City Paper is not for tourists
The 25-year-old man was just one of the anonymous, wind-chilled figures that trudged into the Twinbrook Metro station on a cold evening in January 1995. Like everyone else, he fed his farecard into the turnstile slot, filed through, and approached the threshold of the descending escalator. But there he strayed.
As the rush-hour hordes around him crammed onto the moving steps, the man mounted the escalator railing, leapt out toward the track, turned a perfect somersault, and glanced off the windshield of an oncoming train. He died three hours later at Suburban Hospital of massive head and chest injuries.
As Metro suicides go, the accident scene was no bloodier than most, according to Metro systems safety manager Ronald Keele. And although the midplunge acrobatics added a stylish touch to the man’s last leap, it ended badly: He slid down from the windshield onto the tracks, where he was crushed under two of the moving cars.
“They all end up underneath,” Keele said of the 43 suicides and 37 suicide attempts Metro has reported in its 20-year history. “The main way they die is they’re either crushed to death or numerous parts of the body are severed.” The Twinbrook accident scene was the first that Keele had seen in person in his two years as Metro’s safety manager.
“I’m sure it could be worseat least everything was still intact on his body,” he recalls.
The man, who worked for the U.S. General Accounting Office, was the first of four Metro deaths last year, all of them suicides. With a yearly ridership of nearly 200 million, four suicides may not sound like a lot. However, Metro’s tally is second only to New York’s subway system among the eight cities that issued 1995 safety reports to the Federal Transit Administration. Morbid as it may sound, Metro’s reputation for efficiency and performance beckons people who want to put a public end to private anguish.
Metro may advertise itself as “The Easy Way Out,” but committing Metrocide is not an undertaking for the mildly anguished individual. Metro trains are equipped with glistening, half-inch-thick wheels that hug the steel tracks like clamps. They travel at an average speed of 33 mph. They weigh 77,000 pounds per coach. And if someone decides to jump, the cars can’t stop in time.
All of which makes Metrocide cheaper than a gun, more certain than wrist-slitting, and a ready option for the impulsive, says Dave Jobes, a psychologist at Catholic University who treats suicidal patients.
“People spend time planning when to take pills and how many to take for a lethal dosage,” he says. “But if you live in Washington, all you have to do is figure out when a train is coming, and, boom, it’s done.”
Over the years, all sorts of people have met arriving trains in a grisly fashion: a George Washington University student, a couple of septuagenarians, homeless drunks, professionals, and a teenager. Males are more likely to take the rush-hour plunge than women, a fact that Jobes attributes to a male fascination with fast-moving vehicles.
Subway suicide is generally a youthful pursuitof the 20 Metro suicides for which age data are available, 16 were under 35 years old. People in this age group tend to kill themselves over problems in their professional lives, Jobes says. More than half of all Metrocides have occurred during rush hour, when the suicide victims have paused to ponder either the prospect or aftermath of a nasty day at the office.
The only trait that nearly all subway suicide victims share is hostility, according to Jobes. “This is a very public way for people to kill themselves,” he says. “It’s the ultimate sort of ‘fuck you’ or rejection of society. ‘I’m going to put this in your face whether you like it or not,’ is what these people are saying….You could easily do the same thing by jumping off the Taft Bridge, and then you wouldn’t be bothering anyone else.”
Metro’s substations are transportation amphitheaters, with an echo-ridden vastness that cries out for some sort of performance. With their high, arching ceilings and wide platforms, the stations could bring out the showman in a hermit, not to mention a hyperdramatic suicide contemplator. The platforms are both crowded and anonymous, places that can amplify a sense of being alone in the crowd.
“It shows how narcissistic and self-absorbed suicidal people can be,” says Brian Barry, an expert on death and dying at the Rochester Institute of Technology. “People know that if they overdose or slit their wrists, they’re anonymous. But this will get them into the Post, or prove that they have the power to hold up thousands of people in rush hour. The more people, the bigger the drama.”
All suicide attempts on the Metro end badly, but they are not always the end of the line.
On a Monday morning in mid-October, for example, a 49-year-old woman made herself the fourth unsuccessful suicide of the year, jumping onto the inbound tracks of the Bethesda station at 8:30 a.m.
She lived. She was struck by plastic tubing underneath the lead car, suffering a broken arm, facial lacerations, and vertebra damage to her neck. She told county rescue workers that she wanted to die as they hauled her off for treatment at Suburban Hospital.
Paul Rosynsky remembers the rush-hour suicide attempt last June that forced all the passengers on his Red Line train at Metro Center to evacuate at around 4:30 p.m. “I was just thinking about how I liked to go into the city because you never know what’s going to happen, and then we found out this woman jumped, and I was thinking, ‘Man, you don’t get this in College Park.’…I thought it was morbid, but very exciting,” recalls Rosynsky.
“I was joking with this lady when we were walking out, and she was like, ‘Oh man, if you’re going to kill yourself, don’t do it at rush hour.’”
The 32-year-old woman who jumped that day wreaked havoc on Metro’s schedule, tying up Red Line trains between Judiciary Square and Farragut North for over an hour. Delays resulting from a “Code Purple-Purple”Metro’s term for a jumperusually range from one to three hours, Keele says. The woman, who was visiting the District from British Columbia, survived after having her right leg amputated at George Washington University Hospital.
Classifying suicide attempts is tricky business for Metro, says Metro spokeswoman Cheryl Johnson. “People have on occasion stopped what they thought was someone intending suicidesomeone arousing suspicion by standing too close to the edge or walking too close to the edge. But it’s hard to tell how many of these are actual suicide attempts.”
Keele says Metro fields threats from would-be jumpers all the time. But when the attempt is obviousi.e., a person jumps, gets hit by a train, and survivesMetro presses charges against the jumper. “That’s trespassing,” says Keele. “We want people to know that they can’t just come here and kill themselves at will. It’s a disruption to traffic and to patrons who are not abusing the system.” Keele admits that there have not been any cases in which Metro has actually followed through on the threat.
(Metro is ever vigilant when it comes to discouraging suicide attempts. When I tried to interview train drivers in Metro Center about suicide within the system, I found myself surrounded by six Metro police officers. One of the officers asked me if I planned to jump.)
Keele says that while suicides are memorable and disturbing events, Metro does not consider them frequent enough to be a serious problem. “We think we’re the best in the country,” he says. “It’s pretty hard in our system to violate the system and commit suicide. Of course it does happen….There’s a few every now and again that get by us that we absolutely couldn’t catch.”
Those that get by them may suffer a slower death than they anticipated. Despite the widespread belief that jumpers electrocute themselves on impact, “That’s never happened to my knowledge,” Keele says. “In fact, someone tried to kill themselves that way and when it didn’t work, they were like, ‘Aw, I can’t even do that right.’”
A few cities worldwide, including Lille, Sapporo, and Taipei, have built transit systems with platform gatesbarriers at the edge of the platform with doors that open when the train arrives. Designed to shield passengers from snow and ice, platform-gate systems also make it impossible to jump in front of the train.
Keele says Metro is not considering installing platform gates, which are costly and difficult to build into already existing systems. (Metro even balked at the high cost of installing threshold strips on the platform as a warning device for the blind.)
Suicide jumps are painful for everyonevictims, their relatives, witnesses, commuters, and rescue workers. But the experience can be downright brutal for the drivers, who see red on their windshield and are the first to feel the bone-crunching bumps under the train wheels. “They try to get it out of their head, because it’s a really bad scene,” says Keele. “Even though it’s not your fault, a lot of the drivers thinking about it later think, ‘Hey, is there something I could have done?’”
“Every station you come into, there’s a potential jumper….It’s almost like being in combat,” says Clyde Smith, a driver with seven years of experience on Metro tracks. He says his co-workers who have driven through suicide attempts need months to banish nightmares and flashbacks. “You can’t just get behind the wheel the next day,” he says.
Jumping in front of a train is not a “cry for help.” Once a jumper has made his or her mind up, there just isn’t much drivers can do. Their only means of preventing the collision between man and machine is an emergency button that locks all the wheels on the train. By then, says spokeswoman Johnson, the die is cast. “Of course, stopping a multiton machine on a dime is an impossibility.”
All Metro can do for the drivers is provide counseling and time off. And most of the time, they can’t do anything for the jumper except call in a crew to clean up the mess.