TORONTO - In the gentle cool of a May evening, a TTC bus glides along Morningside Ave. en route to Kennedy station.
Veteran bus driver John – not his real name – is behind the wheel.
The 48-year-old nears the end of his shift and he’s eager to return home.
Then, he spots three familiar faces he’d encountered earlier in the night. He’d been kind enough to help out the two teenage boys and a girl by offering a free ride when they couldn’t scrounge up fares.
Now, they recycle their excuses: lost wallet, lost keys.
John calmly points out he’s already seen their act once.
Then things turn nasty.
The boys hurl racial slurs. He asks them to exit the bus. They refuse.
John senses they may leave him alone if he shows the girl where to wait for the next bus.
As he vacates his seat, he is ambushed. His head is smashed into concrete.
He briefly tries to recall his last fist fight as punches and kicks rain down on him.
“I just said ‘You guys are going to jail,’” he recounts. “Then, when I said that, they just ran in three different directions.”
Shattered knees. Broken arms. Fractured orbital sockets. A bullet through the back of a skull, blowing out one eye.
Images of street warfare?
It’s the terrorizing reality of working on the TTC front line.
Each day, the system shuttles 1.6 million passengers across the city. And, chances are, one of 5,900 front-line workers will be assaulted.
An average of more than 300 attacks on TTC staff occur annually – everything from punches and kicks to knife attacks, death threats and intimidation with guns. Even spitting.
In 2002, the assault total hovered around 320, with roughly 50 threats of death or bodily harm. Ten years later, assaults climbed to 408, including 222 physical assaults and 186 incidents of spitting.
TTC court advocate Stuart Budgell said an assault a day is the unfortunate normal.
To date in 2013, there have been 307 documented cases of assault on TTC workers.
Budgell helps people like John – who was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and re-assigned to duties in the maintenance department – move through the legal process.
Many incidents relate to fare disputes, Budgell said, estimating “probably 35-40% of people arrested are mentally ill.”
“In fairness to my operators, when I phone a victim back and tell them that the person who assaulted him was mentally ill, and has been sent to a special court and is now getting mental health treatment, they’re pleased to hear that,” he said.
But there are still “operators who’ve been assaulted who’ve never driven again,” he said.
Louise Sears is one of them.
Almost four years later, she said she cannot ride a bus without being reminded of the intimidating verbal attack that frightened her away from a job she loved.
The nervous 58-year-old said she was driving a McCowan Rd. bus in December 2009 when she asked a passenger to show his day pass.
The man grew furious and started yelling at her in a foreign language, growing “beet red” and angrier by the second.
Sears was alarmed. She had only asked to see his pass.
Then he started pounding on the plexiglass barrier separating her from him.
“I thought the shield was going to break because he was pounding on it so hard,” Sears said.
She immediately sounded an alarm, calling for a supervisor.
Meanwhile, the passenger fled, but not before trying to reach around the shield to grab her.
“I didn’t know whether he was going to pull out a gun or whether he was going to have a knife,” Sears said.
Sears says she was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. She was away from work for two years, as an “uncontrollable” fear of people and her surroundings grew.
The fact a man who made her fear for her life and was never caught “bothered me for quite a while.”
She now works as a night revenue collector and wishes there were more transit enforcement officers.
“It’s not just driving a bus,” Sears said. “It’s putting up with the public.”
Manny Sforza, vice-president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 113, said his members did not sign up for this kind of physical and verbal abuse.
“It is far from being a cushy job,” he said. “They are responsible for the vehicle. They are responsible for everybody on that vehicle.”
Operators cannot leave their seats or retaliate when a passenger threatens them, Budgell said.
“They basically have to sit there and take it, unless they feel the immediate threat of injury,” he said.
TTC Chair Karen Stintz said “we’ve taken a number of measures to protect driver safety, including installing cameras.
“Our new vehicles will also separate the driver from the passengers in an attempt to further ensure their safety,” said Stintz. “We do take assaults extremely seriously and, as I say, we’ve hired a court advocate (Budgell) to help our drivers when they are going to court to make sure they’re represented against the individuals who are charged with assaulting them.”
Stintz said she believes these measures will bring down the number of assaults on the job in the future.
“Absolutely. Our ridership has gone up significantly so the measures we are taking are having a positive impact, but there is more we can do,” she added.
TTC spokesman Brad Ross said those convicted of assaulting TTC drivers and operators will have their names publicized in news releases.
“We always publicize those,” he said. “We issue news releases, we’ve issued quite a few. That really sends a message to those who would consider assaulting our operators, even over a simple $3 fare dispute. People go to jail over this.”
Eric – not his real name – was attacked in August 2011 while working as a subway guard. A man beat him up, yelling, “I kill you!” while trying to smash his head, he said.
The assailant was later caught and sentenced to six months in jail.
But the damage to Eric’s left leg was already done. His quadricep was ripped. He required more than 150 stitches.
Eric, now 50, said he is unable to play with his young daughter or walk his dog.
“(The attacker) should get more, (for) what he did to me,” he said.
While he has returned to operating subway trains, the pain keeps him up at night.
And, the fear of another attack also haunts him at work.
“Anybody comes close – especially at work – I have that fear something’s going to happen.”
— Files by Jenny Yuen
Kicking and screaming passengers are not their only problem. At least one TTC worker has been brutally murdered while others sport bullet wounds or permanent injuries from vicious attacks at work:
The first time a TTC worker was murdered on duty dates back to October 1995. Dimitrija “Jimmy” Trajceski was 54 years old and covering for a collector at Victoria Park station when he was stabbed to death in an attack caught on camera. Adrian Kinkead was subsequently arrested and sentenced to life in prison for Trajceski’s death and two additional murders.
Subway collector William Anderson, 53, was hit with two bullets in February 2012 when a masked gunman – suspected to be a repeat bandit – targeted Dupont station. Anderson was hit in the neck and shoulder but survived.
Bus driver Jamie Pereira was permanently blinded in one eye after a gun was discharged during a fight on his bus in October 2005. Malcolm Chalmers was sentenced to nine years in prison for the assault.
Bus driver Bobby Lowe was hauled from his vehicle and beaten up by two male passengers over a fare dispute in March 2004. The assault resulted in a five-day hospital stay and a knee injury.
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