With Sui­cides, Train En­gi­neers Long Haunted by Hor­ror, Help­less­ness

‘You Just Turn Your Head and Wait’

The Washington Post - - Front Page - By Steve Hen­drix

Bruce Evans has learned to look away. Hop­ing to keep his mind free of yet an­other im­age that will linger for a life­time, he has learned to avert his eyes as his train bar­rels down on a per­son on the tracks. In 20 years at the con­trols of Am­trak lo­co­mo­tives, Evans has watched a dozen fatal­i­ties un­fold in ag­o­niz­ing close-up.

“Af­ter the first time you strike some­body, you just turn your head and wait for the im­pact,” said Evans, an en­gi­neer based out of Wash­ing­ton’s Union Sta­tion.

The first one was sit­ting on a quiet stretch of rail near Wel­don, N.C., a man ig­nor­ing Evans’s fran­tic horn blasts, wait­ing for a lo­co­mo­tive roar­ing at 75 mph to end his de­spair. “When I looked in the mir­ror, he was tum­bling in the air, just fly­ing,” Evans said. “I can see it as clearly as if it was hap­pen­ing in front of me right now.”

Col­or­fast men­tal snap­shots of hor­ror, a sense of over­whelm­ing help­less­ness, sym­pa­thy and some­times anger — th­ese are the af­ter­shocks that en­gi­neers and sub­way train op­er­a­tors re­port from their spe­cial perch as un­will­ing agents of sud­den death. Eight peo­ple have jumped in front of Metro trains in 2009, the most in re­cent years, and inches from each of those hor­rific scenes, barely men­tioned in the news, sits a trau­ma­tized driver who will be for­ever en­tan­gled with a stranger’s demise. It is an in­ti­macy none of them sought.

“It’s such a mix­ture of both anger and com­pas­sion, I don’t know

where one ends and the other starts,” said Evans, who es­ti­mates that about half of his fa­tal strikes were sui­cides. “They’re do­ing this to you, too. It’s a hard thing to take home.”

Ac­cord­ing to a Bri­tish study, 16 per­cent of train op­er­a­tors in­volved in fa­tal in­ci­dents de­velop post-trau­matic stress. For some, get­ting right back be­hind the con­trols is the best way to shake off the shad­ows of vi­o­lence. For oth­ers, years of coun­sel­ing are needed be­fore they can re­turn to ev­ery­thing they love about driv­ing a train. Some never do. “Every­one re­acts dif­fer­ently,” Evans, 61, said. He told of a col­league who struck a mother and her four chil­dren on the tracks near Prov­i­dence, R.I., a mur­der­sui­cide. “He never worked again.”

It took Ju­lia Lee, 59, al­most eight years be­fore she could get back in the cab of a Metro train af­ter strik­ing some­one who had climbed down from the plat­form in Rockville in 1988. As she rolled into the sta­tion at 35 mph, a man was re­clin­ing on the tracks, his el­bow rest­ing on the rail.

“I screamed and hit the red mush­room” emer­gency brake, said Lee. “But we were right on top of him. I felt the thump-thump and knew we had hit him.”

Evans re­minds him­self that he is no more to blame in a death-by-train case than sleep­ing pills or ra­zor blades are the cause of other sui­cides. “I’m no dif­fer­ent than a bul­let be­ing shot out of gun,” he said. “I’m just the weapon.”

But the flip side of not be­ing re­spon­si­ble is the dev­as­tat­ing feel­ing of not be able to do any­thing in the mo­ments be­fore im­pact. The driver of a car might at least have the op­tion of swerv­ing out of the way or slam­ming on the brakes. The driver of a train doesn’t steer, and it can take a half-mile or more to stop. Evans has con­di­tioned him­self not to hit the emer­gency brake, a fu­tile ges­ture more likely to in­jure pas­sen­gers or de­rail the train than pro­tect the per­son out front.

“It just doesn’t make much dif­fer­ence if you hit them at 75 [mph], 65 or 55,” he said.

Metro’s wide wind­shields are de­signed to max­i­mize the en­gi­neer’s view. Un­for­tu­nately, that means train op­er­a­tors see tragedy un­fold with widescreen clar­ity, a high-def hor­ror they never for­get. An­other train op­er­a­tor, who asked not to be iden­ti­fied be­cause he was not au­tho­rized to speak to the me­dia, said it was the shock­ing prox­im­ity of a re­cent im­pact that made it im­pos­si­ble for him to drive again for seven months. A woman care­fully timed her jump just as he en­tered the sta­tion at 38 mph; she was air­borne when they made con­tact.

“She hit my win­dow like a bird, spread-ea­gle,” he said. “We’re taught how to re­act, but noth­ing pre­pares you for that sit­u­a­tion.” The woman lived.

Lee, too, said she can clearly see the face of the man on the tracks. “A young black man. I had night­mares for years,” she said. “I dreamed I was op­er­at­ing a train and some­body was walk­ing to­ward me. I would al­ways wake up just be­fore I made con­tact.”

Af­ter sev­eral weeks of of­fice duty, she re­turned to a day­time run on the Red Line. That first day, a train­ing in­struc­tor drove through the Rockville sta­tion and then Lee took over. She was fine un­til they went un­der­ground. “As soon as I hit the tun­nel, I screamed,” Lee said. “I was see­ing that vi­sion of some­one walk­ing to­ward me.”

Lee was out on work­ers’ comp for five years, see­ing a string of psy­chol­o­gists. She started op­er­at­ing trains again in 1996. She plans to re­tire soon.

The worst for her were the hours im­me­di­ately af­ter the hit. As in­ves­ti­ga­tors worked, Lee said, they had her sit on a plat­form bench, where she had a too-close view of the re­cov­ery team ex­tract­ing the re­mains.

The re­sponse of tran­sit sys­tems and rail­roads af­ter a fa­tal strike has changed dra­mat­i­cally in re­cent years, said John Tohman, vice pres­i­dent of the Brother­hood of Lo­co­mo­tive En­gi­neers and Train­men. Al­though some rail sys­tems push work­ers to fin­ish their shifts, most re­lieve them im­me­di­ately, of­fer­ing coun­sel­ing and am­ple time off. The Rail Safety Act that passed Congress last year will en­shrine some of those re­lief mea­sures in fed­eral law.

The op­er­a­tor’s sense of help­less­ness can be worse when the per­son on the tracks doesn’t ac­tu­ally want to die, Tohman said. A train­man he worked with was once cross­ing a long viaduct over a high drop when he saw a young woman in the beam of his head­light. No sui­cide, she be­gan run­ning to­ward the end of the bridge. The en­gi­neer hit the brake but could do noth­ing more than shriek as the gap be­tween train and girl grew smaller.

“She didn’t make it,” Tohman said. “That just blew that poor guy away.”

Some­times the train op­er­a­tor never knows what the vic­tim had in mind: kids play­ing chicken, or cars that speed around the cross­ing gate at the last mo­ment, the mo­torist looking right at the en­gi­neer’s cab.

On one stretch of track near New­port News, Va., Am­trak en­gi­neers are used to see­ing teenagers walk­ing be­tween the rails. Usu­ally, they scat­ter at the first blast of the air horn. But one night, Evans blew and blew as a young man walked slowly along the tracks, away from the train, head­phones in his ears. He never looked around be­fore Evans turned his head, a sec­ond be­fore im­pact. Sui­cide?

“He had to hear me,” Evans said.

Many train op­er­a­tors never en­dure a fa­tal­ity. But to those who do, the fa­mil­iar rou­tines of the track can be­come jar­ring. Evans has stopped mak­ing runs south of Wash­ing­ton, where the at-grade cross­ings rep­re­sent just so many chances for an­other strike. (His daily run to Cum­ber­land, Md., how­ever, puts him back at the Ran­dolph Road cross­ing in Rockville where he once struck two men.)

Sub­way driv­ers said just pulling up to a crowded sta­tion plat­form can set their hearts racing. Which of the com­muters stand­ing too close to the plat­form is about to leap?

“When I’m on a plat­form, I make a point of not mak­ing any sud­den moves when the train is com­ing in,” said Frank King, a union coun­selor who works with trau­ma­tized mo­tor­men in New York’s sub­way sys­tem. “I al­ways re­mem­ber that there is a guy in there who may be hy­per­sen­si­tive.”


Bruce Evans, a Union Sta­tion-based Am­trak en­gi­neer, has seen a dozen deaths: “They’re do­ing this to you, too. It’s a hard thing to take home.”


“It’s such a mix­ture of both anger and com­pas­sion, I don’t know where one ends and the other starts,” said Bruce Evans, a long­time Am­trak en­gi­neer.

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