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Track tragedies: Train operators struggle to cope with subway deaths

Jermaine Dennis, an MTA train operator, is back at work after a traumatic incident last August when a suicidal woman jumped in front of his train. (Photo by Dave Sanders)

She picked the perfect place to die: the Aqueduct-North Conduit station on the A line, where trains travel at more than 30 miles an hour to get up a steep hill.

Even if train conductor Jermaine Dennis had seen her that sunny summer morning last August, the results likely would have been the same. The elderly woman who jumped in front of his 400-ton train would have died.

“I started to cry,” said Dennis, remembering how he tried to keep her talking as she lay under the train. “She said, ‘Let me die in peace.’ That compounded my emotions, to be honest.”

Struggling to comfort the dying woman, the 37-year-old Bronx conductor with less than two years on the job also evacuated passengers, called dispatch and helped control the crowd.

Hitting people is one of the most traumatic, but common, experiences for the MTA’s 3,200 train operators. About 90 people are struck on the tracks each year; half of them die, according to transit statistics.

In response to the spike, union officials warned train operators earlier this month not to enter crowded stations at full speed. Extra breaking could cause minor train delays, but officials said they’d rather be safe than sorry.

“You want to keep your trains on time, but you need to be on point,” Goetzl said.

The incidents often are clustered around the holidays, but “12-9s,” as they are called, are way up this year, with 34 people being hit so far, union officials said.

“Obviously the economy is a factor,” said Edgar Goetzl, 59, a Brooklyn train operator who struck a woman in 2003 and another person in 2009.

Dr. Howard Rombom, a psychologist who has counseled 130 city train operators who have struck people on the tracks, said most operators experience anxiety and sleeplessness. It typically takes six months of therapy to deal with the trauma, if they ever can leave it behind.

“We have people who simply can’t get back to work,” Rombom said.

The soft-spoken Dennis said he had visions of the woman with silvery hair in his house and he needed medication to sleep. He was consumed with the thought of her flat shoes and handbag abandoned on the platform before she jumped.

“I thought that this was someone’s mother and grandmother … That she died alone. That bothered me. It really did,” said Dennis, who never learned the woman’s name.

Workers compensation left Dennis with about $500 less cash per check, and he fell behind on his bills, eventually loosing his house. He attended counseling and reluctantly returned to work two months later. His knees shook the first day back.

“It gets you paranoid,” said Dennis Jones, 39, a Brooklyn train operator who fatally hit a man who jumped in front of his W train several years ago. “It’s a big stressful environment.”

A worker who hits someone gets three days off and counseling services, a transit spokesman said. They can transfer to a less stressful transit job, but most return to operating a train, which pays about $60,000 a year.

“It changed my life,” said Dennis, his voice quivering. “Every now and then I think about her family. I pray for her and hope she’s in a better place.”

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The number of times people have been hit by trains in recent years
2007: 90 incidents, 50 fatal
2008: 98 incidents, 33 fatal
2009: 89 incidents, 44 fatal
2010*: 34 incidents so far

Source: NYC Transit; *Transport Workers Union

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