MTA Police and workers investigate after a person was hit...

MTA Police and workers investigate after a person was hit by a train at the Wantagh LIRR station. (March 11, 2011) Credit: Howard Schnapp

More than 30 years later, retired train engineer Joseph Cassidy vividly remembers the look in the man's eyes.

It was a summer evening, and Cassidy was at the controls of a Long Island Rail Road locomotive, heading west from Sayville to Babylon on the Montauk branch, without any passenger cars.

An eastbound train approached on the adjacent tracks. "This guy stepped around [on the tracks] from behind that," said Cassidy, 68, of Garden City. "I hung on the horn until he looked up. And his eyes -- needless to say, he was startled."

Cassidy pushed the emergency brake and braced for the inevitable. "I heard the impact of the engine on his body," said Cassidy, who retired in 2002. "I could never pass that place again without thinking about what happened. . . . I used to envision hitting my own kids on the railroad. It was a terrifying, terrifying thought."

Now as then, deadly accidents on the tracks are a grim but real part of railroad engineers' jobs. Some experts say the average railroad engineer, operating trains anywhere in the country, will be involved in about three train fatalities over the course of a 25-year career.

Since 2005, the LIRR has averaged about 20 fatal train strikes each year -- the majority of which were deemed suicides. There were 21 LIRR fatalities in 2010, 15 of which were suicides. Railroad officials said there was no discernible pattern among the locations where the deaths occurred. Since March 11, three people have been killed by LIRR trains in incidents in Wantagh, Bellmore and Islip. All were being investigated as suicides.

"This is one of the most difficult aspects of the engineer's job, and we have long recognized that at the Long Island Rail Road," LIRR President Helena Williams said.

 

Increase in U.S. deaths

Nationally, 746 people were killed by trains last year, a 7.6-percent increase from 2009 and a figure that includes fatalities on foot and in vehicles, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

The national numbers, however, do not include deaths officially declared as suicides because railroads have not been required to report suicides to the FRA. Such a mandate takes effect in June; officials expect fatality numbers to climb as a result.

Recognizing the psychological impact of these cases, the FRA in February awarded a $50,000 grant to the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation to design a program to mitigate post-traumatic stress disorder and acute distress disorder in the railroad industry. In addition, the FRA and the American Association of Suicidology are five years into a lengthy study to analyze train-track suicides.

Officials said the federally funded initiatives might go further to address the problems than anything before.

John Tolman, vice president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and also the group's national legislative representative, said LIRR engineers might be involved in more such cases than elsewhere because of the dense population along the system and the railroad's approximately 300 grade crossings.

'You never forget'

"There are some locomotive engineers who have never operated a train again. . . . The emotions of going through something like that are sometimes overwhelming," said Tolman, a former Amtrak engineer whose personal experiences in the 1980s led to one of the earliest pieces of legislation in the nation giving mandatory paid time off for engineers involved in strikes. "You never forget. Every engineer that's been involved in one can tell you the exact incident."

The LIRR gives employees involved in collisions three days' paid leave and requires them to check in with the agency's employee assistance program to determine what, if any, counseling is needed.

LIRR Employee Assistance Program manager Patrick Viviano said he sees 25 to 30 engineers each year who are involved in train strikes or near-misses. Many of them eventually are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

"They say, 'I saw their eyes. They looked at me, and I tried to turn away, but I just couldn't,' " Viviano said. "We tell them, 'There's nothing you could have done any differently. You did everything you were supposed to do.' "

Bellmore psychotherapist David Grand has treated more than 100 LIRR engineers using therapeutic methods he developed 20 years ago while working with former LIRR engineer Robert Franke, of Medford.

Over the course of his career, Franke was the operator of trains that struck and killed eight people. He died last year at the age of 68.

Grand's methods -- eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, and brain spotting -- use a patient's eye movements to map the location in the brain where traumatic memories are held. A therapist then helps patients reprocess those memories so that they do not constantly re-live them.

"Every time they go on that same run and they go past the point of the incident, they tend to get a flashback. And they get traumatized over and over and over again," Grand said of some engineers. "They walk around in a state of panic 24 hours a day."

"The truth is that some people will get traumatized worse and some people will get traumatized less," Grand added. "But no one will walk away from it like it's a normal experience, because it's not."

Five years into the joint study on suicides, some patterns have started to emerge, FRA spokesman Warren Flatau said. Of the 428 suicides reported on train tracks in the United States from June 2007 to May 2010, nearly 75 percent were men. Most were adults older than 35.

Researchers are considering how close people who commit suicide live to the tracks and whether some ar "train buffs," he said.

"It's difficult and really gruesome and sad," said Flatau, who added that researchers are examining about 60 cases and conducting "psychological autopsies" of those who killed themselves. "The hope, obviously, is that we're going to come up with something concrete and tangible that the mental health community can use in some ways in prevention strategies."

 

Effort to deter suicides

The LIRR is determined to curb deaths on its tracks, Williams said. Railroad employees educate groups about the dangers of trespassing on train tracks. The LIRR also last year launched a program to put up posters at stations with the phone number for a suicide prevention hotline. Officials said they have seen some results from that effort.

In January, a man called from one Suffolk station saying that "the voices were telling him to jump" in front of a train, said Long Island Crisis Center executive director Linda Leonard. The counselor kept the man on the line and alerted authorities, who responded to the scene and rescued him.

The story is evidence of the "yeoman's work" the LIRR has done over the decades in curbing such deaths, Cassidy said. The retired engineer, who said he relived that deadly evening "every time that I put my hand on the throttle of an engine," wishes the resources available now had been available then.

"It was trauma. Did I ever get help for it? No. I don't know if I needed it or not," Cassidy said. "I probably did."

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