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Published: Monday, 5/5/2014

Drivers use teamwork to help find missing man

Pair steering TARPS buses praised for going extra mile for 80-year-old

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Maureen Wilcheck, right, radioed other TARPS operators after a woman questioned her about a missing man, and Lora  Brooks checked out a West Toledo bus stop she had just stopped at. Maureen Wilcheck, right, radioed other TARPS operators after a woman questioned her about a missing man, and Lora Brooks checked out a West Toledo bus stop she had just stopped at.
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When a woman at a West Toledo church boarded Maureen Wilcheck’s paratransit bus on a recent Saturday evening looking for an 80-year-old parishioner who had gone missing after services, she didn’t just deny his presence and move on.

Ms. Wilcheck put out a radio call to other Toledo Area Regional Paratransit Service drivers in the area, and within minutes, fellow driver Lora Brooks spotted the man, who has a memory impairment and has been identified only by his first name, Thomas, sitting near a bus stop along Sylvania Avenue in the company of two strangers.

Miss Brooks, who had just picked up a passenger at the CedarCreek Church on Douglas Road at Sylvania, said the man’s jacket didn’t quite match what she had heard on the radio, but the rest of the description was close enough that she stopped to check on the situation.

“I asked them did they know him, and they said no,” she recounted. “So I asked him, ‘Is your name Thomas?’ He said it was.”

She persuaded him to come aboard the bus so she could take him back to the church.

“He didn’t fight me or anything,” Miss Brooks said.

Clarence Whalen, who oversees security at CedarCreek’s West Toledo branch, said the TARPS drivers’ diligence “was a key component” of finding Thomas quickly after his disappearance.

The man and his niece had been seated in a lobby at the church when the niece briefly went downstairs to buy something at the church bookstore, Mr. Whalen said.

“When she came back, he was gone,” he said. “We searched in the building, we searched in the parking lot.”

Mr. Whalen said his wife was the woman who boarded Ms. Wilcheck’s bus to see if Thomas errantly had climbed aboard.

“I thought they did a phenomenal job,” he said about the TARPS drivers. “She didn’t have to put it [the description broadcast] out. And the other drivers could have let it go in one ear and out the other.”

James Gee, the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority’s general manager, said agency officials are discussing possible commendations for Miss Brooks and Ms. Wilcheck to recognize their actions.

“That’s what we’re out there every day for, to serve the community — not just passengers but the whole community,” said Jon Elston, the transit authority’s director of paratransit services. Miss Brooks and Ms. Wilcheck are “the kind of people we hope we’re hiring.”

The TARPS service is an operating unit of TARTA that provides dedicated service for people with physical or cognitive disabilities.

Thomas was not scheduled to ride a TARPS bus, and Mr. Elston noted that his branch of the transit system does not carry passengers without advance reservations.

Miss Brooks and Ms. Wilcheck are not the first Toledo bus drivers in recent times to assist local people in need.

On the afternoon of March 23, TARTA driver Robert Caldwell observed a fire at an apartment building along his bus route on Manhattan Boulevard. He reported the fire and stopped his bus to provide shelter for building residents until other aid arrived, Mr. Gee said.

And on March 29, 2013, bus driver Geraldine Mitchell, three passengers, and an off-duty Bryan police officer who happened to be leaving a nearby church rescued a suicidal woman who had hanged herself on the front porch of a house on Delaware Avenue.

Meanwhile, transit authority representatives today are scheduled to participate in a news conference concerning human trafficking in the Toledo area. TARTA is instituting a training program for its drivers to teach them to recognize signs of human trafficking, Mr. Gee said.

Contact David Patch at: dpatch@theblade.com or 419-724-6094.



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