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Erika Anderson: On the Tracks

December 7, 2012

Ki-Suck Han's death on a New York City subway track has the city asking what would I do? One writer examines death in public, how the MTA handles trauma, and what it feels like to be an onlooker.

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Image from Shutterstock

By Erika Anderson

As everyone here knows, Ki-Suck Han was pushed onto the subway tracks and killed by a Q train at the 49th Street station in Manhattan on Monday, December 3rd at 12:30 pm. As everyone here knows, a freelance photographer for the New York Post snapped photos of Han moments before his death. And as everyone here knows, the man who allegedly pushed Han was arrested on Wednesday, December 5th.

Earlier on Wednesday, the photographer, R. Umar Abbasi, told the Today Show he was 500 feet away from Han, and that approximately 22 seconds passed before the train made impact. Today Show host Matt Lauer said, “Twenty-two seconds is long time.” Lauer asked the question so many already had: Why didn’t Abassi do more?

Note: It has taken you approximately 22 seconds to read this. The world record for the 100-meter dash is 9.58 seconds. 100 meters is equal to 328 feet.

“In a traumatic situation, time slows down,” said Deirdre Stoelzle Graves, Executive Director of the Dart Society, an independent association of journalists who cover trauma and violence. “One of the most interesting things I found about photojournalists is that they seem to innately understand that moment—incredibly photographs are taken in a traumatic moment—and people wonder, why didn’t the photographer render aid?”

The man on the tracks seemed disoriented and oblivious rather than frantic. Not so for those of us on the platform.

Abbassi has said that he was merely using his camera as a beacon, that he was hoping his flash would warn the train’s conductor.

“That is definitely not a recommendation, you’re just blinding the train operator,” said Noah Rodriguez, who operates trains on the 3 line. “We’re very cautious when we come into stations. Flashes will blind operators temporarily. We try to look down or up when there’s a flash.” Instead, he suggests waving your hands to get the driver’s attention. Of Abbassi’s story, he says, “Personally, I believe that’s an excuse— and a lame one at that.”

*

This summer, I watched a man standing on the tracks at the Nostrand station in Brooklyn as an A train barreled down. I do not know how he got there, but he seemed disoriented and oblivious rather than frantic. Not so for those of us on the platform. Time wasn’t just slow, it had vanished. It was also the most important measure to everyone but him; he walked leisurely across the tracks, pausing at times and staring into the distance. People shouted and screamed, we experienced anticipation of the inevitable: a man is on the tracks, a train is fast approaching, body will meet metal, metal will macerate body. All we could do was watch this man, this bald, infantile man, this massive man wearing a grey windbreaker and faux-Adidas exercise pants.

Life, this sacred life, this life that is small and nothing, I thought.

This was about the possibility of seeing something as intimate as death—the moment a person stops being a person and becomes a body—in the most public of places.

Luckily, the train stopped. I don’t know why or how the conductor was alerted to the man on the track, but the train screeched to a halt as it entered the station. Luckily, some men on the platform coaxed the man over to the edge of the track and pulled him up. He had no idea what had happened, or, rather, what hadn’t happened.

After a long pause, the train inched forward. The doors opened. I walked into a car only to turn around and face this man. He held out his arms and howled, “Train!” as if it were an ice cream cone he wanted to lick or a puppy dog he wanted to pet. Someone held him back by his windbreaker. Someone else ran for the station agent. I put my hand on his chest and said, “No. Not this train.” He retreated. The doors closed. A woman told our car what had happened. She said she was shaking. I, too, was shaking.

This was about the possibility of seeing something as intimate as death—the moment a person stops being a person and becomes a body—in the most public of places. It was about how we shout at strangers to save them. It was about how the city throws us together in all kinds of situations, and sometimes the only thing we can offer is witnessing, but other times, if we are quick and brave—and very lucky—we can offer much more.

*

The MTA’s “Be Safe. Be Smart” posters state that 146 people were struck by trains in 2011, and 47 of those people were killed. According to a report from the NYC Transit’s Office of System Safety, the rate of passengers being hit by trains in 2011 was 0.09 for every million customers.

“The more you are on the road and around the city, the higher the probability you might come in contact with someone on the tracks, homeless people sleeping or a suicide,” Noah Rodriguez said. Still, the MTA does not train its 3,500 drivers how to handle the potential emotional consequences.

“There are better systems that could be put into place,” Rodriguez said. While he revealed that train operators were exploring these options, he was not at liberty to discuss specifics.

While the MTA said there was no official policy for the amount of leave train operators are given after the trains they are driving collide with a human being, Jim Gannon of the Transport Union contradicted that account. “Three days. It has to be fatality. This is MTA we’re talking about now. That’s what the official contract says.”

And if three days isn’t sufficient, train operators can seek medical attention with MTA-approved doctors and request workers’ compensation. I cannot imagine how three days would be sufficient under any circumstances. I assumed it would have been weeks or months, even a year. I am haunted by the man I saw standing on the tracks in June even though in the end, nothing happened. Nothing at all .

*

In the case of fatality, the station agent contacts the NYPD. The coroner arrives. When I asked the MTA about what happens to the rest of the remains, the press office representative said, “We don’t talk about that.” When I told him that an MTA cleaner had told me that they cover the remains with sand, he said, “Fine. But official MTA policy is that we don’t discuss this.”

As for the drivers, Jim Gannon said that, “Some people just go back to work.”

The rest of us do, too.

Erika Anderson is an online editor for Electric Literature, teaches with the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop and tweets for the Franklin Park Reading Series. She has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives in Brooklyn.

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