Monday evening en route to Millbrae

I’m trying very hard to cut down on my driving, so when I needed to go to Berkeley last night, I decided to take CalTrain commuter rail to the Millbrae station, and transfer there to BART for the rest of the trip.

After we left the San Mateo station, we were scheduled to go express to Millbrae, so I got up to stand near the doors. Not far from the San Mateo station, the train came to a dead stop. I looked out the window, and we weren’t near any station.

Then one of the train crew made an announcement over the public address system: “Ahh, we are stopped here because the train has just hit a white male,” he said. His voice sounded a little unsteady. “We’ll have to stay here until the police come….” The man was under the fifth car of the train.

I sat back down again. Years ago, I was on the train heading into Boston when the train hit someone, and we had to wait for over an hour before we got going again. I remembered hearing then that the police treated the train as a crime scene, which they had to document before the train could move again.

I sat and read a book. Every once in a while, a member of the train crew would walk up or down the aisle with expressions that ranged from blank to unhappy and sick at heart. After a while, I saw police and EMTs walk by. They did not hurry, so I assumed the man was dead. A member of the train crew announced that we would have to wait for the coroner to come and make his investigation. We waited. A couple of southbound trains passed on the other track; there had been no trains moving at first, but now the dispatcher was letting the southbound trains go. I saw more police walk by, and a couple of people with the word “Sheriff” on the back of their shirts. We waited. I saw Amtrak personnel (I guess Amtrak had the contract to run CalTrain’s service) walked by, wearing hard hats and carrying clipboards.

Around me, people were talking. You could tell that we were all thinking about the recent spate of CalTrain suicides, and we were all thinking that this must have been another suicide. Some northbound trains passed us on the other track. Finally, more than an hour after we had stopped, the announcement came that we had a new train crew on board — presumably the other train crew had to stay to answer police questions — and we got underway.

I felt crummy the rest of the evening. It was like passing a really bad accident on the highway, only worse because I was pretty sure that whoever had died had committed suicide. In a way, committing suicide by throwing yourself under a train is an incredibly selfish thing to do — from the expressions of the CalTrain crew, you could tell that they were sickened by what had happened. And what a horrible way to go. I couldn’t get rid of the bad feeling all evening.

8 thoughts on “Monday evening en route to Millbrae

  1. Scott Wells

    Suicide-by-Metro creates this kind of workplace conversation.

    1. “What a terrible shame.”
    2. “How awful, too, for the riders.”
    3. Pause.
    4. “Aren’t guns and pills good enough?”

  2. Jean

    Hi Dan – Sorry you had to have this happen. Again. I was on the train to Boston one day when someone near the Brandeis station jumped in front of the train. Unfortunately, he didn’t accomplish his aim (death); as I recall one of the conductors said the jumping man had severed both arms and was still alive under the train. It was horrifying and we were there for hours, just as you were. I always wondered what happened to that person, whether they did indeed live, and what that life was like.

    I suppose you’re right in saying that suicide by train is a selfish act. Yet I wonder, aren’t most suicides a selfish act? Unless you are terminally ill, and have told your loved ones what you are doing and wen, a suicide is either done in private, knowing someone will find you. Or, it’s done in public, knowing someone will see you. Either way it visits unspeakable horrors on unsuspecting person or persons.

  3. Victor

    Suicide is selfish only in that it puts the needs of the person committing suicide over the needs of those who will be left behind. It’s a way to end whatever pain that person is experiencing, and most “victims” of suicide actually are relieved of their suffering, although their act may cause much suffering in those left behind. I’m not willing to dismiss as “selfishness” the act of committing suicide.

  4. Amy

    Dan, I’m so sorry. You told me about being stuck on the train because of a pedestrian accident, but I thought you said the death was on the other track. Now why is it that it is so much more horror-filled to think of being on the train that killed someone than on the track right beside? It is.

    I try to share Victor’s compassionate view that someone on the verge of suicide is trying to end unendurable pain. But forcing someone else to bring about your death goes well beyond putting your own needs first. The Caltrain engineers who’ve been through it talk about how brutal it is to strike someone dead; they almost always make eye contact with the person, and they are helpless to stop the train in time. And they are required, when they hit anything, to get out and examine the scene.

  5. Dan

    Thanks for the comments, all.

    Victor @ 3 — As for selfishness and suicide, I guess it’s worth noting that I actually support the right to commit suicide, assuming someone is old enough to have perspective (i.e., at least a legal adult), assuming that person’s meds are properly adjusted, assuming that person has tried other solutions to whatever problems s/he may have, etc. I still maintain that there are selfish ways to commit suicide, and much-less-selfish means to commit suicide — the least selfish way to commit suicide probably being flying to Switzerland and going to one of the non-profit organizations that will help you legally commit suicide (and yes, that takes lots of planning, and lots of time to save up money, and yes you have to be a legal adult).

  6. Victor

    Dan@5 – Dan, just wondering… is this discussion of suicidal selfishness really an indirect way of talking about the pain that the person who committed suicide caused you, i.e., misplaced anger?

  7. Jean

    Suicide is an extreme measure, final as final. As such, I’d agree with you Dan (@5) that all other measures should be taken first. That’s a difficult approach to suggest to someone who is already in extreme pain — psychic or otherwise.

    Dare I say that there is, possibly, a certain propensity to romanticize suicide? Ah, their pain was so terrible, they had to make the ultimate choice: death of the self.

    I don’t know. That sounds harsh, but too often I hear my students wax poetic and romantic about writers who kill themselves. Plath, Woolf, Hemingway, Wallace. And who shall be next?

  8. Dan

    Victor @ 6 (and, tangentially, Jean @ 7) — You’re right that’s there’s something going on under the surface here, but I think what’s going on for me is trying to process the dozen or so suicides that have taken place along the CalTrain line in the last couple of years. I guess I mostly wrote this post for people who live in this area — we’re all thinking about these suicides, and a teen from this church committed suicide in this way just before I arrived here at this church.

    So I guess I want to de-romanticize the idea of throwing yourself in front of a train — it is not romantic to be a bloody mess under a train, a mess that has be cleaned up by police, EMTs, coroner, and train crew. I’m afraid the local media have unintentionally prompted people to think of using CalTrain to commit suicide, and I want to spread an alternate view — that CalTrain is a lousy way to commit suicide.

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