"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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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."
Also, here are some images of the spur tracks at TTC & MK
Ticket & Transportation Center (scene of the accident)
Full Epcot Track Spur
Magic Kingdom Spur (to Monorail Garage)
Photo source: Microsoft Live Maps