Last Wednesday was a day like any other as I joined the evening rush hour throngs on a subway platform, attempting to squeeze my way onto a very crowded downtown 2 express train. Having found a minuscule amount of personal space in the back half of the train, that familiar chime came across the speaker and the doors closed. As usual, the train raced down Broadway, passing local stops at lightening speed. But as we began to enter the bustling Times Square/42nd Street station, the train came to abrupt halt.
Trains stopping in mid-tunnel is not a terribly uncommon occurrence in the aging NYC subway system. Usually it’s a few minutes, there’s a reassuring announcement (usually something along the lines of being delayed either by the train dispatcher or by train traffic ahead) and then we’re off and moving again. But not this time. We sat and sat for approximately 20 minutes before an announcement rang through the car.
The jumbled voice of the conductor came across the loudspeaker though he was extremely difficult to understand amongst the crowds in my car. It seemed that the train had only pulled about halfway into the station and for some inexplicable reason could not go any further. Instead, the train was out of service and the conductor would be coming through the back half of the train to escort the passengers off.
It was now clear that something was very wrong and rumors began to fly about amongst the passengers. Some thought they heard that the conductor would be walking us through the tunnel to the platform. Others tried, unsuccessfully, to make their way towards to front of the train. Someone mentioned that they thought the train may have hit someone. As we waited, the crowd slowly began filing off through the one door on the back half of the train that had just barely reached the platform edge.
There was a flurry of police activity on the platform. As I walked towards the front of the train, I suddenly hit a point were the police stood guard, ensuring that folks could not continue further down the platform. As I asked some of the mortified looking passengers who had been waiting for my train what had happened, I got an explanation.
A woman had thrown herself in front of the train on the opposite track in an apparent suicide attempt. The train operator had applied the emergency brakes but was not able to stop before hitting the woman, who apparently survived and, at last word, is still in critical condition. I looked across the tracks and saw the uptown 2 train that had hit her, stopped just before the point where my train had stopped. Meanwhile, the NYPD was doing a very good job of ensuring that bystanders could not see any of the gruesomeness happening on the opposite track.
Rather shaken by the whole affair, I wasn’t about to wait around to try and see them removing the woman’s body, so I made my way over the N-Q-R trains to continue my journey. As I waited on that platform, my mind was spinning yet I could not escape what had just happened. It certainly did not help that announcements kept booming over the loudspeakers…”Due to a police investigation at Times Square/42nd Street, uptown 2 and 3 trains are running on the local track.” “Police investigation,” is that what they call it when someone tries to kill themselves?
As the Q train arrived, I took a deep breath and stepped on board. Settling down into a seat, I remembered what all those fancy new metro systems I saw all over Asia had that we don’t have….platform screen doors that open when the train arrives arrives. That simple (and I’m sure far too costly for the MTA) solution could save the approximately 90 people who are struck by NYC subways each year, including those that find it wise to jump onto the tracks to retreive their personal belongings, only to find themselves face to face with a subway train.
On my way back uptown, I very purposely did not want to go to Times Square and stand on that platform where it had all happened. Instead, I boarded a 3 train at 34th Street/Penn Station. And as we passed through Times Square, a mere hour and a half after my earlier train had ground to a halt, there wasn’t a sign left that anything out of the ordinary had happened. It was a distinct moment of the true New York mentality: Go on with your life. Nothing to see here.