Two days after a Boston University professor fell to his death on a dilapidated staircase near the JFK/UMass MBTA Station in mid-September, the agency’s top official worried something similar could happen again.
In an e-mail to the agency’s chief engineer, MBTA general manager Steve Poftak asked him to determine if any other structures throughout the system needed immediate attention.
“Do we have any assets in a similar condition that need to be addressed?” he asked. “I’m less interested in assigning causation than I am in avoiding a similar circumstance.”
The short answer? Yes. Consultants had previously found five “public safety hazards/defects” regarding stairs at the JFK/UMass Station alone, according to e-mails obtained by the Globe through a records request. Though it was unclear if those hazards were on the stairs involved in the professor’s death, other records released to the Globe outlined longstanding problems tied to the structure and showed it was previously flagged as needing repairs earlier.
Only two other MBTA rapid transit stations — Hynes Convention Center and State — had as many stairs-related issues flagged by the engineering firm.
The recently released records and e-mails show that several government agencies, including the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, had known about the safety issues and missed several opportunities to fix the stairs that led from Columbia Road toward JFK/UMass Station before professor David Jones’s death, and struggled in the days after to understand how they had been overlooked.
“You’re seeing a systems failure here writ large. You’re seeing bureaucratic finger-pointing writ large,” Brian Kane, executive director of the MBTA’s Advisory Board, said in an interview. “It’s a mess.”
Jones, 40, fell to his death Sept. 11 outside the JFK/UMass Station, prompting both the State Police and the Suffolk District Attorney to open investigations into how the Boston University professor was able to access the closed-off staircase. The metal stairs, rusting for months, were missing several steps near the top and had been closed off with fencing and a barrier since January 2020, officials said at the time.
A spokeswoman for MassDOT, the MBTA’s parent agency, Jacquelyn Goddard, declined to comment, citing an ongoing investigation into Jones’s death.
“The MBTA has a process for regularly reviewing the condition of MBTA assets across stations,” she added.
After the tragedy, it was unclear for days which state agency had oversight of the stairs. An MBTA official initially suggested the structure belonged to the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, while internally, DCR officials pointed the finger at the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and the MBTA. Ultimately, MassDOT said the stairs were its responsibility.
Documents and e-mails show the MBTA occasionally inspected the Columbia Road stairs and was warned by its own employees and riders repeatedly in service requests about its condition.
E-mails among state officials at DCR suggested MassDOT had never filed a permit to make repairs or fixes either. DCR spokeswoman Carolyn Assa did not respond to questions about the e-mails.
Records show that even efforts to keep the signs around the structure updated were never followed up on: An employee in the MBTA customer experience department wrote he had flagged an out-of-date MBTA sign in April 2021 that had said the repair of the stairs would be concluded by the fall of 2020. Yet the sign remained on the structure well into the following year.
The stairs themselves originally belonged to DCR until 2009, when the Legislature reorganized the state’s network of transit, shifting responsibility for major roads to the newly created Department of Transportation.
But while custody of the Columbia Road overpass was transferred to MassDOT, the law did not explicitly transfer the staircase leading to the MBTA’s station below. In the years to come, none of the agencies involved would be sure which held responsibility.
The MBTA received nearly three dozen service requests from 2019 through August 2021 for issues with various stairs at the station. About a half-dozen of those appeared to match descriptions of the Columbia Road staircase, according to an inventory of the records shared with the Globe.
One of the first signs of trouble with the structure to Columbia Road appeared in March 2019, before the stairs were closed. A concerned rider tweeted at the station’s official account saying it and another staircase nearby might be hazardous.
“I walk them every day and they seem to be getting more damaged,” the rider wrote, pointing out sharp and bent surfaces on the stairs. “Would hate for anyone to get hurt.”
What became of the request was unclear. But a brief MBTA facility inspection report in May 2019 graded the visibly rusting stairs as still having “most elements in good repair.”
Seven months later, three metal steps would fall off the structure, prompting officials to cordon off the route and install signs that directed pedestrians elsewhere “while necessary repairs are being made.”
But for more than a year and a half, the structure languished.
In January 2020, the month officials closed the stairs, a service request from an MBTA employee labeled the three missing steps a “tripping hazard.” In March, another request appeared to flag the stairway, noting it was “falling apart, needs repair.” That June, yet another service request said a staircase “has collapsed and has not been repaired in nearly a year.”
The agency’s records show all those service requests were later closed out for unclear reasons, and a spokeswoman did not answer if any were forwarded to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.
Other agencies became aware of the stairs’ condition — but appeared to do nothing either. An inspection of the Columbia Road overpass done by MassDOT in February 2020 said only that the stairway “has been closed to pedestrians since previous inspection.”
At some point in 2020, MBTA workers put up a sign, bearing the transit agency’s logo, that declared the repairs would be done that fall. But that too languished and was never updated.
How and why Jones was able to access the stairs remain unclear. But in the days after Jones’s death — MBTA, DCR, and MassDOT officials scrambled to figure out who was responsible for the structure. DCR, which initially owned it, never received a request for a permit to work on the staircase, according to an e-mail sent by the agency’s deputy commissioner shortly after the accident.
The next day, DCR’s deputy chief engineer Jeff Parenti wrote that the stairway had likely fallen through the bureaucratic cracks among agencies: “I am betting this structure was orphaned after the transfer — not explicitly listed in the documents and no one claimed it.”
Over at the MBTA, an official wrote in an e-mail that the stairs didn’t belong to them either. But it would take days for MassDOT to publicly say the stairs were in their custody.
Jones’s family said in a statement at the time that his death was “preventable.” Michael Harris, a lawyer for the family, declined to comment citing pending civil litigation.
Almost immediately after the accident, transportation officials issued an emergency work order to finally remove the staircase, 20 months after they had first been closed.
They came down the following weekend.