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The 'second victims' in rail-related fatalities

(The following article by Sally Jacobs was posted on the Boston Globe website on June 6. Walter Nutter and Gerald DeModena are members of BLET Division 57 in Boston. Doris Piersall-McDowell and Thomas Rae are members of BLET Division 312 in Boston.)

BOSTON -- She was standing in the middle of the train tracks, her wavy blond hair ruffled by the fall breeze. When commuter train No. 577 burst around the horseshoe curve behind her, she didn't flinch. The train's engineer yanked violently on the whistle and screamed into the gauzy Natick twilight, but she kept her back hard against him. And when the train finally came to a halt, strands of her hair hung limply from the train's front grill.

It was not the first time Walter Nutter's train had killed someone. Like many veteran engineers, Nutter has hit people in the course of decades on the job. The 30-year-old woman was his third. He never knew her name, or saw the girlish script of her final note asking that someone ''please call my parents" after her death. But in the five years since she died, he has often wondered what led her to lay her life before his train.

''When I blew the whistle and she didn't move, I knew what was coming," said Nutter, 53, an engineer with the Mass. Bay Commuter Railroad. ''I screamed 'NO,' one long 'NOOOOO.' You know, no human being wants to be involved in the death of another human being no matter how blameless you might be."

When a person is struck by a train the immediate focus is, understandably, on the victim. But as pedestrian fatalities such as the woman in Natick have become the number one cause of rail-related death in the United States in recent years, attention has also come to be paid to train engineers, the men and women whose trains strike the unfortunates in scenes of horrific carnage. Rail veterans often call them the ''second victims.'

Sometimes people put themselves in front of trains deliberately. Sometimes they are unwitting trespassers, idling along the rail bed as the two Boston University students who were struck by a commuter train in February appear to have been. In that case, the train's engineer was so traumatized it took him a month to return to work. Then there are cases such as the one on May 5, in which a former assistant attorney general in Boston stepped in front of an early morning train in Walpole, as dozens of commuters watched in horror. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has ruled the case an accident, pending a final ruling by the medical examiner. Also under investigation is the death last Monday night of a man struck by an MBTA train at Prospect Crossing in Wakefield.

For many engineers, such incidents can forever change the way they regard their job -- even their lives -- not because they did something wrong, but because they could do nothing at all. A train going 100 miles per hour can take up to a mile to stop. An engineer who comes upon someone on the tracks can do little but throw the emergency brake and wait out the inevitable.

While working as an engineer, Gerard DeModena was in control of a train that struck and killed a man in 1992. ''When you hit a person," said DeModena, who is now a manager of engineer standards for the MBCR, ''you hear a series of bangs and bumps that goes the length of the train. The engineer hears each and every one of those, and there is nothing he can do about it."

In railroad argot, such accidents are known as ''trespasser strikes." Railroad officials distinguish them from accidents at grade crossings, where roads and railways intersect. Last year, 483 trespassers were struck by trains in the United States, while another 368 people were killed at grade crossings, according to the Federal Railroad Administration, which does not include suicides in its numbers. In a three-year, state-by-state survey by the agency, , Massachusetts ranked 13th with 34 fatalities overall; California ranked number one.

Suicides greatly increase the numbers. During the past 12 years, there have been 103 fatalities on MBCR's 644 miles of track. Of those, 29 were trespassers and 49 were suicides, while the cause of the other fatalities was undetermined.

While an aggressive public awareness campaign has reduced the number of grade crossing deaths by two-thirds in recent decades, trespasser fatalities have remained relatively constant, according to the FRA. This spring, the agency is launching a nationwide study to understand who is being hit and why.

''We want to know who these people are," said Steve Kulm, FRA spokesman.

Doris Piersall-McDowell could tell him something about them. Though the rule of thumb among railroad veterans is that an engineer will hit three people in the course of a 25-year career, Piersall-McDowell almost did so in a single year.

Her first was a close call: a young woman in white lying across the tracks in Windsor Locks, Conn. As Piersall-McDowell's engine barreled forward, the woman curled up at the last second and was found unscathed under it. Five months later, there was a young man lying on the tracks in almost the same place; a suicide note was found near his body. And in spring 2003, as Piersall-McDowell's train shot through the night at 100 miles per hour -- slightly slower than the permitted speed -- she came upon a man with his arms spread wide standing in the tracks outside Mansfield. His teeth were later found embedded in the engine.

''He had on a navy blue, V-neck cable sweater and a gold necklace. Jeans. Moustache. Brown hair," said Piersall-McDowell, 47, who now lives in Chattanooga, Tenn. ''I remember thinking, Why does such a good-looking man want to kill himself?"

Though engineers often are named in lawsuits in such cases, rail and labor officials said they recall few incidents in which the engineer was found at fault. Drug and alcohol testing in fatalities is not mandatory and is done only if there is cause.

In one local case, the engineer of an MBTA commuter train that struck and killed a 15-year-old girl on her bicycle at a grade crossing in Abington in 1998 was accused in the parents' wrongful death suit of speeding and not sounding his horn as required. Though the Massachusetts Superior Court found that the girl had wrongfully bicycled around the lowered safety gates and thus the railroad was not liable, the engineer was suspended for 30 days under contract rules for exceeding the local 70-m.p.h. speed limit and not sounding the whistle correctly, according to the Appeals Court ruling. The case has been appealed.

For the engineers, the anguish in such cases stems from having played a role, however innocent, in another person's death. Veteran engineer Thomas Rae, 49, for example, remembers the sun. It was glinting on the water right below the bridge where a young man in his 20s was fishing. The man heard Rae's train and jumped to safety. But then he turned around. There were four beers left in his six-pack sitting on the bridge.

''He figured he had enough time to get the beer," sighed Rae, assistant superintendent of road operations for Amtrak in Providence. ''I knew when he turned around what was going to happen."

Few seek details about the victims, but it is hard not to read the newspaper stories. Word gets around. For most engineers, suicides are easier to accept than accidents. Cases in which children are killed are almost unbearable. And for many, the anxiety mounts with every hit.

''After the first time, I didn't want to run trains anymore," said Gemma Curran, 54, an Amtrak engineer who retired two years ago. ''After the second one, I worried all the time. Every crossing, every curve, I wondered, Oh my God, is someone going to be there?"

It was not until the late 1980s that many railroads began to provide programs to respond to critical incidents such as pedestrian deaths.

Amtrak, for example, implemented a program in 1987 that provides peer counseling and therapeutic referrals. The MBCR also has a peer program, in which Nutter and Curran participate. The engineers, who are contacted after a fatality, sometimes do not want to talk much. Others are tearful. A few are angry.

Piersall-McDowell said she wanted to shout at the woman in white who had curled up under the engine, ''The train won't kill you, but I will," Piersall-McDowell remembers thinking. ''I am just doing my job, and you pull me into this?"

After a death occurs, there is a close examination of the engineer's actions, all of which are recorded on an ''event recorder" much like a plane's black box.

From the moment the engineer throws the emergency brake and radios ''emergency, emergency," a host of rail personnel, as well as local police, head to the scene. In earlier years, engineers were largely left to handle the emotional fallout themselves. Now, a relief crew is brought in. The engineer is escorted home and can take three days off from work.

For most, the incidents pass into memory. But a few linger in the mind. Like the one in Natick.

The blond woman, a tech writer and New York native, had been unhappy. She was mournful about her divorce and worried about her weight.

But she could also snap out of her low, and she and a co-worker, Peter Korslund, spent a lot of time consoling each other over their breakups.

So when Korslund got an e-mail from his friend on the morning of her death, saying she would be out that day and asking him to water her plants, ''I didn't think much of it," he recalled. When he went to her house later that night, he found a note from her saying ''that for her this was the right thing to do," Korslund said. She left him her stamp collection.

Nutter said he finds some solace in knowing more fully what led the woman with the long blond hair to the curve in the tracks. And, in a way, he respects her courage.

''No culture celebrates suicide," Nutter said. ''But there is nothing cowardly about standing in front of a moving train with its whistle blowing full blast."

Monday, June 6, 2005

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