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NFTA praises dozens of employees for length of service, safety records; Metro operators, bus drivers honored

The driver of a Metro Rail train who stopped short after a man fell onto the tracks earlier this month was praised for his driving skills on Sunday and he wasn't alone.

Safety and dedication were center stage at the 27th annual Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority Awards Luncheon.

Honors went to a number of drivers who have driven for more than 30 years with the NFTA without an accident, as well as to Metro Rail operator Jose Ramirez, who was praised for his quick actions activating the train's emergency braking system at the Utica Street Station on April 5.

Ramirez was able to slow down and stop the train about 50 feet from where John Ciszek, 59, had fallen onto the Metro Rail tracks and was being assisted by a good Samaritan, Steven Love, 27.

Ciszek, who was in serious condition after the fall, was released from Erie County Medical Center on Friday, NFTA spokesman C. Douglas Hartmayer said at the luncheon.

The incident "shows how observant an [NFTA] operator has to be," Hartmayer said.

Ramirez said drivers must always be alert, not just for people crossing on the street, but also for activity underground.

"You want to pay attention and be able to react, even in the tunnel, in case something happens," he told The Buffalo News. "You could be looking at your radio or taking a call and in that one second, traveling 50 miles per hour, the train could travel several hundred feet before you look up.

"If I was not paying attention, forget it," he said. "[On April 5], the man's white shirt on the track caught my eye."

Ramirez said he was "scared and sweaty" when he stopped and saw how close those involved had come to an accident.

Ramirez, a 40-year-old lifelong resident of Buffalo, said he had driven an NFTA bus route for nine years and started the Metro Rail train this past year.

He wasn't alone in receiving praise. Thirty-seven NFTA employees were recognized during a gathering at Protocol Restaurant in Amherst for 25 years of service. Nine drivers with 30 or more years of safe driving were recognized. Two of those drivers, Larry Hood and Joseph Wojcik, had 34- and 36-year records, respectively.

Jerome Gorski and Carl Nowak, both bus drivers in the Babcock Station, are retiring with 30-year safety records after driving for the NFTA for 35 years.

"Once you get used to handling a bus, it is like roller skating or a bicycle," Nowak said. "You have to try to avoid what is ahead of you."

"Apparently we enjoy what we are doing," Gorski said. "Traffic, weather-wise, it does get in the way once in a while, but you get adjusted. You have to be aware at all times."

Both said the thing they have grown to hate, even more than weather or traffic, is passengers using cellphones.

"My pet peeve is cellphones. They are very distracting. [Some passengers] don't talk quietly, they yell and shout," Nowaki said. "You know their whole life history. Try doing that for six hours a day."

Gorski said, "As a bus driver you become a police officer, a nurse, a psychiatrist and a baby sitter. You need to let it go in one ear and the other. You have to be level-headed and stay calm."

Both men learned that being punctual at the start of their bus routes is a requirement of the job.

"If you are 30 seconds late, you lose your run for the entire day, even 10 seconds," Nowak said. "There is no leeway. They are not trying to be mean. That's the way it is."

"There are people standing out there waiting on you to begin their day," Gorski added.

Both men said, as they retire, they won't miss driving in Buffalo's snowy weather.

"Getting up early and driving in the winter was the worst," Gorski said.

NFTA Executive Director Kimberley A. Minkel praised the remarkable length of service from many employees and called vigilence a key to their many safety records.

"It's a tough job, but it is rewarding," Minkel said. "We have people here who have gone 30 years without an accident, and consider that the average driver drives 22,000 miles each year -- that's pretty significant."

email: nfischer@buffnews.com