BART Station Agent Called a Hero for Role in Locating Missing Young Man with Autism

May 20, 2014 11:19 am · 33 comments


A BART station agent is being hailed as a hero by the mother of a young man with autism who became separated from a group taking BART on an outing with a day program for people with disabilities.

The following information is from BART:

John Buitrago was on duty as a station agent at the Pittsburg/Bay Point Station on May 7 when a dispatch came from BART Police saying that the 24-year-old man with autism did not get off the train at Walnut Creek with the rest of his group, and asking agents to be on the lookout for him.

The mother, Stephanie Jacob of Pleasant Hill, said she was worried sick about her son, Ben, who is developmentally disabled and autistic.

“I was afraid I might never see him again,” she said. “He is very unobtrusive and non-verbal. He would never ask for help. It really took a special person to notice him. I shudder to think what would have happened had Mr. Buitrago not been on duty that day. He is most definitely my hero. He saved my son.”

Buitrago, who himself has a child with autism, said he knew how devastating such an event could be and began to look around as soon as he got the dispatch.

“I told my coworker I would take a look around the station,” he said. “First I looked inside, and I didn’t see him,” he said. “Then I went outside to the big bus area to see if I could spot him, and sure enough, as soon as I looked out there, I noticed. Many people with autism have a distinctive movement to them, it’s like a pacing and holding tight to their bodies, and I just knew that was him.”

As Buitrago came closer, along with a BART Police officer, Buitrago approached Ben quietly to assess his level of readiness to engage.

“I just walked up to him and said, ‘Hi, is your name Ben?’ “ he recalled. “I put out my hand to shake his, to see if he would respond, or pull away. He shook my hand, and I said, ‘Your mom’s looking for you, why don’t you come and we will just put a chair outside my booth for you to wait.”

“It really affected me,” said Buitrago, who has been a station agent for 16 years. “I have a daughter with autism and I know it is a parent’s worst nightmare that they could be missing and you don’t know how to find them.”

“You just do what a father would do,” he said. “As a father of a child with autism, you know they can be lost in their own world. You have to communicate differently.”

“We are proud of John and the role he played in helping locate Ben,” said Paul Liston, assistant chief transportation officer for the Pittsburg/Bay Point and Richmond lines. “Our station agents are really unsung heroes because they help people every day but this is a case of going above and beyond the call of duty to make a difference in a family’s life.”

Jill Escher, board president of the Autism Society/San Francisco Bay Area, called Buitrago’s actions outstanding.

“This could have ended in tragedy,” she said. “Wandering or staying at a distance is very common and many people with autism don’t have a sense of safety, they may run into traffic. It comes down to a social-behavioral deficit.”

“Everybody working in the public safety sector and public transportation sector should understand that the autism population in the Bay Area has absolutely exploded, and we must take affirmative measures to understand these people and recognize when they might be lost,” she said.

Escher urged members of the public to be aware if they notice a person pacing, making strange gestures, or appearing lost, and not assume that the person is involved in criminal or dangerous behavior. As more and more police officers and other fresponders are being trained in recognizing persons with conditions such as autism, calling 911 is another way to access resources, she said.

“Maybe this is someone who has autism,” she said. “We need to expand our presumptions about differences in behaviors and recognize it may be someone who needs help. Don’t assume someone else is going to do it.”

You can find out more about autism resources at the group’s website:

Atticus Thraxx May 20, 2014 at 11:31 AM

Bless him for doing the right thing, but hero?

BLS May 20, 2014 at 11:38 AM

Your a real ture hero John Buitrago. 🙂

Gman94521 May 20, 2014 at 11:41 AM

To be a parent of a child with special needs, even if that child is an adult, you always worry that something might happen to your child, no matter how good the caretakers are.
Thank you so much to John Buitrago for being cognizant and WANTING to help find Ben. Too many people would just “let” someone else find him.

Eat food May 20, 2014 at 11:42 AM

Sorry, but why are we saying he is a hero when all he did was do his job?

Cowellian May 20, 2014 at 11:48 AM

None of my kids have autism, but there have people in each of their lives that went out of their way to help them at one time or another. And as a parent, I consider all of those people to be heroes.

rkt88 May 20, 2014 at 12:02 PM

Yay – great success.

+1 for community and helping each other.

marinemom May 20, 2014 at 12:25 PM

I am always glad to read of someone stepping up to go the extra mile to help.
More people should try it.

Cici May 20, 2014 at 12:27 PM

I have seen John before at BART Nice man with a kind heart.
He is a hero to this Mother and her family and that is what counts.

Anon777 May 20, 2014 at 12:37 PM

Kudos John!

A lot of people could have heard that notice but not paid any attention, or thought they might “keep their eyes open”. John went out and really looked for this kid and that’s what puts him a step above the rest.

Anonymous May 20, 2014 at 12:44 PM

Hero to the mother and that’s what counts.

t mom May 20, 2014 at 12:46 PM

what a nice thing for him to do

Community May 20, 2014 at 12:53 PM

@Eat Food

No it’s not actually his job to leave the station and look around for this person. His job is to help people within the station. Often times station attendants go out of their way to help people. Sometimes in medical situations or like this a lost person. I think to often we want to judge people automatically. I’m sure there’s bad station attendants just like theres bad teachers cops and every other profession. Why can’t people appreciate when someone does something good. I appreciate this person gong out of their way. I don’t work for BART but a few years ago my elderly mother fell on the escalator at BART and was hurt seriously. The station attendant stayed with her and comforted her until medical came. My mother said the attendant didn’t leave her side and made her feel safe until help arrived. We all need to look out for each other!!

Geezer May 20, 2014 at 1:22 PM

To say that John was just doing his job is a huge disservice to an incredible act of compassion and understanding. 1. As a station agent he was not required to go looking for Ben, much less outside the station gates by the bus area. 2. Nothing required him to observe and understand the subtle difference that Ben showed. John did go above and beyond, an should be recognized as a hero for his powers of observation, and the understanding way in which he worked with Ben to get him to wait for help. Here Here to John!!!!!

ClayDen May 20, 2014 at 1:33 PM

To use a Navy term: Bravo Zulu!

Over/Under May 20, 2014 at 1:36 PM

How long before BART fires him for leaving his booth? Wasn’t there another station agent fired for helping some poor kids get to school on BART with the leftover fares on BART cards?

BART has such a big heart, this great guy will probably lose in the end somehow.

Dwight Schrute May 20, 2014 at 2:30 PM


His job does require him to monitor the area inside and outside the station…he is the agent for both in and out of the station

Connie Dobbs May 20, 2014 at 2:57 PM

Yeah, hero. For sure. Imagine the hilarity that would ensue once the cops picked him up for disturbing the peace.

Bob May 20, 2014 at 3:00 PM

“I’m sure there’s bad station attendants”


“1. As a station agent he was not required to go looking for Ben, much less outside the station gates by the bus area.”

Wrong — read this “and began to look around as soon as he got the dispatch”

He did a good job as we would expect them all to do– it was great he had compassion & experience in this area.

57 Chevy May 20, 2014 at 3:36 PM

He did the right thing. As a parent and decent human being, he went the extra mile. To the family, he saved their son.

Another PH Resident May 20, 2014 at 4:58 PM

I remember Ben from CPHS. He was a very quiet and sweet kid. I think the issue may be more about him being developmentally disabled than autistic. The fact that he was left by himself would be very worrying for his mom and family.

Glad he was found unharmed. I don’t think a station agent looking around for Ben was “just doing his job”. It seems like he went the extra mile to find him. Nice Job!

Mom of 2 children with autism May 20, 2014 at 6:09 PM

John, what a kind deed to seek out Ben & approach him in the way he could understand you. You kept him safe & I am sure his family was so relieved. Fantastic community member & BART employee 🙂 God Bless you all.

Mark May 20, 2014 at 6:24 PM

Nice job.

AUTISM SPEAKS May 20, 2014 at 6:34 PM


Dr. Doc, PHD May 20, 2014 at 6:35 PM

That is not heroism. It’s a civic duty that everyone should be doing.

‘The word ‘hero’ has been misused and misapplied as of late.

JL May 20, 2014 at 6:52 PM

Thank you John Buitrago for finding Ben and being considerate of Ben’s disability. I too have a son with autism and it scares me to think what could have happened to Ben if Mr. Buitrago was not so diligent. Thank you!!!

Atticus Thraxx May 20, 2014 at 7:45 PM

It just may be that some have a higher threshold for the term. It was my kid he’d likely fit the bill. Whatever, it don’t matter what I think. The important thing is Mr. Buitrago is a man of substance and helped, not as much as could be asked, but as much as it took to find Ben. A good example for all of us.

Ancient Mariner May 20, 2014 at 8:57 PM

This isn’t just a man.
This is a MAN.

Menegene May 20, 2014 at 10:11 PM

As a parent, one with special needs, specifically autism, THANK YOU!! Knowing there are other caring parents out there is great!!

@ Eat Food May 21, 2014 at 8:42 AM

He went above his call of duty, dude. Most BART workers would not even bother trying to look for a lost person, let alone someone with autism. They would have just called it into the local police, and then gone about reading their magazines,etc.

Glad to see someone step up and do something proactive to help out a lost person.

lizzy May 21, 2014 at 9:21 AM

Terrible thing how that happens sometimes, kudos for stepping up!

Mimi (original) May 21, 2014 at 11:30 AM


Basel May 21, 2014 at 8:38 PM

Hey boys and girls, stop whining as to who is a hero. At the end of the day, the mother of that precious son was able to safely tuck him into bed and the station agent went home with no one injured or lost on his shift. The bottom line – everyone is safe and happy. Put yourself in that mother’s shoe – or walk a mile in her shoes.

smc626 May 29, 2014 at 8:41 PM

Very much a HERO – he went above and beyond, and no one will ever know what COULD have happened if he hadn’t found the young man. THANK YOU for caring!

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