The last few years have been deadly ones on the train tracks. Last year alone 30 people died in New Jersey when they were struck by trains. While some of those were killed by accident, by bad decisions to be on the tracks, others were people who wanted to die.
No matter how it happens, one person is left with the horror of the victim’s final seconds and the sound of the train hitting someone: The engineer.
“It’s the only job where when you are trained you’re told if you’re in this job long enough, you will kill someone,” said engineer Tom Haas, who has twice hit people trespassing on the tracks.
“There’s nothing at all that I can do but blow the horn and pray and watch it happen,” he said.
Last week, NJ Transit released plans for making crossings safer, including improved signage, warning systems and ongoing changes to its educational programs.
Because so many teens are killed on the tracks each year, NJ Transit has started trying a new approach in the educational safety talks at high schools and middle schools.
“It’s kind of like ‘Scared Straight,’” said NJ Transit spokesman John Durso. “We are really trying to scare them away from walking on the tracks or horsing around near the tracks. So we’re bringing in the engineers to tell their personal stories. It’s very powerful.”
Park Ridge High School was among the first to hear the new approach last fall because they have tracks that cross a street in town and a teen was killed on the tracks not too far away in Garfield two days after two teens were killed and one was injured in Wayne while walking on a trestle kids used for shortcuts. The 450 students in the assembly heard the stories from engineers, as well an NJ Transit police officer and watched a film about a high school student who had everything going for him but made the fatal decision of crossing the tracks at the wrong time.
The film also addressed other real-life scenarios: Kids walking along the tracks listening to their iPods unaware of approaching trains, kids trying to hop a moving train for a free ride, only to have it cost them a limb or their lives.
Then came the engineers.
A hush fell on the auditorium as Tom Haas and Melvin Caban told their stories.
Both choked up as they recalled in vivid detail the days they struck and killed someone on the tracks.
Haas saw the boy, who he later learned was a 7th grader, walking along the tracks, listening to his iPod. Haas blew his horn and threw on the train’s emergency brakes as soon as he saw the boy on the tracks.
“… He never moved. He never heard me coming,” he said, adding, "It all seemed to happen in slow motion."
The next thing Haas heard was “that sickening sound of a train hitting and running over" someone.
“He was only 12, and now he’s dead because of a bad decision,” Haas told the students. “Remember, I can’t swerve to get around you. And I can’t stop. If you get hit by a train, you will die.”
Caban also threw on the brake and blared the horn when he saw a man on the tracks. But when the man looked up, it was too late.
“I saw his face for a millisecond but I’ll remember it forever,” he told the students, adding that the experience seemed to happen in slow motion and he’ll never forget the thud of the man going under the train.
Those images will haunt the engineers, despite the therapy NJ Transit provides and the emotional support they get from each other. The live with the knowlege — and often the anxiety — that it could happen any day, at any time.
While they can't prevent someone from taking their life, they can try to minimize the accidents and the senseless deaths of students by telling them their stories and hoping that sharing what they go through will make a difference.
And, they said, they've found that it helps them to be able to talk openly about the incidents with teenagers, to feel proactive in preventing future deadly accidents.
“If telling our stories to them will make them think about it and make them make better choices, then it’s worth it,” Caban said.
As part of its new approach, NJ Transit Police Lt. Richard Marinelli reads from the police report of a train fatality and describes how police had to pick up body parts along the tracks. “A sneaker with a foot still in it, found a hundred yards away,” he said. Then he holds up a plastic sandwich bag and tells the students that’s often what they use to put remains in — the impact is so great.
At a recent program, he also read a police account from an officer who had to inform a mother that her 13-year-old son was killed on the tracks. “A lot of people are affected by the decisions you make,” he said.
Afterwards, some students said it was powerful and sad and said they hadn't realized just how dangerous the tracks can be.
NJ Transit will bring the program to any school that asks for it. Any school in a town with a train line should consider it, transit officials say.
“We really want to make teens aware of the dangers,” Durso said. “And to make them think hard about decisions they make around the tracks.”