November 20, 2016

A Death on the Tracks

(see original here), November 20, 2016

The 1 train slowed down as usual upon entering the Times Square station on Monday, November 7th, at 1:20 p.m., but then it braked so hard that those of us standing stumbled to keep our balance. The doors didn’t open. Outside, on the platform, people moved in various directions instead of waiting for the train. Transit workers in orange vests arrived, running. I watched through the windows of the second car. The workers shone their flashlights onto the track between my car and the front car. Next we saw a policeman put handcuffs on a woman, behind her back. Nobody speculated out loud about what might have happened.

We could see riders exiting the third car. Our doors opened a few minutes later. Most people left the area but I stayed behind, wanting to know what was going on. One policeman was asking around, “Did anybody see anything?” Another policeman spoke urgently to two young Asian women, one of whom apparently had seen something: she was flushed and kept putting her hand over her face. Other people were saying out loud what I’d begun to suspect: “That woman pushed her. It looked like she went under the train.”

More transit workers arrived in orange vests, then more police, and finally a lot of firefighters. Policemen started trying to clear the remaining passengers from the platform. “Let’s go, folks, there’s nothing to see,” one shouted, but in fact there was a lot to see. Firemen were soon sliding between the first and second cars of the train, down onto the tracks. They had flashlights, toolboxes, and lengths of wood. The area was noisy with people but not with trains; the trains had all stopped running.

I walked up the stairs with a blind man; we were about the last to leave. He said it sounded as if somebody fell in front of the train and I agreed. But neither of us knew for sure, because nobody official would say it out loud. This is the way of officialdom around accidents, as we know. Employees usually don’t want to talk. Though I apparently had been just a few feet away from a terrible accident, I walked away knowing nothing for sure.

In the tunnel to the N and R train, I called my wife. I told her it reminded me, in a miniature way, of 9/11: emergency workers streaming in, a near certainty of death, but no immediate way of corroborating anything.

I didn’t tell other people. I went to work and tried to think about other things. I Googled “Times Square subway accident,” and for a while nothing new came up. I checked my transit app, which advised me that I.R.T. service had been disrupted “due to an unauthorized person on tracks at 42 St—Times Square.” Then it became news. First NBC New York, and then everyone else, reported that police said a woman had pushed another woman to her death on the tracks. Eventually, the pusher was named, although she hasn’t yet pleaded guilty. According to police, she had tried to take credit for a suicide on the tracks last month. On the Web, NBC had no video of the incident, only an aerial still of emergency vehicles clustered around an entrance to the subway. I could have taken pictures from a lot closer than that, I thought. But I hadn’t wanted to.

The next morning, I was waiting for the 6 train at Grand Central. A transit worker stood on the platform there, as per usual during busy hours, waving his flashlight at the train conductor when it was safe to close the doors. On his jacket it said Platform Controller. I asked him, “Got a second?” He nodded. I began, “So I was on a train at Times Square yesterday, the one that hit that lady.” I didn’t need to say another word; he had been there and wanted to talk about it, too.

He had been leaving the Times Square station with co-workers at the end of their shift when a 12-9 came over their radios from the operator of a train. Code 12-9 means a passenger has gone under a train, he explained. And she was shoved hard. I asked about the operator and the sudden braking and he said it was all automatic: when she tumbled onto the track—he used a tiled pillar to demonstrate where the front of the train had struck her—it triggered a sensor that activated the brake. It was still going pretty fast so it skidded about two hundred feet, he said. The body recovery had taken some time. The victim was under the third car. (The firemen jack the train off the tracks and use the wood to support it.) They placed her in a body bag inside the still-stopped train and waited until things were quieter in the station; then they carried the bag out a side entrance, hoping to avoid attention.

This time of year, he said, there are a lot of suicides and attempted suicides involving subway trains; people get depressed around the holidays. (A man killed himself in the same station, on the N and Q tracks, two days after the incident I was close to.) He seemed to want to talk and kept explaining. Sometimes accidents involve transit workers—he told me about two track workers who were struck by a G train last month. One was killed; the other, whom he knew, had had his ribs crushed and recovery was uncertain. I asked how it was possible to be working on the tracks and not hear a train coming, and he told me that the newer trains can be quite quiet, and if you’re using ear protection and power tools you might not hear them. Workers like him, when they were on the tracks, were required to walk against the direction of the trains so that they would notice if one was coming.

I told him I wondered about the train operator’s trauma. The operator had gone to the hospital, he said, and would need to speak to a counsellor—there was a protocol set up for that, and operators had to go through it before they could return to work. I thought, but didn’t say out loud, But it’s not as if you can always understand how this kind of thing can affect you right away.