Death By Train

Photo Illustration by Saed Hindash/The Star-Ledger
Photo Illustration by Saed Hindash/The Star-Ledger

After all these years, Tom Donovan can’t shake the sound.

“Like hitting a pumpkin,” he says.

It’s the sound of a 400-ton train striking human flesh, a person who, just moments before, had been walking and talking and breathing.

In the sterile parlance of the railroads, such collisions are known as critical incidents. To the men and women who run trains — the engineers who see the faces and hear the sickening thuds — the term hardly does justice to the emotional trauma that follows.

“You’re just at work operating your train. Everything seems fine. And then in a split second, your world changes,” says Donovan, 57, an NJ Transit engineer who works the Morris and Essex line to New York City’s Penn Station. “You see it coming. You know the train’s not stopping, and then the impact occurs. You know that someone’s life has just ended. It’s very traumatic.”

At least 29 people were killed by trains in New Jersey last year. Since 1998, more than 300 have died in the state, according to federal railroad statistics. The number of victims fluctuates from year to year, but in New Jersey, as across the nation, the problem remains a stubborn one, defying safety improvements and industry-sponsored programs that educate the public about the dangers of trains.

Among the New Jersey victims, some used the tracks as a shortcut. Others chanced a crossing when the gates were down. Many committed suicide, a far larger issue than the railroad industry has historically recognized and one it has only recently begun to address. In a study now under way, researchers are delving into the psychological histories of people who killed themselves on the tracks to determine what drew them there.

In most of those cases, an engineer had a front-row view as the horror played out.

“You’re generally the last one to see that person alive, and you’re not prepared mentally or emotionally to see something like that,” says John Tolman, vice president and national legislative representative for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, the union to which engineers belong. “It can be devastating. Some guys can’t go back. They get out of the industry and work in a new occupation.”

Richard Darcy has met a few of those guys. Darcy, general chairman of the BLET committee that represents NJ Transit engineers in New Jersey, says one engineer with more than 10 incidents — a combination of accidents and suicides — could no longer bring himself to sit behind the controls of a train. He left the business.

Over a 40-year career, the average engineer will be involved in five to seven incidents, says Darcy, who has had seven fatalities. “Each one is unique,” he says, “and each one is hard to go through.”

That Awful Sound

Psychological research has shown train engineers involved in fatalities experience many of the symptoms faced by combat veterans: sleeplessness, irritability, depression, anger, panic attacks, nightmares and flashbacks, all of which are consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder. Some seek to dull the pain with alcohol, making a difficult situation worse.

Donovan has seen it all. After his own fatal incident a decade ago, he became a founding member of the union’s critical incident response team, a pioneering peer counseling program that pairs engineers who have recovered from fatal incidents with those who have just experienced them. He’s counseled about 50 engineers. As many as 200 engineers have taken advantage of the program, now a model for others across the nation.

Donovan, the program’s chairman, knows what his colleagues are going through. On a spring day, he was making a return trip from New York, headed toward Dover, when he saw a man on the tracks just east of the Short Hills station. “He was on his hands and knees, with his head down, looking at the ground,” Donovan says. “I had a couple of hundred feet, 200 or 300, when I first spotted him, and within seconds, I hit the emergency brakes and blew the horn, but he wasn’t going anywhere. He was where he wanted to be.”

Time stretched. In his gut, Donovan knew he didn’t have enough room to bring the heavy train to a stop, but he strained at the controls anyway. He estimates at the time of impact, the train was down to 10 mph. Not slow enough to prevent catastrophic damage.

Donovan didn’t learn much about the man. Middle-aged. White. He really didn’t want to know more.

“It makes it easier on the engineer to keep his distance,” Donovan says. “You know he’s a human being. You know he’s got family and friends, and if you become too involved, it makes it harder to go on with your life.”

Donovan had a hard enough time as it was. He took the rest of his shift off and met with a counselor made available by NJ Transit, but he hardly slept those first days. He suffered from flashbacks. When he returned to work, he maintained focus, but every time he approached the Short Hills station, he felt a knot form in his stomach. Worse, he heard that awful sound, just as if it were happening again.

A decade later, he still hasn’t forgotten it.

No Warning

Vincent Siehl has purposefully blotted out the exact date. He doesn’t want it hanging over his head like an anniversary. He thinks it was August 1998. It was dark. His first run of the night up the North Jersey Coast Line, bound for Manhattan.

He’d left Long Branch at 10:40 or so and had yet to make his first stop when he saw something indistinguishable on the track just ahead, near Monmouth Park. Probably debris, he recalls thinking. The wind always kicked debris across the tracks. Just in case, he blew the horn. No response.

It was only in the last seconds that Siehl realized it was a man. Later, he would learn it was a suicide.

“It was all over in an instant,” he says. For that he considers himself fortunate. Some engineers, he says, remain haunted by the faces of the people killed by their trains. Siehl, 45, never got a clear look. He remembers that Oceanport police and NJ Transit detectives who responded to the scene treated him nicely, offering their sympathies. He was thankful, but it didn’t help.

“They try to prepare you for this in the locomotive engineer training program,” Siehl says. “They tell you that when it happens, you’ll feel alone, and I did. I never felt more alone in my life. In the next three days, I don’t think I slept more than half an hour. My kids were young — 7 and 5 — and my wife and I tried to shield them as much as possible, but they knew something was wrong.”

Like Donovan, Siehl received counseling. And like Donovan, he became a peer counselor who has helped dozens of colleagues in the past decade. But the pain, he says, never entirely goes away.

“It’s affected me every day since,” Siehl says. On blustery days, when the leaves skitter across the tracks, he becomes jumpy, hyper-alert for signs of a person where a person shouldn’t be. “Every little movement you see, you think it’s going to happen again,” he says.

Intentional Acts

The railroad industry has made great strides in reducing accidental deaths at railroad crossings. In 1981, 728 people were killed by trains at crossings nationwide. Last year, fewer than 300 died. During the same time period, the number of accidental crossing deaths in New Jersey fell from 13 to 1, according to figures reported to the Federal Railroad Administration, which regulates the industry.

The drop is largely the result of a partnership with Operation Lifesaver, a national nonprofit group formed in the 1970s to promote rail safety. The organization, which has chapters in every state except Hawaii, gives presentations at schools, fairs and community events. New Jersey’s chapter mounted 465 presentations last year, setting up tables at such diverse settings as Devils hockey games, Trenton Thunder baseball games, teacher conferences and model railroad shows, state coordinator Todd Hirt says.

But for all the success in preventing deaths at crossings, there’s been little headway in reducing fatalities among those known in the industry as trespassers. They’re the people who use the tracks as a shortcut, choosing convenience over the safety of a gated crossing; the people who walk or ride their bikes and all-terrain vehicles on railroad property; those who hang out and drink; the addled daredevils who play chicken with speeding trains; the ones who go to end their lives.

A study conducted for the FRA last year found the typical trespasser is a 38-year-old white male who has had too much to drink. Fifty-seven percent of those who died tested positive for alcohol or drugs. Just 13 percent were female. They ranged in age from children to the elderly.

Twelve years ago, the number of trespasser deaths eclipsed crossing fatalities for the first time, becoming the leading cause of death in the railroad industry. In 1975, 442 trespassers were killed nationwide. Last year, it was 458, FRA statistics show. In the years between, the number of trespasser deaths climbed above 500 ten times.

Even those numbers are artificially low. Railroads are not required to report suicides to the federal government. Some have anyway. Some haven’t. And some railroads have been inconsistent about it. It’s an oversight the FRA plans to address later this year, spokesman Warren Flatau says.

“The basic logic of not requiring railroads to report suicides is that they were deemed to be intentional acts, and nothing was going to stop them from doing it,” Flatau says. “We were focused on preventable events, things that can be addressed through safety outreach, engineering, enforcement, enactment of stronger laws, and suicide events didn’t figure into that population. The way this has been viewed has definitely been altered.”

The change could add hundreds of victims annually to the number of dead. The American Association of Suicidology, a suicide-prevention group based in Washington D.C., is in the third year of a five-year study for the FRA on people who intentionally end their lives on the tracks. In one 12-month period — June 1, 2006, to May 31, 2007 — the group found 354 such deaths, a figure the researchers say is probably an undercount because questionable cases were left out.

“Something moves these people to end their lives in front of a train, and we need to figure out what that is,” says Karen Marshall, the association’s director of program development, who is overseeing the study. “If we can understand it, we can try to prevent it.”

There is an obvious reason, of course. A train is a merciless and efficient killer.

“The unfortunate thing is that most of the time it’s successful, and that’s why people continue to do it,” says Hirt, the state coordinator for Operation Lifesaver. “If it didn’t have that effect, I guess they would go someplace else.”

But Marshall wonders if there’s more to it.

Researchers on her study are conducting psychological autopsies on 60 of those who took their own lives on the tracks in 2006 and 2007, interviewing family members, friends, neighbors and co-workers.

“The only thing I can say is that in the first few case reviews, the eyebrows go up and you say, ‘Wow. Something stands out,'” she says.

Because the inquiry won’t be completed until year’s end, Marshall would not go into detail about the early findings, but she says she expects them to be “very valuable.”

Sometimes A Miracle

On the afternoon of Feb. 11, 2001, a 34-year-old woman stood on the edge of the Chestnut Street rail overpass in Elizabeth. As a train approached, she waved to the engineer, visible through the front window. Then she pulled her hood over her head and leaped onto the tracks.

The woman’s final moments are captured in detailed records maintained by NJ Transit. The records, combined with a review of published reports, show that people who commit suicide by train come from all walks of life and all age groups.

In just the past decade, they have included an accountant, a chiropractor, a victim of a pedophile priest, a coach accused of inappropriately touching a student, a deadbeat dad who owed thousands in child support, a college senior days before graduation, a community activist, a high school student, a young couple unable to quit drugs and a model train enthusiast once honored by the state Senate for his charity work.

Sometimes there’s no stopping them. A 92-year-old widower who was pulled from the tracks in Spring Lake and hospitalized in August 2001 returned four months later. He died there.

In March 2002, a 28-year-old woman with a history of suicide attempts walked in front of a train in Bergen County, following in the footsteps of her father.

A few cases are even harder to digest. On a drizzly morning in December 2002, a 33-year-old housewife strapped her infant daughter into a stroller and walked to the Ho-Ho-Kus train station. There, she picked up the 7-month-old girl and climbed down to the tracks.

Donovan, the NJ Transit engineer, was approaching the station on the eastbound side when the report came across his radio. A westbound train had struck a woman and a baby. When Donovan brought his train to a stop, he spotted the pink-clad child in the snow, far from where her mother lay dead.

“I knew I had to get down there and pick that baby up,” he says. “My fear was that the baby was going to be in pieces.”

His horror rising, Donovan ran to the girl and held her.

She was crying.

“Hearing that sound, it was relief more than anything else,” he says. “She had a little scratch on her face. That was really the only damage.”

He calls the incident a “tragedy and a miracle all rolled into one.”

“The mother made her own choices, and the baby wasn’t able to do that,” he says. “She lived, and that’s the miracle part.”

He says he often wonders how she’s doing.

Scores of cities and towns in New Jersey have been touched by deaths on the rails. They occur on commuter and freight lines, from the state’s congested north to its rural south. No community, however, has seen more of it in recent years than tiny Garfield, a working-class city of 2.1 square miles, 30,000 people and four rail crossings. Since 1998, 17 people have died there. Wary engineers know the short stretch of track as “suicide alley.”

“It’s certainly not a title we relish,” City Manager Thomas Duch says. “It’s a very unfortunate circumstance.” To cut down on the likelihood of people crossing where they shouldn’t, several years ago NJ Transit installed about a mileof fencing between the eastbound and westbound tracks, Duch says. It’s been more difficult to address suicidal behavior.

He says Garfield officials try to ensure residents know about the city’s social services, including counseling that’s available even to the uninsured.

“We try to provide an appropriate network to prevent social problems,” Duch says, adding with a note of regret: “In many cases, these problems are not brought to light until it’s too late.”

Ever Vigilant

The United States is shot through with 140,695 miles of railroad track, according to the Association of American Railroads. In New Jersey, NJ Transit trains alone travel on 996 miles of tracks.

For decades, the railroad industry and the government have considered how to prevent deaths on such an enormous network. No one has come up with a perfect answer.

Beyond making a big investment in safety education, the industry and government stress that railroads run on private property and people who wander onto it will be ticketed for trespassing.

Fencing has met with mixed results. In many spots, trespassers simply cut through it, says Flatau, the Federal Railroad Administration spokesman. He argues it also remains an impractical solution given the huge distances involved. Even engineers, who want to avoid fatalities perhaps more than anyone, say building fences along every mile of track in America isn’t likely to work, particularly when suicides are taken into account.

“If someone is determined, what can you do? Absolutely nothing,” says Darcy, the engineers’ union chief. “There are so many opportunities. It can happen right at a station. It’s unfortunate.”

And so men like Donovan keep watch as they ride the rails, scanning for movement, attentive to distant shapes on the tracks, hopeful it never happens again.

“I don’t think you become callous to it,” Donovan says. “I imagine it would still be the same trauma and the same feelings of hopelessness and sadness. Whether the next one is easier to get over, I can’t say. I have to cross that bridge when I come to it.”

Rail deaths in N.J.

Includes NJ Transit, Amtrak, PATH and freight railroads. Excludes NJ Transit routes in New York.

2008- 29
2007- 27
2006- 33
2005- 23
2004- 31
2003- 35
2002- 33
2001- 37
2000- 29
1999- 22
1998- 29
Total ’99-’08- 328

Deaths by town
New Jersey communities with the most rail fatalities, 1998-2008
(NJ Transit only).
Garfield- 17
Newark- 11
Paterson- 10
Red Bank- 9
Morristown- 7
Asbury Park- 7
South Orange- 6
Spring Lake- 6
Plainfield- 6
Elizabeth- 5
Elmwood Park- 5
Fair Lawn- 5
Long Branch- 5
Middletown- 5
New Brunswick- 5
Orange- 5
Atco- 5

*The year-to year and total figures should be considered a minimum because some railroads have not consistently reported suicides. SOURCE: NJ Transit, Federal Railroad Administration

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(This story ran in Inside Jersey magazine on June 18, 2009. It won an Eddie Award, a national contest administered by Folio magazine)

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