The awful stories of two recent New York City subway deaths have sparked sad tales of the victims and their murderers, but have mostly ignored another another unlucky participant: the driver of the train who had to watch someone die. The front page of The New York Times on Friday profiles just a few of the many operators who have been at the controls when their trains struck passengers and finds that they are often haunted forever by the experience. The phenomenon has been covered before, naturally, but the drivers are often forgotten about. Many suffer post-traumatic stress, nightmares, depression, and some never return to work at all. And it happens far more often than most people realize.
In New York City, people are struck and killed by subway trains on a average of about one fatality a week. (There are also hundreds of accidents and near-misses each year that don't end with a death.) Many are suicides and pushing deaths are still very rare, but in almost every case the train operator is helpless to do anything about it. (Though occasionally, there are heroes.) And train drivers know that if you do the job long enough, it will almost certainly happen to you. One said he's "10 or 11" in his 28-year career.
Operators involved in a "12-9" (the code for a person hit on the tracks) are offered counseling and a minimum of three days off, but the memory of such a horrible moment never really goes. They're also tested for drugs and alcohol, although given the blind turns into some stations, split-second decision times, and the difficulty of stopping a 400-train, there's usually nothing the driver can do avert a tragedy. Unfortunately, that doesn't make it any less tragic.
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