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When death rides the rails

(The following article by Jon Hilkevitch was posted on the Chicago Tribune website on July 4.)

"And all at once, she thought of the man crushed by the train the day she had first met Vronsky, and she knew what she had to do. With a rapid, light step she went down the stairs that led from the water tank to the rails and stopped close to the approaching train. . . . 'There,' she said to herself, looking in the shadow of the train car at the mixture of sand and coal dust which covered the ties. 'There, in the very middle, and I shall punish him and escape from everyone and from myself.'"

--Leo Tolstoy: "Anna Karenina"

A piercing blast from the locomotive's airhorn cuts through the early morning sky as Metra engineer Raymond Baxter abruptly throws his train into an emergency stop, forcing the mighty wheels to bite hard onto the iron rails. Catnapping commuters are startled awake by the sudden change of motion, wondering why a train doing a crisp 55 miles per hour is suddenly striving frantically to stop, even though it has barely entered the village of Bensenville and the station is still well off. n The conductors on board sense immediately what's wrong. Alerted by the train's desperate struggle against momentum, they wait for the unmistakable sound of massive machinery striking human flesh. They know it takes the equivalent of 18 football fields to bring a commuter train traveling at high speed to a halt.

And they know with a stab of dread that soon one of them will have to make the long walk behind the train to view the carnage--a task that was never in their job description.

More often than they like to admit, engineers confront a human being in the path of their onrushing train. Frequently, it is some heedless individual trying to cross the tracks to save a minute or perhaps, in some unimaginable mental fog, walking or jogging along the right-of-way, listening to music through a headset.

But on this wintry Dec. 3, the person Baxter has spotted on the rail bed ahead isn't there by accident. Clad in a maroon cable-knit sweater and jeans, he has jumped from concealment beneath the Route 83 bridge and assumed a kneeling position in between the rails.

The man, Marek Wojcicki, will become the 11th person in 2003 to take his own life along Metra's tracks and the 24th pedestrian killed overall during the year by the commuter line's trains in an ongoing tragedy that has come to be called "Metracide" by company personnel.

Almost always, suicide victims peer into the locomotive cab in their final moments. They stare right into the eyes of the engineer, perhaps reaching for a last human connection.

"He looked up at me right when I hit him," Baxter said later, slowly shaking his head. At 53, he has operated freight and commuter trains for two decades in the solitude of his cab high above the tracks. Killing people has been an inescapable part of the job. Baxter says he does not know how many people have died underneath his trains. Forensic psychiatrists say this form of amnesia is one way post-traumatic stress disorder can manifest itself.

But he recalls that his first suicide was in Elmwood Park when he was still enrolled in the engineers training program.

"I've heard other engineers say [people committing suicide] look at you. I don't know why they do it. I sure wish they wouldn't, because the picture stays with you. You try to forget about it, but you don't ever, really. It ain't easy."

Metra assistant conductor Rick Hodges, the first to reach Wojcicki's body, remains haunted as well. Revisiting the death scene some weeks later with a Tribune reporter, he eyed the hulking outlines of Fenton High School just across the athletic field from the tracks. Painted on the Route 83 overpass where Wojcicki awaited the train is the Fenton mascot and the greeting, "Welcome to Bison Country."

Hodges was thinking about the students he sees each day putting themselves at risk by shortcutting across the tracks and smoking cigarettes underneath the bridge. A well-worn path leads from the school's sports field, up the embankment to the tracks and down the other side. At least four fatalities have occurred at the location in recent years, authorities say.

"The idea was in my mind that the victim could be a student," says Hodges, 52, the father of two preteens. "It was just getting light out, but there are children who go to school for early morning music and athletic practices."

The 28-year Metra veteran recalled wondering what he would do if the person were still alive. "I just hoped that if it were a situation where someone needed some help, I would be able to do the right thing."

Hodges never got the opportunity. The police report noted that the force of the train was so great it left an imprint of Wojcicki's cable-knit sweater on what remained of his body.

"Anonymous death came early and often. Each of the thousand trains that entered and left the city did so at grade level. You could step from a curb and be killed by the Chicago Limited. Every day on average two people were destroyed at the city's rail crossings."

-Chicago at the end of the 19th Century, described in "The Devil in the White City" by Erik Larson.

Trains are everywhere in the Chicago area. Some 1,300 of them, pulling 38,000 freight and passenger cars, roll in and out of the region each day. Here and around the country, accidents are common, outrageously common: A train hits someone every two hours in the U.S.

Though the year is only half over, 2004 has been gut-wrenching for Metra. The fatalities, at least 16 so far this year on Metra lines, have been especially difficult for crewmembers, many of whom sought trauma counseling, in part because about half the victims were children or young adults.

Accidents are a tragic consequence of running a railroad, even one like Metra, which has been praised for one of the more aggressive public safety campaigns in the country. Railroads serve communities and knit together sprawling regions, but the tracks also divide neighboring real estate, creating obstacles that often seem all too easy to cross.

Since 1990, more than 475 people have paid with their lives on Metra tracks while trying to breach that tempting gap, according to Metra spokeswoman Judith Pardonnet.

Michael DeLarco, a Schaumburg 10-year-old, saw his father waiting for him across a triple set of tracks in River Grove Feb. 23 after descending from a Metra train with his mother and 8-year-old sister. As Michael crossed the adjacent track, a Metra express train going in the opposite direction blindsided him as his horrified family screamed for him to jump free. Three Metra engineers, including a student trainee at the controls, were fired for violating safety rules designed to prevent trains from passing one another in the station.

Kelly Nelson, a Chicago 8th grader, was wearing headphones when she was struck and killed by a Metra train on March 11 while walking across the tracks to her Southwest Side school with four of her younger siblings in tow.

Co-workers say David Meza, 49, always felt comfortable cutting across the rails near his Wood Dale home. A Metra train killed him on March 25-his day off-as he took a shortcut near a curve in the tracks to the printing plant where he worked. He was going to ask his boss for some overtime work.

Victor Olivera, a Glenview 11-year-old riding his bike after eating ice cream, was killed when he pedaled into a Metra train May 25 while rushing to a dentist appointment.

The ongoing death toll along railway rights-of-way represents a pressing public health and safety crisis, one of national as well as local proportions. And yet, save for the occasional highly publicized fatality, usually involving a youngster, it is a crisis played out below the threshold of public awareness. Squeamishness about publicizing suicides accounts for some of the relative silence. And ironically, the sheer regularity with which adults are accidentally struck by trains has contributed to stories of their deaths being relegated to the back pages.

In this article, the Magazine has set out to bring the problem fully to light in the hope of sparking a civic dialogue. Though they are separate issues in many respects, we have decided to examine both accidental and self-inflicted deaths within the same article because their combined numbers are staggering and because it is often difficult to say conclusively whether intent was involved.

We also focus not only on the crushing effect these deaths have on survivors, but on railroad personnel as well. Engineers, conductors and other employees are frequently thrown into the unwanted role of eyewitness to tragic events-and all too often, to their chagrin, they are the very instrument of those events.

Veteran engineers say today's trains are outfitted with almost as many lights as a Christmas tree, but it does little good because people are darting or driving in front of trains more than ever. The consensus inside the locomotive cab is that too many people blame the train instead of respecting its lethal power.

"You look both ways before going across the road, but you don't look both ways before going across the tracks," says David Stotz, a supervisor on Metra's Milwaukee District West Line, who gets called to the scene of most of the accidents on the line. "People don't take blame for themselves. Everything is blamed on us," he says.

Indeed, some people were quick to criticize Metra and the Union Pacific Railroad for failing to repair a hole in a chain-link fence near a Villa Park middle school. Thirteen-year-old Alyssa Gonzalez was said to have been heading toward the hole bound for school on the morning of March 17 when a Metra train killed her. Her parents sued both railroads.

But the DuPage County coroner ruled her death a suicide. Friends told authorities they pulled Alyssa off the same tracks last year and, only weeks before her death, the troubled teen made comments to school officials about harming herself by standing in front of a train.

"No one ever loves me the way I love myself," said a note police found in Alyssa's belongings.

Improvements in railroad-safety technology are mostly limited to protecting those imprudent citizens who each year find novel ways to end up unintentionally in front of a moving train.

But a troubled psyche cannot be deterred by mending a fence or installing new warning signals. There is no way to stop people who impulsively throw themselves on the tracks because, for the moment, they see no other option.

Or because, as some of the stories in this article will suggest, they might want to suffer a terrible ending-crushed, battered, annihilated-to maximize self-punishment.

Patricia Wallace climbed an embankment along the Metra tracks in the northwest suburbs two days after she was released from a hospital for treatment of chronic depression in February 2003. "She stood right in front of me. I just knew by her expression that she wasn't going to turn back," says engineer Mike Bihun, who remembers she wore pink slippers that made her stumble on the gravel.

The 50-year-old Schaumburg resident had attempted suicide a week earlier by overdosing on Tylenol, according to a police report. In addition, a number of carving knives were found arranged in a row on a countertop in her home, indicating to authorities the woman may have contemplated cutting herself.

A friend told investigators that Wallace also suffered from a gambling addiction. Casino tokens totaling $11.20 were found inside her black canvas purse on the seat of her unlocked car at the bottom of the embankment, the police report said.

Bihun, whose grandfather, father, uncle and brother were all railroaders, says six of the seven people he has killed were suicides. "You keep slitting your wrists and that don't work. So you hop in front of a train. I haven't seen too many people walk away from it," he says.

Suicide by train is a long-standing, though little-understood phenomenon. While not new, the incidents have largely been hidden from view because of societal taboos on discussing mental illness in general and self-destruction in particular.

Yet it is a major public health problem. Suicide accounts for up to 25 percent of the deaths involving pedestrians trespassing on railroad tracks in Illinois, according to new state data.

The Federal Railroad Administration does not include self-inflicted death in its tally of fatalities on railroad property and at rail-highway crossings. So it is unknown how many suicides there are among the record toll of trespassers killed by trains-507 in 2003 nationwide, according to the FRA. "Suicide is a deliberate act. Our efforts are targeted to raise awareness among the public about the dangers of taking a short-cut and other trespass incidents on railroad right-of-ways," says Warren Flatau, an agency spokesman.

Nine of this year's 16 fatalities on Metra, as of mid-June, were ruled suicides or are under investigation as suspicious, according to police, Metra officials and coroner's reports. That's consistent with the pattern of about one suicide a month in the six-county Chicago area and about 10 additional suicides, mostly involving freight trains, elsewhere in the state each year.

Most of the suicides are young and male. More than half the 20- to 39-year-old men killed by Metra trains didn't die accidentally, according to medical examiner reports studied over the last five years by Metra.

But the recent cases include a broad range of people: a college student suffering acute depression around exam time; a homesick sailor stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center; an unemployed executive who had a hard time seeing any bright spots in life; a teenage girl who thought she might be pregnant; a distraught widow returning from a visit to her husband's grave. The homeless. The hopeless. The addicts.

"It's horrible, just horrible, but we are the Golden Gate Bridge of Chicago," Dennis Mogan, Metra safety director, says of the commuter railroad's 3,600-square-mile operating territory, more than twice the size of Rhode Island.

Most train crewmembers will tell you that one of their favorite parts of the job is trundling through the back yards of America. Except when tragedy hits so close to home.

Conductor George Roat, who hired on with Metra after high school and plans to retire this year with 39 years of service, says: "You feel sick to your stomach. Like you don't want nobody to talk to you or nothing for a little bit, until you've put it all together in your mind."

The suicide that Roat has a hard time shaking off happened six years ago, on the day before Thanksgiving. A homeless man killed himself on the tracks at 115th Street on the Rock Island District Line after the man's son visited him at a shelter and the two argued.

"Usually the conductors don't see us hit the person, but in this case I just happened to be at the front door," says Roat, 60. "He rolled underneath the train. But as we hit him-I don't know how it happened-his pants just come flying clean off of him. To see somebody's pants caught up in the front of the train there," he says, with bewilderment in his voice.

He pushes away an imaginary plate, saying: "I couldn't eat Thanksgiving dinner. You just see that stuff go through your mind."

Railroads offer employees involved in accidents and suicide cases "trauma-debriefing counseling" and several paid days off from work. It's in addition to a general primer provided during training and refresher courses in dealing with the emotional stress of causing a death or being indirectly involved in one. But experts say the preparation isn't nearly enough.

People who seek jobs as engineers or conductors often do so because it is a family calling, much like police work, says Dr. Frank Ochberg, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Michigan State University, who has interviewed train crews after fatal crashes. From fathers and uncles they absorb much of the romance and traditions of the trade, but little prepares them for the prospect of becoming an instrument of death-not that anything really could.

"They don't know how to digest the haunting memories, deal with self-doubt and other people blaming you, the flashbacks and waking nightmares where you smell, hear and see the [event] play out all over again," notes Ochberg, a former associate director of the National Institute of Mental Health. "Plus, it's considered terribly stigmatizing to admit to suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder."

Ochberg, who earlier in his career taught journalism at Michigan State, takes issue with the unwritten media rule that you don't publicize suicides because it might inspire "copycat" behavior. He says responsible reporting that does not glorify suicidal behavior will increase awareness among the public and even deter potential suicide victims.

"You can reach potential suicides and they might start to think how the suicide causes anguish to others," he says.

The post-traumatic stress that follows a train suicide often extends beyond the railroad crews involved. Chip Pew, a safety specialist with the Illinois Commerce Commission who in May investigated two fatal accidents in a single day in the Chicago area, says he went to a therapist afterwards for trauma counseling.

Pew was on the scene after a Metra train killed a 73-year-old woman in Highland Park-she had climbed down from the station platform to the tracks in what was an apparent suicide-and later, after an Amtrak train killed a disabled pedestrian in nearby Deerfield. While the remains of the two people were only partially covered as Pew conducted his investigation, that wasn't what upset him the most.

"The woman in Highland Park had prayer cards in her purse that were thrown all over the tracks," Pew says. "One had blood splattered over it-like it was smeared by a fingerprint-and the card said, to the effect of, 'God, please watch over me.' "

"It's the ancillary stuff that identifies that the person was living, that people cared about her, that is so hard for me," says Pew, the state coordinator for the Illinois Operation Lifesaver rail-safety education program.

He says he thinks many of the people who walk in front of trains would take it all back if they could.

"I imagine them sitting up there on a cloud, thinking, 'If I had another chance I wouldn't make that bad choice again,' " he says.

Across Illinois, more than 60 train suicides have been officially recorded since 1999, with another 10 attempts resulting in injuries, according to the Illinois Commerce Commission. But commission officials note that their statistics fail to give an accurate picture because the railroads do not consistently report all suicides. Also, many additional suicides are listed as accidental deaths by police and coroners to spare families grief and financial burden.

The commission's record-keeping, begun at Metra's request, is nevertheless the first formal tracking of suicides on the rails in Illinois. It is an attempt to understand the extent of the problem and develop solutions.

"At present there are no specific campaigns or activities specifically aimed at suicide prevention along railroad property," says Stephen Laffey, a railroad safety specialist with the commission. "There is so little known about the number of suicides that occur-and why-that we are not yet in a position to develop and test counter-measures."

More than two-thirds of the train suicides in Illinois are in the Chicago area, North America's bustling rail hub.

While jumping in front of a train is far down the list of ways Americans commit suicide-firearms, hanging and drug overdoses are much more common-the outcome is nonetheless practically guaranteed to anyone who musters the nerve. "Sitting in a car with the motor running inside a garage takes time and there are no assurances it will work. Jumping in front of a 70-mile-an-hour train takes a second and it's fail-safe," says Metra's Mogan.

More than 40 of the suicide attempts reported to the commerce commission statewide since 1999 involved freight trains. Amtrak trains were involved in five more. Not included in the ICC count: At least 14 people have committed suicide by jumping in front of CTA trains or being electrocuted by the third rail since 2000, according to Chicago Transit Authority records.

Marek Wojcicki, the man who killed himself Dec. 3 in Bensenville on Metra's Milwaukee District West Line, was 27 years old. He had been released from jail less than an hour earlier after being picked up by police on a drunken-driving charge.

The night began when Wojcicki, of Wauconda, went shopping for a used car in Chicago with a friend and they stopped for drinks at the Old Coach Inn on Irving Park Road.

Friends told authorities that Wojcicki, who used the first name Mark after moving to the U.S. from Poland about three years ago, had been depressed about leaving his girlfriend back home and failing to find a new love.

Wojcicki's sister, who lives in New York City, says she doubts that explanation. And she's not convinced the DuPage County coroner, who ruled Wojcicki's death a suicide, got it right. But she acknowledges her brother was upset over being fired two days earlier from his job as an engine mechanic at a Lake County construction company. The drunken-driving arrest was his second in three months.

"Sometimes you think you know the person. We grew up together in Poland and I would never think he would do such a thing," says Joanna Wojcicka, 31, adding that her brother planned to spend Christmas with her in New York and then go skiing in Colorado.

"He was a very happy person, even too happy and careless sometimes," she says. "I guess I have to believe in the suicide, because there is no other explanation."

Almost always, people bent on suicide scope out the site beforehand, sometimes making visits over several days. They study the tracks and watch, say, as the 3:07 passes by right on time. They eat, as if ritualistically consuming their last meal. They smoke. They pace. They plot their escape from a world that has turned intolerable.

Paper coffee cups and piles of cigarette butts-in some cases imprinted with lipstick-litter the tracks. Some of the cigarettes are a few days old; others may still be warm when investigators arrive.

These are common characteristics. But no matter how many people an engineer has hit or how many deaths an accident investigator has studied, each case leaves a deep, painful wound.

Responding to a suicide in Medinah in 1995, Mogan, a former engineer, lost control of his emotions when he at first thought the elderly victim was his mother. His anguish knew no bounds until he abruptly realized the woman on the tracks wasn't really his mother. Facial similarities-right down to the shape of the dead woman's eyes-led his mind to play a terrifying trick on him.

After police left the scene, Mogan spent the next three hours sitting with the woman's body, waiting for the medical examiner to arrive.

The case that disturbs him even more occurred in 1991, when two junior high school girls in Round Lake carried out a suicide pact by sitting in the path of a Metra train with a garbage bag pulled over their bodies. The engineer thought he was running over trash.

Mogan keeps the girls' suicide note in his desk drawer. Almost every day he re-reads the message, which contains an apology written in the sweeping flair of a teenager's hand:

"We deceided [sic] that this was the only way out. Life is too stressful. I'm (we're) sorry," the note said. It closed with, "We love EVERYONE!" An arrow pointed to "Goodbyes aren't 4-ever."

In February, only 11 days shy of his 17th birthday, Artur Grobelny walked in front of a Metra train in Northbrook and made the sign of the cross.

"Maybe after I die, when I meet him again, I will find out why," says his mother, Natalia Kulak. "Artur was a very religious person. He prayed. He traveled to the Holy Land. But he was in tremendous pain," she adds. "Pain can knock you down and take away everything you have-especially your dignity."

Artur, a junior at Glenbrook North High School, appeared to be a typical teenager, right down to the bent-arrow earring he wore. But he had been suffering health problems that started with severe migraine headaches and sleeplessness. Emergency rooms. Doctors. Heavy-duty meds. He was pushing his fourth year of critical pain, and doctors could not pin down the source of his symptoms, his mother says.

He had two escapes, music and photography. He played classical guitar. He built a darkroom at home and was assembling a portfolio of his best work in preparation to study photography in college. But his mysterious illness increasingly interfered. He was becoming more frustrated and complained that no one seemed to care about his problem, Kulak says.

The teen switched to night school, where teachers offered extra help and encouragement, often noting his bravery. But early this year Artur completed his third hospitalization and was taking prescription antidepressants and painkillers, according to his mother. He complained of feeling "doped up" all the time.

Mental-health experts say one of the most dangerous periods for suicidal behavior occurs after a person is released from the hospital or has begun to "feel better" due to antidepressants.

"I don't know how many people fully understand biological depression," says Ochberg, who assisted in the communal recovery after 1999's Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colo. "It's as though the brain's mood thermostat is broken. You may feel up to committing suicide because the energy and initiative return before the ability to feel hopeful and worthwhile."

Kulak says her son "was so sad, so medicated he couldn't focus on his music. His mind had to be free and sober. If you are poisoned by medication, you cannot play from your heart and spirit."

Even as she tried to arrange an emergency therapy appointment for her son on the day he took his life, she had no idea he was thinking of harming himself. The warning signs were hidden on Artur's computer. A Northbrook police officer who examined the computer found the Led Zeppelin song "In My Time of Dying," which begins:

In my time of dying, want nobody to mourn

All I want for you to do is take my body home

Well, well, well, so I can die easy

Well, well, well, so I can die easy

Artur had also bookmarked an Internet site that described ways to commit suicide.

Kulak, who works as a caregiver near the Northbrook Metra station, expresses sympathy for the engineer who tried to stop the train when Artur darted from behind a signal box near Willow Road in the northern suburb.

"I can only imagine what he has been going through," she says, with a sigh. "What I heard from him, and I am thankful to know, is that Artur made the Holy Sign."

Veteran engineer Vallorie O'Neil never so much as hit a dog while operating freight trains for 12 years with the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway. All that changed on her first day at Metra in 1989, and the memories still haunt her. She feels sadness, but also resentment toward the victim.

"A lot of old-hat engineers-and I consider myself old hat because I've been in the business for over 30 years-we look at suicide as a coward's way to die," says O'Neil, 54, Metra's first female engineer. "It only takes one second of courage to walk out in front of a moving train. They make us do what they are incapable of doing."

Fifteen years have passed, but O'Neil can still vividly picture the night the man's life intersected with hers. She at first thought he was simply the most tired fellow on Earth, dragging himself and a navy blue jacket through the weeds toward the Rock Island District Line tracks at Monterey Avenue near Interstate Highway 57.

"I'm thinking maybe the gentleman is just very weary going home from a night's work so I whistle at him to get his attention," says O'Neil.

O'Neil knew that from ground level, the train appeared to be moving more slowly than its speed of 60 m.p.h. She whistled again. The man hesitated as if to acknowledge her, but then walked onto the tracks.

"Waa! Waaa! Waaaaaa! . . . " the train's horn complained in uneven rhythm as the diesel engine grew close. The blasts commanded the man, illuminated by the train's hot white safety headlight, to grab his chance to get the hell out of the way. But he remained riveted in place.

The train's ditch lights were flashing and the bell was clanging as O'Neil dumped air pressure to maximize braking power, creating the telltale whoosh of a decelerating train. There was nothing more to do except stay on the horn and hope for intervention--then, barring such a miracle, radio the conductors that someone had been hit.

"When he got eyeshot of me, he looks up at me like he is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, puts his hands up in the air and drops his head," says O'Neil. "It seemed to me, it was almost like he gave a look of, 'I'm sorry for dragging you into this.' "

Her biggest worry was being consumed by fear, she explains. She knows engineers who had to quit after fatalities because they couldn't face another death. "I remember going home that day and taking a shower and a bath," she says. "It was my little way of washing it away."

For O'Neil, an accomplished rodeo horsewoman who for 40 years has been a member of the local organization Black Cowboys, the key was getting right back in the saddle of the locomotive the next day. "I don't mean to sound callous, but once it happens, it's like falling off a horse. You realize you didn't die, you didn't lose your mind or become a basket case, that life goes on and I can still function as an engineer."

Others have not been as fortunate. Mogan says he recalls at least five Metra crewmembers who transferred to jobs away from the front lines or quit the railroad business altogether in recent years because the trauma associated with running down people was too much to bear.

One such engineer endured multiple fatalities in his first year here after moving from Montana, where he operated freight trains. The last straw for him was an accident in Lake Forest in which a young woman got the heel of her shoe stuck in the tracks as his Milwaukee District North Line train bore down on her. As he watched, a bystander ran onto the tracks to help the woman. Both were killed.

O'Neil has worked diligently during her career to climb the ladder at Metra and become an instructor of student engineers. In the six-hour break between her morning and evening runs from Joliet to downtown Chicago, she works a second job as a runner at the Chicago Board of Trade. When locomotive engines aren't screaming at her, brokers in the trading pits are.

"I come from a family of nurses and teachers, so I'm the black sheep," she jokes. "My family has a very strong work ethic. You miss work only if you are dead."

O'Neil concentrates on the service she provides. "Any engineer worth his or her salt takes pride. It's a personal thing," she says. "You're in charge."

This willingness to assume authority, and a strong survival instinct, help crewmembers return to punch the clock in a business where death is inevitable, the collateral damage of railroading. Engineers often trade stories about how many people they've killed. They can rattle off dates, point to where a crash occurred, recite the names of the dead, what they were wearing and what went so wrong in their lives that propelled them to suicide.

Metra engineer Ted Huart, a 32-year veteran who is a union officer in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, says he first experienced a railroad death at 19. "You feel awful. You grieve," he says.

There's often an urge to offer condolences to the families, to show up at their doorsteps with flowers and apologies, even though it's usually not the crew's fault. But such impulses are to be resisted. To most of the families, the trains are a death trap.

O'Neil has experienced many incidents and close calls-and a few happy endings.

A few years ago a young man walked out in front of her train near 91st Street in Beverly as she slowed to about 10 m.p.h. to enter the station.

"He threw his hands into the air, scaring me half to death," she says. "I put the train in emergency and yelled-almost like yelling at your children-'What are you doing?' " She later learned he was a drug addict who thought he'd be better off dead than strung out.

" 'Stop, stop, stop, please,' I said to the train. The front of the engine finally did, 6 inches from his belly button," O'Neil says.

"Some would say it's the luck of the draw. I think God saw fit not to take his life. He certainly didn't set out to have Vallorie O'Neil do him in."

"Dear Byron,

I hate you!

Love, Virginia

The New York Times reported the story of a woman who lay down on the tracks of the commuter train that carried her husband, but Byron walked to work. Jumping from a building into his path would be spontaneous, but required too much planning; after all, she wouldn't want to fall on him."

--From "Suicide Notebook," by Lucinda Ebersole. Fiction from the Marlboro Review, 1998 winter/spring edition.

Some authorities say the mounting suicide death toll points up a severe mental health crisis about which the news media need to be more candid. Other experts, however, have advised the media to refrain from reporting suicides out of concern that the attention might encourage additional susceptible individuals.

"The past several years have been particularly bad for us," says Sharon Gavin, spokeswoman for Metrolink, the regional commuter railroad in southern California. "When the media report suicides, we ask them not to say 'the death was instantaneous,' because that is appealing to someone who is considering suicide. We'd rather talk about the delay to commuters than draw attention to the suicide."

Suicide in general constitutes a major public health crisis in the U.S. Overall, it claims 30,000 lives annually and ranks as the eighth leading cause of death, according to the National Mental Health Association. An additional 500,000 Americans-about 1 in 500 people-attempt to take their own lives each year.

Metra authorities, in their efforts to help focus public awareness on accidental deaths and suicides involving trains, provided the Tribune with records and wide access to train crews and safety officials.

The railroad spent more than $1 million this year on an expanded safety campaign in the media as well as at schools and other institutions in the communities.

"A good deal of money is spent on the Operation Lifesaver program each year, and I'm concerned that we're not making a big enough impact," says Metra Chairman Jeffrey Ladd. "I don't know how we get the message across more effectively."

Last year, an Operation Lifesaver representative went to 8th-grader Kelly Nelson's school. "We addressed 276 children about not crossing over tracks and to listen and look for trains," says Metra executive director Philip Pagano. "We went back to the school this year too."

The visits failed to avert Kelly's death.

The extraordinary impact of rail accidents and suicides on a mass-transit system presents another serious danger, largely unrecognized by the public. Service delays can last an hour or more after a fatality, and much more is at stake than the inconvenience of Metra customers.

"When there is a lengthy service delay, riders who are waiting overload the train platforms. People on stopped trains become impatient, feeling trapped on the train, and start popping open the doors and exiting onto the tracks. There may be diabetics on the train who don't have their insulin with them. Trains are blocking crossings," says Sharon Austin, Metra's chief communications officer. She says Metra recently began meeting with medical examiners, police departments and other emergency responders to lessen the public impact caused by rail fatalities.

The effort to reduce the impact of delays is paying off, but the railroad industry is still stymied in its efforts to stop intentional death on the tracks. Despite evidence that physical barriers are not the answer, Metra has sometimes bowed to the wishes of communities and built fences near schools, parks and other high-risk sites. But like graffiti that appears on a freshly painted garage, it doesn't take long before holes are cut in the fence and another victim-suicide or trespasser-is claimed.

The railroad industry's Operation Lifesaver safety program reaches an estimated 2 million people in schools, workplaces and other institutions each year nationwide. Advocates say the effort has increased public awareness about the dangers of driving across a rail crossing before a train arrives, or taking a shortcut on foot over tracks. Fines up to $500 have produced some success in dissuading trespassers. But stopping people intent on killing themselves is something else.

"You can't build a fence around the railroad," says Tom McNamara, a veteran Metra conductor who participates in the Operation Lifesaver program by visiting about 60 high schools a year.

Caltrain, the commuter rail service between San Francisco and San Jose, posts signs with the phone number of a suicide prevention hot line every 1,200 feet on its 50 miles of track. The rail agency hopes to get funding to install emergency phones along its right-of-way, similar to the 911 phones along the Golden Gate Bridge.

In Japan, where suicide has a long cultural history, about 5 percent of the suicides each year occur on train tracks. The East Japan Railway Company strategically places large mirrors at its Tokyo stations so people thinking about jumping from the platform will look themselves in the mirror and reconsider. But most rail lines in Tokyo, out of frustration more than deterrence, fine the families of the deceased for disrupting operations. The bill is based on how long the rail stoppage lasts and how many commuters are inconvenienced.

Mental-health experts say increasing public awareness about suicide by train is a key to prevention efforts. The campaign should include better educational programs to familiarize railroad employees, security officers as well as families and friends of potential suicides about the warning signs of suicidal depression.

"Sensitizing police and the caretakers of the railroad tracks is an important step so they don't just ignore a person wandering the tracks," says Dr. Eitan D. Schwarz, a psychiatrist at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University.

Individuals considering suicide tend to compare themselves to others, which can promote stress about their economic or social status, feelings of loneliness and self-blame, experts say. The leading risk factors for depression include any prior suicide attempts, the degree of hopelessness the person expresses and statements about feeling disliked and misunderstood.

"If you see someone on railroad property, engage them in conversation, see how they are," Schwarz advises railroad employees and law-enforcement authorities. "If they are very bad, don't leave them alone. Take them to an emergency room."

Grade-crossing fatalities, the vast majority of which are accidents, are easier to address. "You close unnecessary crossings and upgrade the warning and safety systems at the remaining crossings," says Tom White of the American Association of Railroads. But, he says, it's "harder to stop people who do stupid things, like jogging on the tracks and wearing headphones, or people intent on committing suicide by jumping in front of trains."

Hodges, the assistant conductor on duty the morning in December that Marek Wojcicki died, recalls that he was checking tickets in the rear of the train-tantamount to drawing the short straw when an accident occurs. Protocol calls for the conductor closest to where the remains will be found to make the grim trek back.

Hodges exited the train, shutting doors to make sure curious passengers didn't follow him. Then he trudged in the snow past the site of an abandoned landscape nursery until he came upon Wojcicki's body.

"Don't take this the wrong way, because I wasn't passing judgment. I just folded my hands and said a little prayer. That's the way I handled it," he says. "I felt sad for him, no matter how he came this way."

Hodges says he can recall at least four suicides and numerous fatal accidents over the course of his career. But he abruptly shifts the topic.

"Honestly, there may be others that I am not wanting to think about," he says, walking down the steep embankment.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

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