Back in February, the first of February, an unseasonably warm and blue day, I was on a train that hit a passenger. It was a Manhattan-bound C-train pulling into Hoyt-Schermerhorn. I was riding in the front car. We were two-thirds of the way into the station when we heard and felt the thud. It sounded like someone inside the train had slammed their palm against the wall – except for the silence that followed. All of us in the car looked at one another. The doors stayed closed for a few minutes. When they opened, the conductor came over the loudspeaker and repeated: “Get off the train. Get off the train!” We hesitated, until his voice hit a frantic pitch.
I moved through subway tunnels, squeezing against other passengers, wanting only to be above ground, the sirens approaching as I climbed the stairs. If I’d stayed, I’d have learned that the man we hit – 32 years old, attempting suicide – didn’t die. He knocked the second car and fell back onto the platform with no visible injuries. “No service interruptions,” the NYPD public information officer explained to me on the phone the following Monday.
If they drive the same route, they pass the spot and think, “Here?” and the scene replays. Listening to them was like entering a series of other people’s nightmares.
“Was this guy famous or something?” he asked. “Why are you interested?”
This is not the kind of story I typically tell. I’m an editorial assistant, and when I’m not filing contracts or creating UPS labels, usually I write about food. My most serious reporting cred is the time I threw up twice before covering a meat festival and still managed to taste the food from every booth. But the older I get, the more I’m drawn to stories of randomness and uncertainty; more recently, I’ve interviewed a survivor of the Oklahoma tornado and written a victim’s perspective of the Jared Loughner trial. I admire trauma reporters tremendously. But I don’t yet count myself among them.
I was drawn to this story because I was there. The event wasn’t “newsworthy.” People are struck by the subway a couple times a week in the five boroughs, and the stories only show up in the paper if something sensational happens – like last year, when a New York Daily News photographer snapped an image of a man trying to climb back onto the platform as a train approached. They put it on the front page, with the headline: “Doomed: Pushed on the subway track this man is about to die.”
But around 9:40 on a Saturday morning, I was involved in this random violence, an inevitable violence that comes with the mechanical functioning of the city. And suddenly, I wanted to know about all of the other people affected by subway accidents. When I explained my experience to the Transit Union’s media contact, he sent a mass email to a Google Group of train operators telling them I was interested in writing a story about 12-9s. At the MTA, 12-9 is code for “man under.”
Emails and phone calls starting filtering in from operators. Not so many, maybe fifteen in all, but their stories would spill out over the phone before I could even ask a question. Perhaps they felt more open with me because they knew I’d been on a train that hit someone. Mostly I suspect it was because they live with the repercussions every day and not many people ask.
They’re the public servants whose work makes the rapid pace of New York life possible. But the risk in driving heavy equipment day after day is something they all understand. Even if they’re doing everything right, there’s no barrier between the track and the platform.
After 12/9s, when they return to work, if they return, they feel queasy as they hit sharp curves, sweaty approaching certain stations – all the places where they can’t see ahead. If they drive the same route, they pass the spot and think, “Was it here?” And the scene replays.
Soon, whenever I stood on a platform, my chest felt tight. Especially when someone stepped over the yellow line to see if the train was coming.
Listening to them was like entering a series of other people’s nightmares. It could be hard to breathe. One driver emailed to say that he’d had two 12-9s. He couldn’t discuss them – it was agony to remember – but he embedded images in his message, of the head and twisted neck of a dead man trapped between the platform and the train. Another woman I spoke to couldn’t use certain kitchen appliances because the grinding sound reminded her of a man being crushed.
There was gallows humor too. A man who had to clean a train after one 12-9 told me that his supervisor joked, “Check the fingers for rings.”
For days, I couldn’t get that photo of the dead man out of my head. I ride the subway to work, and soon, whenever I stood on the platform, my chest felt tight. Especially when someone stepped over the yellow line and leaned out to see if the train was coming.
Work got busy. The train story was a side project, so I shelved it temporarily. Or so I thought. It’s been four months now, and several unreturned emails, a FOIL request I’ve barely followed up on, four audio files of untranscribed interviews, and contact information for five sources I meant to call still clutter my hard drive. I want to tell this story, but I’m not sure I will.
I’m still new to all of this, and I’m torn. I don’t want to disappoint the people who took the time and emotional energy to tell me about their experiences. They deserve to be heard, and I want to be brave enough to listen. But I’m still at a point where I have choices about the kinds of stories I tell.
I think about something a couple of the train operators told me. Their therapists advised them not to seek out the details of their 12-9s, the names, ages, and circumstances of the people they’d struck. Knowing makes it harder, they said. But isn’t that a reporter’s job? To live in the details?
Even secondhand, they can be a lot to bear. When I think about going back to this story, I feel like I’m going underground.