lost Kelvin,’” DeBourgh, Sr. said. 

“I couldn’t believe what happened.  My wife was already at the hospital — she didn’t even get a chance to speak to Kelvin before he died.”

Since then, DeBourgh, Sr. has appreciated all the attention.

“All the attention comforted me,” he said.  “To see the attention and support that everbody is giving, that helped me keep courage.  That lets us know how much they appreciate Kelvin.”

DeBourgh, Sr.’s wife, Bernadine, also appreciates the visitors, he said, but is not taking the tragedy as well as him.

“When people are here, she cheers up,” DeBourgh, Sr. said.  “But early in the morning, when she realizes what happened, it hits her very hard.”

“Losing her son gives her enough reason to be angry,” DeBourgh, Sr. said, noting that the family’s anger was lessened when officials from Bombardier, the company contracted by the Port Authority to design, build and operate the train system DeBourgh, Jr. was testing, visited the family two days after the accident.

DeBourgh, Jr.’s only sibling, 28-year-old June, was not eager to talk to a PRESS reporter as she carried food around to guests.

“As you can see my brother was loved,” she said. “That’s it at this point.”

Avion’s mother, Keva Scott, was also at the house, but too upset to talk to the paper about her loss.

A Young Son and Father, Loved by Many

Over 800 mourners came to DeBourgh, Jr.’s  wake on Oct. 2 at the J. Foster Phillips Funeral Home, many of them pouring out onto Linden Boulevard because they didn’t fit inside. 

Like the 200 visitors received at the DeBourgh home each night since the family’s only son died last week, many were strangers who didn’t even know him.

But they soon learned about an ambitous young man whose life was cut short before his  time.

DeBourgh, Jr., called Kelvin Christopher around the house, was not only a young son, but a young father, too. 

When he died, he was getting ready for the first birthday of his daughter Avion, whom he raised with the girl’s mother, Keva Scott. The birthday is Oct. 13.

He loved music, particularly soca – the popular Caribbean dance genre that derives from calypso.  He would tinker with DJ equipment at home after work, his father said, and liked going to local West Indian festivals wherever they would happen.

“He loved music,” the Trinidad-born DeBourgh, Sr. said of his son.  “It was part of his soul.”

DeBourgh, Jr. often combined his love for music with his love for mechanics and electronics, not only as an amateur producer but also while working on cars.  He enjoyed installing hopped-up stereos in cars.

But DeBourgh, Jr., the handyman, did more than just connect audio cables.  He worked at a local garage fixing cars a couple of years ago, and the thought of college – while not at the forefront of his mind – never left him either.

“He was always talking about going to engineering school,” DeBourgh, Sr. said.  “All he knew was that he wanted to do some kind of engineering.”

DeBourgh, Jr.’s engineering prowess played out distinctly in his work on the AirTrain JFK system. 

Of all of the current employees of Bombardier, the company contracted by the Port Authority to operate the elevated trains, DeBourgh, Jr. was one of two who had been there since test operation began at JFK one year ago.

A spokesperson for Skanska – another company contracted for the AirTrain project – said at DeBourgh, Jr.’s wake that the late employee was the management’s favorite operator, that he was always asked to train newer employees and operate the cars whenever the company did demos for local elected officials or other “big shots.”

A Bombardier coworker of DeBourgh, Jr.’s who visited the crash site some hours after he died also said that he was loved by everyone in the company.

“He was just a kid,” the woman said as she stared at the derailed train 30 feet overhead.

Retracing The Accident

DeBourgh, Jr. was maneuvering his 180-foot, three-car train out of a left-turning bend just northwest of JFK’s Federal Circle when, National Traffic Safety Board (NTSB) systems safety investigator Mark Wahlberg said, 16 tons of concrete ballast meant to simulate passenger weight shifted and the train jumped its tracks, shearing about 150 feet of concrete sound barrier off the right side of the train’s elevated guideway and tearing up the front right corner of the first car.

NTSB spokeswoman Lauren Peduzzi said that each of the first two cars of the train had eight one-ton concrete blocks inside their cabs, none of them secured to anything stationary. 

While Peduzzi said the cause of the DeBourgh, Jr.’s death is still under investigation, Port Authority spokesperson Pascuale DiFulco said that DeBourgh, Jr. was injured when he was “pinned down” and “seriously injured” in the first car.

DiFulco would not say what DeBourgh, Jr. was pinned down by, but two of DeBourgh Jr.’s coworkers at the scene, as well as Wahlberg, said that DeBourgh, Jr. was crushed by the concrete blocks, which slid forward during the derailment and pinned him in his seat.

“The obvious concern is how safe passengers would be under the same circumstances,” Wahlberg told a PRESS reporter this week.

The Port Authority’s AirTrain JFK, a rail line scheduled to start partial service by the end of this year, links eight terminals inside the airport to New York City subway and bus lines at Howard Beach and downtown Jamaica. 

DeBourgh, Jr.’s car, which suffered the most damage, also derailed the farthest, with several inches of its car hanging over the cracked guideway wall.  The train screeched to a halt about 500 feet before crossing over the Van Wyck Expressway, the center of which the AirTrain JFK system runs over for about three miles to downtown Jamaica.

AirTrain JFK’s cars are supposed to be operated remotely by computer during regular service, but DeBourgh, Jr. was operating the car manually from inside for the test run, Port Authority spokesman Dan Bledsoe said.

The JFK and Howard Beach terminals were to begin operation by the end of this year, and the Jamaica terminal by the summer of next year.  DiFulco said that while the system’s daily testing has been suspended while the Port Authority, Bombardier, concrete builder Skanska and NTSB conduct their investigation of the accident, he does not know whether the opening of the system will be delayed.

– Liz Goff contributed to this story.

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