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Setting a new standard

As she ran down the Williamsburg Bridge along with thousands of other New Yorkers, Cheryl Kennedy stole a look behind her. She could see the World Trade Tower’s Twin Towers burning in the distance.

NYC street view

While many were fleeing the area, Kennedy was desperately trying to return to her office in Brooklyn, where she would spend the night with other New York City’s Transit Authority (NYCT) officials, devising a plan to safely resume operations of the suspended subway system. In the ensuing days, planning would also need to begin on rebuilding the damaged lines by the World Trade Center.

As vice president of the NYCT, Kennedy oversees the Office of System Safety for the largest transit property in North America, one that carries more than two billion passengers a year and encompasses more than 70 miles of track.

Word Trade Center Attacks

September 11, 2001

The former Mountaineer basketball player and 1982 Safety Management graduate is tasked with the daily safety of NYCT’s 8 million bus and rail passengers as well as its 46,000 employees. Additionally, Kennedy is the federal, state and local safety contact charged with oversight of the organization and its unions.

Kennedy and her 93-person staff ensure that safety is integrated into all operations — including occupational safety, environmental safety, fire safety, accident investigations, hazard analysis, safety audit programs and performance indicators for customer and employee safety statistics.

She first earned a B.S. degree in physical education from WVU’s College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences (CPASS) in 1981 before securing her master’s degree in safety management. Thirty-four years ago, she responded to an NYCT employment ad in the New York Times. Five promotions later, she still enjoys the challenges and pressures that come with a top management job in the world’s largest transit system.

“My job is so diverse,” says Kennedy. “I deal with many different safety issues, and I’m not stuck in one area … There are so many different things to get involved in and make it interesting.”

On that unforgettable day in the nation’s history nearly 15 years ago, Kennedy was in Manhattan for a meeting. “We saw something on the news and thought that a small plane might have hit the Tower. But then it became apparent what was happening.”

With the NYCT operations team immediately shutting down the subway, Kennedy had to make her way through the throngs back to headquarters — safely.

“There were people all over the streets,” she says. “People were running from Manhattan to Brooklyn. I walked across the bridge with thousands of people. It was unbelievable. The phones would not work, but I was able to use our Nextel system to talk to my staff as I was going across the bridge. One of our employees met me on the other side and took me to the Brooklyn office.”

The management team spent the next 24 hours sequestered at the office — the exact time that the system was down. There was extensive damage to one of the tunnels at the World Trade Center, and, subsequently, part of the subway line near Chambers Street was shut down for more than a year.

“We were tying to figure out when we were going to reopen — how we were going to get the system back up,” says Kennedy. “I had to make sure our employees had the personal protective equipment that they needed when they were working there. It was a lot more on the occupational and environmental side of safety ... we had to identify — are we going to be exposed to asbestos or what when we go in there?”

“She’s a powerhouse,” said Carmen Bianco, president of the NYC Transit System and Kennedy’s boss until his recent retirement. “I would describe her as the most technicallly-versed person in the profession. She is that grounded. She has a handle on things from design to the end of whatever you are doing.”

Hurricane Sandy Aftermath

October 22 – November 2, 2012

Natural disasters such as 2012’s Hurricane Sandy provided yet another challenge, as sections of the subway system were shut down for more than a year.

Kennedy’s office had provided the analysis on how to best repair the tunnel. The question: shut it down for 13 months or only on weekends for a period of years? “We chose the option to shut down completely,” says Kennedy. “In the end all the asbestos, an occupational hazard, was removed, the work was completed and it reopened on time.”

“She’s a pro,” said Bianco. “When I was president, I spent little time worrying about her department.” During her career, Kennedy has overhauled outdated repairs and maintenance procedures in favor of providing a safer environment for employees. She implemented a system to take larger sections of track offline and do more intense and productive work. She has also made it safer for the transit customer, implementing platform safety programs and customer awareness programs in order to curtail and eliminate incidents on the system.

Today, customers can press a button to instantly reach the command center when help is needed. And a Customer Awareness program that includes announcements and posted “Help Points” are meant to increase safety and decrease incidents. And in 2014, Kennedy investigated a controversial train derailment in Queens and published her findings after the months-long investigation.

Kennedy’s love for WVU began when she stepped on campus in 1977 as an 18-year-old, and along the way she has converted most of her family to the gold and blue. Five years after his big sister enrolled, brother Doug, now a police officer in upstate New York, joined her on campus.

Donald and Elizabeth Kennedy, Cheryl’s parents, also fell in love with the University over the eight years their children were in school. After their children graduated, they continued to make the six-hour trek from New Jersey to Morgantown for Mountaineer home football games and quickly made lifelong friendships with other fans.

Even as she was climbing the corporate ladder, Kennedy found time to sneak away to WVU on football weekends with her husband, Mike, and daughter, Kelly.

In 2012, Kelly became a member of the WVU family, spending two years on campus and receiving a master’s degree in sports management from CPASS. Last year Kelly became the first Kennedy family member to make Morgantown her permanent home, joining WVU Trademark Licensing as a full-time program coordinator.

Sports has always run deep with Kennedy, who walked on to the women’s basketball team in 1977 and played two seasons.

“The role of sports helped me tremendously in managing people,” she says. “As I was promoted into managerial jobs, the skills that I developed playing on sports teams truly translated much more than you would ever think. You eventually figure out where your employees are weak and where they are strong. Knowing how you can help them is more useful as you get higher in the corporate world, “ she said. “Likewise, safe and reliable transit service to customers only comes about when you function as a team. Whatever I do affects the organization. The value of being united on a team toward the same goal — that really helped me in my career.”

The Safety Studies program at WVU, which moved from CPASS to the College of Engineering and Mineral Resources in 1991, also prepared Kennedy for the high-pressure scenarios that she has encountered during her career. “WVU helped me to have the mindset of looking at a problem and analyzing it — looking at the big picture and figure out how to manage it.”

It’s safe to say that Kennedy learned her lessons well.

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