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The latest on the early-morning crash between two Disney monorails

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Walt Disney World Monorail crash

(Photo from Wikipedia.org)

We generally focus only on the fun and exciting news from Orlando’s theme parks and attractions but today we feel its necessary to report on the tragic incident that took place at Walt Disney World early this morning.

Two monorails collided at around 2 a.m. at the Transportation and Ticket Center, which is the hub for Walt Disney World’s transportation system. While the trains were reportedly mostly free of guests due to the late hour, Austin Wuennenberg, the pilot of Monorail Purple (pictured here from his Facebook page), was killed in the the accident. He was a 21-year-old Disney College Program seasonal cast member.

In an official statement, Zoraya Suarez of Disney’s Public Relations told us, “Today we mourn the loss of our fellow cast member. Our hearts go out to his family and to those who have lost a friends and coworker. The safety of our guests and cast members is always our top priority. The monorail is out of service and we will continue to work closely with law enforcement to determine what happened and the appropriate next step.”

Currently, the entire Walt Disney World monorail system is closed pending investigation. OSHA and other law enforcement are on the scene. This is the first fatality on record for the Walt Disney World monorail system since its launch in 1971 and it will likely take quite some time to figure out exactly what went wrong.

The specifics of how the crash occurred are still unknown. It appears that Monorail Purple was stationary when Monorail Pink backed into it. We talked to a former Disney monorail pilot (who wishes to remain anonymous) who spoke with several of the monorail cast members who were working last night.

Every night, the monorails are brought into the shop behind the Magic Kingdom for maintenance. The pilot we spoke with explained that in order to move from the main monorail lines onto the beams that lead into the shop (a “spur line”), the monorails must travel to a switch in the track. The Walt Disney World monorail system does have an anti-collision system built in. However, in order to perform the switch, the anti-collision system must be disabled first.

It appears that in the case of this accident, Monorail Pink should have been on its way back to the maintenance shop and likely had its anti-collision system disabled in order to make the track switch. What is unknown is why the monorail did not follow the spur line toward the maintenance shop and instead headed to the Transportation and Ticket Center, which is located on the opposite side of the track loop from the shop.

The former monorail pilot we spoke to told us that during the anti-collision override stage, the monorails can travel a maximum of 15mph. If Monorail Purple was stationary at the time of the collision, then the two could not have collided at a speed greater than 15mph. If Monorail Purple was moving, the combined speed of both monorails could not have exceeded 30mph.

Monorail Central is located at the Transportation and Ticket Center, within the blacked-out windows guests can see when waiting to board. It is their job to keep track of where the monorails are on the tracks and direct them to their destinations. Unfortunately, as we learned, the cast members within Monorail Central do not have a visual representation of where the trains are on the tracks. Instead, they radio to the pilots to determine their location.

So in this case, we do not yet know if the pilot of Monorail Pink incorrectly reported his or her location, was unaware that he/she did not make the needed switch onto the spur line to head to the shop, or if there was some other factor involved.

On his Facebook page, Austin Wuennenberg, the unfortunate pilot of Monorail Purple, posted a status update on June 9, “has a 14 hr shift today.” On May 30, he similarly posted, “is working Monorails 1:00 to 1:00.” It’s clear that monorail pilots regularly have long work days so fatigue on the part of the pilot of Monorail Pink certainly cannot be ruled out as a possible contributing factor to the crash.

Here’s a round-up of other media covering the story:

One news organization has also posted a video taken moments after the crash but I will leave the link out of this post as it is potentially disturbing for some viewers.

If you have any more information on the incident, please e-mail us at [email protected] or comment below. Feel free to remain anonymous.

Update (7/6/09): The Walt Disney World Monorail system was back up and running today. Inspections made by Disney and OSHA have shown that the monorails are safe to ride. However, no guests are currently being allowed to ride in the monorail cockpits with the pilots.

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14 comments

William Wood July 5, 2009 - 1:30 pm

Very sad, you can feel the grief in the air today… Will be weird at the TTA station in the future knowing this happened there…

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William Jacobson July 5, 2009 - 3:08 pm

This is not the first monorail fatality – there was a grad night student killed on the monorail track at Disneyland in 1966:
http://www.snopes.com/disney/parks/deaths.asp

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Jeremiah July 5, 2009 - 3:29 pm

I would like to congratulate Orlando Attractions on becoming the TMZ of Disney…..how about we don’t start spreading the trash around about something that just happened this morning. If Disney is not putting out the info was it really needed that the poor guys name is put out. Really how would you feel if you were the poor guys family and Disney has not contacted you as of yet. But because some website wanted to drive more traffic to their site the poor family started getting calls telling them that their son died because “systems problems” that was read that is pure speculation from your blog?

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Ricky July 5, 2009 - 3:40 pm

Jeremiah – When I spoke to the Disney representative earlier today prior to posting the above article, she informed me that the pilot’s name had already been released by law enforcement officials and I was free to include it.

Disney has released an official statement on the matter, which I included above, and is currently conducting an ongoing investigation to determine what exactly happened.

We generally do not report on this type of incident but received enough inquiries as to what happened to warrant this post. There are many misconceptions regarding how the monorails operate so the information obtained from a former monorail pilot was in an effort to clear up any confusion there might be.

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Jeremiah July 5, 2009 - 3:58 pm

Ricky – thank you for addressing that. While I did mistype about the name being released, I still do think that you as one of the main “WDW Fan sites” did add fuel to the fire. I will not say you are the only one that does this, there is a DL one that is on the news anytime someone gets sick on a ride, plus in this day and age anyone that has enough twitter followers can be taken as a “news” source. I understand that you are running a magazine and getting new subscriptions is the only way to keep it going, but I do stand by the “TMZ” type reporting statement I made. Was it really necessary to include speculation about how it happened from past Monorail drivers or even worse the info about the poor guys facebook? I don’t want to turn this into a public fight here. I have said my peace and I do give you credit for 1. keeping my post public and 2. responding here also. If you would like any more follow up I think it best done over e-mail.

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Ricky July 5, 2009 - 4:03 pm

Thanks for keeping it civil. I will follow up with you in an e-mail.

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Becky July 5, 2009 - 9:35 pm

Thanks for posting this, Ricky. I wouldn’t have heard about it otherwise, and even though it’s tragic news, it’s good to stay informed. Your comment regarding the late monorail pilot’s facebook status updates seems to suggest that you thought the same thing I did when I heard this, which is that perhaps the cast members are working a little too hard and a few too many hours around holidays and busy seasons. Time will tell what they determine to be the cause of this accident, but I hope that whatever it is, it inspires the company to change so this can never happen again. It just makes me so sad.

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Ashley July 6, 2009 - 8:52 am

By contrast I found this article appropriate and greatly appreciated. In additon to furnishing the necessary groundwork by which a casual monorail fan could successfully process future news releases, it furnished plausible explanations and theories that provided a balm to my festering curiosity. Actually, a certain degree of relief flooded me when the link appeared on the ITM twitter, because (after listening avidly for several years) ITM has acquired an indelible association with both newsworthiness and accuracy. I, too, thank you for the post, Ricky!

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JadeNature July 6, 2009 - 9:30 am

I agree that Orlando Attractions has done a very good job of reporting on this subject responsibly. People are going to discuss a subject like this publicly regardless and at least I know that this is one source that provides reliable information and clearly states when information has or has not been confirmed by Disney. I do feel for Austin’s family and can not imagine how this must be for them, but I hope they feel the outpouring of caring and support from the Disney community and that it gives them some small amount of comfort.

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djdrew July 6, 2009 - 3:48 pm

the link is an update to say they reopened it. : )

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Ryan July 6, 2009 - 11:19 pm

For the record, Austin was not a College Program Cast Member, he was a seasonal cast member who happened to also be in college.

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Ricky July 7, 2009 - 10:51 am

Thanks. I’ve updated the post.

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Orlando Vacation Homes July 7, 2009 - 10:32 pm

Our heart goes out to Mr. Wuennenberg’s family for this tragic accident.

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