A bus driver who had traveled the world as a touring trumpeter. A veteran railroader with a half-century of service to the Long Island Rail Road, who came to help fix NJ Transit’s rail system. A Depot Master and ordained minister who spent her Sundays off on the pulpit.
COVID-19 has ravaged NJ Transit’s ranks, from drivers to mechanics to a senior vice president, seizing 15 lives to date. Since March, these workers remained in the virus’s path on the front lines, in part so that healthcare workers could travel to hospitals.
Union officials have made several demands to protect workers, like more frequent bus sanitizing, hazard pay, N-95 masks, on-site testing and more. And while NJ Transit has responded, delivering more employee testing locations, the job of train conductor or bus operator remains inescapably dangerous.
While buses and trains will continue to run each day thanks to the bravery of front-line employees, NJ Advance Media is pausing to reflect on those lives the virus claimed.
Joseph Hansen, 62, was a train conductor from Sayreville, who most recently worked on the Raritan Valley Line. The first NJ Transit employee to die from complications related to COVID-19, he was a veteran conductor with more than 20 years of service.
“Joe Hansen was the first member of the NJ Transit family to lose their battle with this invisible enemy,” Kevin Corbett said in a statement. “Everyone at NJ Transit is simply devastated by this tragic and untimely loss.”
Hansen’s widow, Denise, is suing NJ Transit, claiming her husband died because his bosses failed to follow safety measures, violating the Federal Employer’s Liability Act. The suit claims supervisors did not monitor his worksite, failed to perform a task analysis to determine best practices for the job and allowed a dangerous condition to exist.
NJ Transit would not comment on the lawsuit, as litigation is pending.
Kendel Nelson, 51, was a bus driver from Newark, who worked in the Oradell Garage. He worked for NJ Transit for 28 years.
Nelson was a member of ATU local 825 and had been awarded bus operator of the month honors, union officials said.
Nelson was married, had five children and four grandchildren. His wife paid tribute to him on Facebook, writing how he “wore many hats and wore them very well. He knew how to balance it all, he made life look so easy (and) always cared about his family.”
“There is not enough words to describe how great this awesome man was to myself, our family, his friends and anyone that ever crossed his path,” she wrote.
Philip Dover, 61, was a bus driver from East Orange, who worked out of the Orange garage.
The second NJ Transit employee to die of COVID-19, he worked for NJ Transit for 23 years, spending most of the last 10 years on Bloomfield Ave. Lines.
Members of the Amalgamated Transit Union, who worked with Dover, talked about a man who was dedicated to his job and well-liked by his co-workers for his humor and dependability.
“God gave Noah the ark, and he gave Phil that bus,” said Darrell Lampley, vice-president of ATU local 819. “The guy would give you the shirt off his back. You could have a bad day and he’d say something, and you’d say “that’s Phil.”
Dover also had a reputation for being reliable.
“I’ve known him since he started. He was always there for his co-workers and for the union, you could count on him,” said Ray Greaves, ATU International vice-president and an NJ Transit board member. “He gave his life serving the people of New Jersey.”
Raymond P. Kenny, 68, was NJ Transit’s senior vice president and general manager of rail operations, after a 50-year career on the Long Island Rail Road, where he rose through the ranks from ticket clerk to acting vice president.
Equally respected by management, labor and transit advocates, Kenny, of Westfield, will be “deeply missed,” NJ Transit officials said.
“Ray’s reputation and experience in the industry are unparalleled,” Corbett said. “The leadership and incredible wealth of railroad knowledge Ray brought with him has truly made a positive impact on our organization.”
During his tenure, NJ Transit embarked on a hiring and training blitz to give the agency what Gov. Phil Murphy called “a deep bench” of engineers to whittle down the number of canceled trains.
Jerome Johnson, general chairman of UTU local 60, said he looked at Kenny as a big brother.
“He brought honesty and integrity to NJ Transit. He was exemplary for his supervision and, to our members, he made you feel like he cared,” Johnson said. “He understands what the railroad does, he understands both sides (management and labor). He is a person who wanted everything to work.”
Tiran Billups, 65, was the leader of one of NJ Transit’s largest bus union locals.
“Tiran’s passing pulls at all of our heartstrings,” Corbett said.
Billups, a resident of Plainfield, began his NJ Transit career in 1996 as a bus operator at Hilton Garage in Maplewood, and also got involved in the union early on in his career, said Ray Greaves, ATU international vice president and former NJ State Council chairman.
Billups was a delegate on Local 819′s executive board, then became the local’s vice president. In 2017 he was elected president-business/agent for the local and was re-elected in January, Greaves said.
“If you could only pick one person who you could have by your side in a battle, Tiran was that person. He will be missed,” Greaves said.
He was also very active in his church, Greater Refuge Church of Christ in Plainfield, where he was an usher.
In June, Murphy praised him for his commitment, such as personally handing out masks and gloves to union members to make sure they had needed safety equipment to protect them from the coronavirus.
He leaves his wife, seven children, 13 grandchildren, 1 great-grandchild and thousands of labor brothers and sisters, Murphy said.
Luis Marulanda, 63, was a bus operator from West New York, based out of Meadowlands Garage in North Bergen.
He came to America at age 22, providing for his family in Medellin, Colombia. During 9/11, he operated ferries that brought residents back home across the Hudson River, and most recently, he drove buses between Bergen and Hudson counties and the Port Authority Bus Terminal.
Customers and coworkers remembered his warm smile and kind disposition.
“He said hello to everyone, you always saw him with a smile, it didn’t seem like he was ever having a bad day,” Pablo Gonzalez, president of ATU Local 820, said.
A co-worker has a table set up at his garage with his picture, lighting a candle each day for him and another fallen co-worker.
He is survived by two children, two brothers and three sisters.
James Moeschen, 80, was a bus driver from Ridgefield Park, based in the Oradell garage.
“He worked the New York lines out of Bergen County, and was a staple on the 168 Line out of Paramus,” NJ Transit CEO Kevin Corbett said at a board of directors meeting, describing him as beloved by commuters who rode his bus for 23 years.
He leaves behind a wife, two children and two grandchildren.
His wife remembered him as a people-lover, dedicated to helping people.
“He was a very hard working man and he loved his family,” Deborah Moeschen told NJ Advance Media.
She added: “He loved work. He loved his job, he loved people.”
Alfonso Villamarin, 56, was a bus operator from Belleville, who worked in the Orange Garage.
Villamarin started at NJ Transit in 2002, mostly serving customers on the Nos. 21 and 34 routes. He was a frequent recipient of perfect attendance awards, according to NJ Transit.
Born in Ecuador, Villamarin came to New Jersey at age 27.
He continued to take care of family in Ecuador, buying clothes, bringing gifts and supporting his brother with special needs.
“He really shows he cares through action,” his son, Andy Villamarin, told NJ Advance Media.
In his free time, Villamarin loved to garden. His son thinks back on memories of scuba diving with him on a vacation in Cancun.
Lucien Cadeau, 61, was a bus operator from West Orange, based out of Hilton Garage in Maplewood.
Cadeau was originally from Haiti, according to his Facebook profile, and worked for NJ Transit for 21 years.
A frequent recipient of NJ Transit’s perfect attendance award, his family called him hard-working and paid tribute to him on Facebook.
“We love and miss our hard-working father very much,” Cadeau’s family wrote. “It is extremely hard at this time, and we are asking for the lord to bless us with strength. Our father put God first in everything that he did. He had a really big heart and was a very giving individual.”
He leaves behind a wife and five children.
Oscar Morales, 66, was a bus operator from Englewood who worked out of the Oradell Garage.
He worked for NJ Transit for 21 years, primarily serving customers traveling between Bergen County and New York.
Born in Santo Domingo, he lived in Englewood for the last 17 years. In his 20s, Morales toured the world as a trumpeter, traveling to England, Germany, Colombia and other countries playing in various Spanish bands.
“Playing the trumpet was one of his favorite things to do,” his son Omar Morales said.
Omar said his playing was always uptempo and happy, the type of music that would make you want to dance.
And that playful attitude translated beyond his playing.
“My father was very friendly with everybody. He was always kind to somebody, even if they just met him once… he’s very kind, always happy, and he’s always willing to give the shirt off his back to help you out,” Omar said.
Morales is survived by his wife, brother, five children and five grandchildren.
Keith Cruz, 47, was a rail operations maintenance-of-way machine operator from Parlin.
He often trained others because of his proficiency in operating specialized equipment, according to NJ Transit. Cruz spent close to thirty years maintaining commuter rails and was the agency’s third loss to the virus.
Cruz leaves his wife and 10 children. His Facebook features photos of him working on various parts of the NJ Transit system and enjoying New York Islanders hockey games. He was looking forward to becoming a grandfather in August.
“Keith was coming up on his twenty-eighth year (with NJ Transit), he was very well-liked by his co-workers,” Snyder said. “The rail team lost a great guy.”
Aulysse Paul, 46, was a bridge operator from West Orange, who spent nearly 20 years at NJ Transit.
Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, he attended high school in Neptune. He went on to work in the Rail Infrastructure Engineering Department for NJ Transit as well as a security officer for several companies.
In his free time, Paul, as he was affectionately referred to, loved music. He performed as a rapper under the name Lil Paul Olis.
Family members remember Paul for his infectious smile and his love for family.
“This is how I remember my brother: always happy. He’s always smiling, never seen him mad, my brother love life, he love to be around people,” wrote his brother, Joel Paul, on Facebook.
Paul’s willingness to help others extended from the workplace, where he trained new hires, to his personal life.
“Paul’s bravery to report to work daily to NJ Transit as a Roving Bridge Operator, during the outbreak is a representation of his willingness to provide for his family and serve society,” his cousin, Rachel Tomlinson, wrote online.
He is survived by his mother, wife, brother, niece, nephew, Godson, Goddaughter and his extended family.
Michael Paynter, 67, was a bus mechanic from Clementon, who worked in the Newton Avenue Garage in Camden.
“He worked at NJ Transit for 20 years, and was deeply committed to his job,” Corbett said.
He leaves behind a large extended family, including a longtime companion, two children, a grandchild, three siblings, and a host of cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, great-nieces and great-nephews.
A lover of football and bowling, his favorite football team was the Las Vegas Raiders. He loved to plan family reunions and his family considered him the “life of the party.”
“So many stories, a man so full of energy every time we spoke, man you will be missed,” wrote his cousin Andre Paynter on Facebook.
Shanda Stokes, 57, was a depot master at Wayne Garage from East Orange.
She helped manage day-to-day operations at NJ Transit and also served as an ordained minister at the New Psalmist Worship Center in Newark.
Before joining NJ Transit she worked as a licensed beautician, and a love of fashion and jewelry earned her the nickname “Miss Hollywood.”
“Shanda was a very unique extravagant person, one who loved people, loved her family, loved what she did, loved her husband especially,” New Psalmist Reverend Bryant Ali told NJ Advance Media.
Gov. Phil Murphy offered his condolences to her family, saying she was a person who “lived out her faith.”
“She was very unique,” Ali said. “There will never be another Shanda Stokes.”
Gale Neblett, 62, was an accounting clerk in the rail verification department from Orange. NJ Transit said she served a “distinguished” career of 32 years. She died in April.
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