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Dozens annually commit suicide by train

(The Associated Press circulated the following story by Leslie Miller on January 27.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Scores of times each year, people intentionally stand, jump and drive in front of trains, figuring it's a sure way to end their lives.

Authorities say Juan Manuel Alvarez wanted to kill himself Wednesday when he drove his SUV onto a railroad track in Glendale, Calif., near Los Angeles. But he changed his mind and left the vehicle on the tracks, causing a chain-reaction derailment that killed 11 people and injured nearly 200.

He walked away from the scene virtually unscathed by the crash, although he had apparently slit his wrists and stabbed himself in the chest. It was not immediately clear when he did that. He was held without bail in a hospital jail ward.

Many others succeed in killing themselves.

A 13-year-old girl from suburban Chicago committed suicide in March by walking on commuter rail tracks with her back to the train. A 53-year-old woman killed herself in July by lying down on railroad tracks in Boca Raton, Fla. That month in Kansas the 19-year-old Argonia High School valedictorian was struck and killed by a train after tying himself to the tracks with baling wire.

"They're suffering and they see this as a way of ending the suffering," said Dr. Brian Mishara, director of a center that studies suicide at the University of Quebec in Montreal. "It's not true that it's a sure way of dying."

In Germany, where there are 18 suicides by train every week, one in 10 survives the attempt - often with severe injuries, Mishara said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 112 people nationwide killed themselves using buses, trains and subways in 2002, a tiny percentage of the approximately 30,000 suicides each year.

People in the railroad industry say suicide by train happens far more often than people hear about.

John Tolman, spokesman for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, said the average train engineer will see three suicides during his 25 years on the job. A commuter rail engineer will see as many as 20 in his career.

"Where you're frequently interacting with passengers - with platforms, grade crossings - that's where the suicides and the close calls are," Tolman said.

Engineers are traumatized when they hit a person, something they can't prevent because trains can't stop on a dime, Tolman said. Engineers and trainmen experience post-traumatic stress disorder afterward, much like Vietnam veterans, he said.

Many railroads offer counseling and time off for engineers after they hit a suicide victim, but Tolman said some programs are much better than others.

Though suicide by train is relatively rare, it's extremely difficult to prevent. And it may be on the rise, especially since news of the Glendale tragedy may inspire copycat attempts.

"The more you publicize it, the more likely this will become a more popular method," Mishara said.

Early Thursday, another apparently suicidal man was arrested in Orange County after he parked his SUV on railroad tracks, according to authorities. He drove off after he was spotted by police, and a dispatcher talked him out of suicide during a cell phone call, authorities said.

Tom White, American Association of Railroads spokesman, said anecdotal evidence suggests suicides by train are increasing.

"With 140,000 miles of rail line and 150,000 grade crossings, I'm not sure there is any method that's effective in preventing it," White said. "The key is suicide prevention."

Karen Marshall, founder of a suicide prevention foundation in Michigan, said people need to recognize suicidal tendencies and seek help.

"The time to have prevented the suicide attempt that the man made yesterday was long before he got behind the wheel of the SUV and headed toward the railroad track," she said.

Friday, January 28, 2005

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