Correction to This Article
The article about the effects of train suicides on engineers misspelled the name of John Tolman, vice president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.

For Train Operators, a Lingering Mix of Horror, Helplessness

Amtrak engineer Bruce Evans has witnessed several suicides during his 20 years driving trains.
Amtrak engineer Bruce Evans has witnessed several suicides during his 20 years driving trains. (Nikki Kahn - The Washington Post)
By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 2, 2009

Bruce Evans has learned to look away. Hoping to keep his mind free of yet another image that will linger for a lifetime, he has learned to avert his eyes as his train barrels down on a person on the tracks. In 20 years at the controls of Amtrak locomotives, Evans has watched a dozen fatalities unfold in agonizing close-up.

"After the first time you strike somebody, you just turn your head and wait for the impact," said Evans, an engineer based out of Washington's Union Station.

The first one was sitting on a quiet stretch of rail near Weldon, N.C., a man ignoring Evans's frantic horn blasts, waiting for a locomotive roaring at 75 mph to end his despair. "When I looked in the mirror, he was tumbling in the air, just flying," Evans said. "I can see it as clearly as if it was happening in front of me right now."

Colorfast mental snapshots of horror, a sense of overwhelming helplessness, sympathy and sometimes anger -- these are the aftershocks that engineers and subway train operators report from their special perch as unwilling agents of sudden death. Eight people have jumped in front of Metro trains in 2009, the most in recent years, and inches from each of those horrific scenes, barely mentioned in the news, sits a traumatized driver who will be forever entangled with a stranger's demise. It is an intimacy none of them sought.

"It's such a mixture of both anger and compassion, I don't know where one ends and the other starts," said Evans, who estimates that about half of his fatal strikes were suicides. "They're doing this to you, too. It's a hard thing to take home."

According to a British study, 16 percent of train operators involved in fatal incidents develop post-traumatic stress. For some, getting right back behind the controls is the best way to shake off the shadows of violence. For others, years of counseling are needed before they can return to everything they love about driving a train.

Some never do.

"Everyone reacts differently," Evans, 61, said. He told of a colleague who struck a mother and her four children on the tracks near Providence, R.I., a murder-suicide. "He never worked again."

It took Julia Lee, 59, almost eight years before she could get back in the cab of a Metro train after striking someone who had climbed down from the platform in Rockville in 1988. As she rolled into the station at 35 mph, a man was reclining on the tracks, his elbow resting on the rail.

"I screamed and hit the red mushroom" emergency brake, said Lee. "But we were right on top of him. I felt the thump-thump and knew we had hit him."

Evans reminds himself that he is no more to blame in a death-by-train case than sleeping pills or razor blades are the cause of other suicides. "I'm no different than a bullet being shot out of gun," he said. "I'm just the weapon."

But the flip side of not being responsible is the devastating feeling of not be able to do anything in the moments before impact. The driver of a car might at least have the option of swerving out of the way or slamming on the brakes. The driver of a train doesn't steer, and it can take a half-mile or more to stop. Evans has conditioned himself not to hit the emergency brake, a futile gesture more likely to injure passengers or derail the train than protect the person out front.

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