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New Scotland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, March 29, 2012
Death by train: Rail suicides leave lasting pain
NEW SCOTLAND On Saturday, a 23-year-old Delmar man called family members on his cell phone to tell them he was killing himself while crouching in the path of an oncoming freight train, reported Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple.
The incident occurred at about noon on March 24, on the rails near Youmans Road, and has been ruled a suicide by sheriff’s investigators. Police identified the deceased man as Nathaniel Myers. A 2007 honors graduate of Voorheesville’s high school, Myers was known for his talents as an artist.
The sheriff released limited information on Myers. Apple said he “suffered from depression for several years.” Police also reported Myers was single, had no children, was not employed, and lived with his parents.
According to Apple, Myers parked his car at a nearby eatery, the Tastee Treat, before walking to the railroad tracks. During this time, Myers called a relative on his cell phone and “indicated to a family member what he was going to do,” said Apple. As the train approached, engineers on board saw Myers on the tracks about a quarter-mile away; they blew whistles and attempted a futile emergency stop.
CSX spokesman Robert Rohower, whose company operated the line, said most freight trains are a mile-and-a-half to two-miles long and require up to fours miles to stop. Apple said the train involved in Saturday’s incident was heading east to the Selkirk rail yard and was at least a mile-and-a-quarter long.
Investigators reviewed video footage from cameras installed in the front of the train to confirm the incident, said Apple. Rohower said cameras installed on engines are a common industry practice. However, the camera was not the only witness to the incident as CSX operators also looked on during Myers’s final moments.
“More often than not, those folks are the most forgotten in the outside world,” said Rohower, of train operators. “There is no steering wheel to turn away. They’ll always remember that location.”
In the aftermath of Saturday’s death, Apple said, train employees were allowed to take the rest of the day off. “It’s tragic he took his own life; it’s tragic the people on the train have to live with this,” he said.
Rail suicides are prevalent
Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Robert Kulat said the agency keeps a number of statistics involving railway deaths and injuries but suicide information is hard to come by. In fact, Kulat said, 2012 marks the first year the railroad administration has attempted to collect data on the number of suicide train deaths. Starting the first of the year, railroad companies are now required to include the medical examiners’ manner-of-death findings in information submitted to the railroad administration. There are four classifiable manners of death: accidental, natural, homicide, or suicide.
When asked why the railroad administration decided to record the information in 2012, Kulat responded, “The reason is because there’s evidence that suicides are very prevalent on railroads and we need to capture that information.”
Rail workers have often encountered suicides. “It causes anxiety and stress. It goes with the job. If you become an engineer, you will have to deal with it,” said a three-decade veteran of the Amtrak Service.
The Enterprise is withholding the Amtrak engineer’s name.
During his 30-plus years as a rail employee, the engineer said, he was involved in four fatal incidents. It’s unknown if some of them were suicides.
“It’s a situation you have no control over, you cannot stop that train. If you see something on the tracks and it doesn’t move, you will hit it.” The engineer said he’s had to cope with deaths involving a child, a homeless man, a serviceman, and a pedestrian. The homeless man’s death could have been a suicide, he said. The man was struck on the tracks as darkness fell.
The engineer’s first incident was an accident 20 years ago and involved a young girl sitting on the tracks. The engineer said he had no idea why she was there and one of his jobs that day was to keep curious passengers from leaving the car to look at the scene.
“She’ didn’t get killed. She lost a leg and an arm,” he recalled. The engineer said many on the train heard the distinct sound of the collision or at least felt the train’s floorboards shake as the car drove over her limbs.
“The way to get around it is you have to convince yourself it’s not your fault. You did everything you could; blew the horn, hit the brakes, operated at a safe speed,” said the engineer.
Though not his most recent incident, the engineer said, one of the most disturbing moments came for him about 10 years ago. Two servicemen, West Point cadets, he recalled, were waiting for a passenger train in the New York City area after a night out on the town. The engineer, again, wasn’t sure of the how or why but, when he first saw the men from his approaching train, one of them was on the platform and the other was on the rail beside it.
“I remember the guy because he was the same age as my son at the time, 20 years old,” he said. They were out partying, alcohol might have played a role, I don’t know. Cadets doing the right thing, not driving home,” he said.
“He was trying to pull himself up onto the platform and he couldn’t do it in time. All he had to do was move out of the way, duck under the platform or something… I had to run my train through there every day; I always thought of him after that when I did. I still think of him. That did bother me a lot for quite a long time,” admitted the engineer.
Kulat said railroad companies operate programs designed to help employees cope with such incidents. Rohower said CSX offers employees time off and counseling services. “It is a wide reaching situation that affects many people,” said Rohower. “A tragic part is it affects so many people that don’t have a choice.”
Though the railroad association has released some information regarding suicide statistics, the American Association of Suicidology recently completed a five-year study for the agency. The association confirmed this week it had completed the study that looks closely at suicides involving railways and sent it to the agency.
The group reported that it hopes to develop preventative measures at high-risk areas and attempt to reverse the psychology of people committing suicide at such sites. Kulat confirmed the agency had received the study but said its findings were still being processed and that it was not public.
A 2008 study of rail trespassing fatalities, prepared at the direction of the railroad administration to look at preventing trespassing offenses at rail properties, indicates that 22 percent may be suicides. It states that about 500 people are killed annually at rail sites while trespassing. The report notes that, because the companies weren’t required to report suicides separately, the number of trespassing fatalities was higher.
“The Federal Railroad Administration regulations do not require railroads to report suicides so reported suicides inflate the trespass problem,” it reads. The report states, of the 935 medical examiners that replied, “coroners used the words ‘suicide’ or ‘intentional’ in describing 18 percent of the incidents. In reviewing their descriptions, an additional 5 percent have been classified as probable suicides.”
The railroad administration recorded 17 railroad trespasser fatalities in New York in 2011; only two of those involved CSX trains. The agency reported no related deaths occurred in Albany County last year.
The problem is not new. The European Journal of Public Health reported the first railway suicide on record occurred in 1852.
Nearly 35,000 Americans committed suicide in 2007, according to figures from the Center for Disease and Control. The center explained that equates to one person taking his life every 15 minutes.
People who have lost someone to suicide and are seeking help, or people contemplating suicide may call Contact Lifeline at 518-689-4673.