John Benson, who recently helped a woman who was stuck on railroad tracks to safety, works in the Easy Does It shop, which has since moved, in 2017. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

It was the first call John Benson fielded that morning.

A woman using a wheelchair, the dispatcher told him, had broken down on the railroad tracks, near Hearst Street, in West Berkeley.

Benson runs a wheelchair repair shop through Easy Does It, an emergency service provider for Berkeley residents with physical disabilities. When he’s not patching up equipment or organizing recycled parts at the shop, Benson responds to calls for assistance from people who’ve run out of batteries or gotten flat tires.

Benson said he did not immediately take in the urgency of the situation when he got the West Berkeley call on Wednesday, June 6. He serves many people, including many homeless clients in that neighborhood, with various needs, and he took his time gathering his tools and picking up his work van.

But when he arrived in the area, he saw a group of men frantically trying to help the woman, whose wheel had gotten stuck in a groove on the tracks between Second and Fourth streets. As Benson ran over, he could hear a train rapidly approaching.

The woman was trying to drive off the tracks, but her battery had also come unplugged. Benson could see that the chair had to be put into “free wheel” mode, which allows it to be pushed, instead of driven. But the men who were trying to help didn’t know that. They spoke Spanish and the woman English, so they hadn’t been able to communicate, nor was anyone likely calm enough to think completely clearly. On top of that, the woman had many bags with her, which were covering the free-wheel lever, Benson said.

“When I got there I saw exactly what was happening, but I couldn’t get it into free-wheel because of the bags,” he said.

As the lights came on around the tracks, and the train’s whistle grew louder, he began flinging her belongings off the chair.

“I was able to plug the batteries back in, and she was able to drive off the tracks” — just in the nick of time, Benson said. They turned around a moment later and watched the train run over one of the loose bags on the track.

The woman who’d wheeled herself to safety sat stunned, with her mouth open, Benson said. “A full minute later, she was like, ‘Oh lordy, thank you so much,'” he said. The men cheered.

Benson stuck around for a minute, advising the woman on where she could go to charge her battery, which was running low. According to Benson, the woman was living in the homeless encampment on Second Street — which happened to be cleared out by the city later that day. As more coffee shops and libraries are putting covers over outlets, or prohibiting long-term usage, it’s gotten more difficult for Benson’s homeless clients to keep their wheelchair batteries charged, he said. Another West Berkeley camp that had set up a solar-panel system was also dismantled, by Caltrans, that same afternoon.

Some homeless campers have moved right next to the West Berkeley railroad tracks, June 2018. Photo: Citizen reporter

Since the Second Street camp was taken down, some of the former residents have moved even nearer to the railroad tracks, which are owned by Union Pacific. Some have set up tents close enough to the tracks to cause alarm among some people who’ve contacted Berkeleyside about the safety hazard.

Easy Does It: “We prioritize, we triage”

After the eventful morning, Benson went off to his next client, Jenny Kern. “My eyes were lit up” recounting what had just happened, he said.

Kern notified Berkeleyside about what she called the “amazing and harrowing true story.”

Berkeleyside has been trying to locate the woman who got stuck on the tracks since the day of the incident, but has been unable to find her. Benson hasn’t been able to track her down again either.

Easy Does It dispatcher Rosa Genet confirmed she received a call from a bystander who alerted the organization that the woman was stuck on the tracks. The organization often does not have homeless clients’ information on file, since they may not have phones or may not be charged for a particular service, she said.

Unfortunately, both Genet and Benson said, life-or-death situations are not unusual in the Easy Does It universe.

“We’re so used to things like this,” said Genet, who began working for the organization in 2002, initially as a caregiver. “We prioritize, we triage. After all, we are an emergency service.”

Michael Johnson (left) and Ricky Hopkins, clients of Easy Does It, hang out by the North Berkeley Senior Center on June 19. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

But the dispatcher said the train-track call was especially nerve-wracking for all involved. About an hour after she’d relayed the call to Benson, Genet began worrying.

“I said, please Lord, please Lord,” she recalled.

Finally, Benson “called me, sweating and so tired. He said, ‘Oh my God, we got her out right on time.’ It was scary,” Genet said.

Easy Does It was started by disability rights activists in the 1990s, and is partially funded by a Berkeley property improvements tax for emergency assistance for severely disabled residents. The nonprofit provides emergency attendant care, transportation and repairs to any residents who need it. As the city’s homeless population has grown, so too has Easy Does It’s homeless clientele, which has some unique needs.

Michael Johnson is an Easy Does It client who had been living in tent at Ohlone Park when he was attacked by another man, he said. One day he woke up and found he couldn’t stand up. A friend turned him on to Easy Does It.

“I gave them a call and they were there in a couple hours,” he said.

Now Johnson sleeps at a Berkeley shelter, which he prefers, and is using a loaner wheelchair from Easy Does It while he waits to get fitted for a brand new one, he said. He estimates he’s used Easy Does It’s services “a couple dozen times” since he got the chair at the beginning of the year.

“The service is awesome — and the kindness,” he said.

Sometimes Johnson has called the nonprofit in emergencies, and other times to set up transportation to an appointment, or for a less urgent repair.

“We have easy days,” Genet said. “Some are complicated. Especially with people who are nonverbal, they require a lot of help. But with most of our clients, we’ve gotten to know them, and I like what I do. It’s fun — and at the same time a lot of pressure.”

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...