Subway deaths haunt those at trains' controls

Subway deaths haunt those at trains' controls
Late one December morning in 2005, Tracy Moore was pulling her R train into the Steinway Street Station in Queens. It is a sloping stretch of track, undulating "like a roller coaster," Moore said. She was traveling about 30 miles per hour.

There was a man, maybe 5-feet-3-inches, well coifed in a white shirt and suit jacket. She noticed him immediately, but not in time. He jumped.

The next moment, the man's contact with the electrified rail was all she would be able to imagine when she went to bed over the next six months. She said she was unable to sleep for more than two hours at a time.

"I was always seeing it, you know?" Moore, 45, from Staten Island, said. "I see him alive and ..."

In the last month, the cases of two men who were pushed to their deaths on the tracks have focused attention on the subway system's most harrowing outcome. But for the men and women who operate New York City's trains, these episodes represent an occasion to induct two new people to a grim fraternity with hundreds of members.

With dozens of people jumping and falling to their deaths on the tracks every year, any of the 5 million passengers who ride the city's subway every day can reasonably expect to be driven by someone who has seen, heard or even felt someone perish right in front of them.

Even decades later, the operators say, the images are vivid. The slender fellow in the jacket and tie, bending his knees at the platform's edge. The reveler stumbling on the tracks at dawn, wobbly in her evening best, unable to stagger away in time. An arm reaching up, hopefully, then disappearing in a flash.

"As cruel as it makes it sound, for the individual it's over," said Curtis Tate, a former operator whose train struck and killed a man in 1992. "It's just beginning for the train operator."

In 2012, 55 people died after being hit by subway trains in New York, an increase of eight deaths compared with 2011. This year has already begun on a grisly note. Around 5:20 a.m. on New Year's Day, the police said, a woman believed to be in her 20s lay down on the tracks at West 34th Street and was killed by a northbound train.

Train operators have come to learn certain rules of thumb. Expect about a death across the system per week, perhaps a little less in a good year. Prepare for more around the holidays. (Statistics do not support the idea that suicides go up at those times, but workers say they believe it to be true.)

Operators who go five years without a "12-9" - transit code for a passenger under a train - should count themselves lucky. One operator, Kevin Harrington, 61, said he had recorded "10 or 11" since 1984, one fatal.

If their train kills a passenger, operators are now given three days off. If a passenger is struck but not killed, "it's case by case," said Jim Gannon, a spokesman for the Transport Workers Union. For near misses or crashes with only minor injuries, workers are expected back the next day.

Many workers involved in fatal hits can take months to return if they go on compensated leave while recovering from trauma or other psychological conditions. Some never return to their old jobs at all, seeking transfers to jobs as station agents or other off-track posts, or even retiring if they have already worked many years.

The Transport Workers Union said the operator at the helm during the first shoving case last month - when Ki-Suck Han, 58, died beneath a train on Dec. 3 - had not yet returned to work. The operator at the helm on Dec. 27, when Sundando Sen, 46, was shoved in the path of a train at the 40th Street-Lowery Street station, was back at work on Thursday, the union said.

Dr. Howard Rombom, a psychologist based on Long Island who specializes in fatal subway cases, said an initial hurdle for operators was recognizing they were not at fault. "The train operators understand that there is a possibility in their career that this is going to happen," he said. "It's not an unusual occurrence that makes them special."

Some, including Moore, have attended support groups for operators involved in deaths.

Many patients are also treated using desensitization therapy, Rombom said, particularly if they are unable to return to work quickly. He might first ask patients to enter the subway system, but not necessarily ride a train. Next, he might suggest that they try riding. Then, if the patients are comfortable, they can ride in the front of a train.

Often, some operators said, the trauma does not set in until after the initial procedural steps have been completed.

An operator knows to place the train in an emergency stop. If the train is fully or partially in the station, passengers are allowed to get off. The operator reports the crash to a Metropolitan Transportation Authority command center, which removes power to the rail.

Kevin Ortiz, a spokesman for the authority, said operators were often asked to "observe the results of the impact" - the macabre scene on the track - so they could communicate with first responders about the passenger's condition and begin helping investigators gather information after a death. They are also expected to submit urine tests for drugs or alcohol within two hours.

But at times, this timeline is upended by the operator's psychological state. Mike Casella, 59, from Queens, said that after his train struck and killed a man 25 years ago, the shock of the accident caused him to lose all feeling beneath his waist. Casella was hospitalized for one day.

Others have endured more subtle effects: a slightly missed mark at the station where their crash occurred, where concentration can be elusive; a heightened aversion to teenage passengers who jokingly threaten to push friends from the platform; a keen eye for "platform matadors," as they are known among operators - riders whose heads or limbs lurch above the tracks as the train approaches, only to be pulled away at the last second.

Moore said her sleeping condition compelled her to turn to sedatives like Ambien, despite a longstanding dislike of prescription drugs. She did not return to work for nearly a year.

Less than two weeks after she did, she said, she was operating another train, zipping through a tunnel in Queens at over 30 mph. She asked a supervisor if she could slow down. "He said, 'Ms. Moore, slow down if you want to slow down,"' she recalled.

Moments later, as she pulled the train around a curve, a track worker was looking up at her. He darted to safety just in time.

"If I wouldn't have slowed down, he would have definitely been dead," she said. "Maybe it was my inner sense. God knew I couldn't stand another one of those things. I would have been in the loony bin."

(Wendy Ruderman contributed reporting)
© 2013, The New York Times News Service
Story First Published: January 04, 2013 10:38 IST

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