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End of the Line
Trains do awful things to the people they hit, wreaking gruesome havoc that can haunt those who work L.A.’s rails. Preventing accidental deaths is challenging enough. The suicides? They seem unstoppable
Photograph by Larry Letters
Ron Iseli decided to kill himself on December 14, 2010. He left his Mid City apartment that day wearing bright yellow Converse high-tops and jeans, a leather jacket covering his sleeveless T-shirt. Gray haired and blue eyed, the East Coast native seemed cheery as he spent the morning drinking bourbon and chatting with friends at the Spotlight bar in Hollywood. At around 2 p.m. he walked to the corner of Hollywood and Vine, where he bought a $1.50 one-way ticket from a machine and rode the escalator down into the Metro station.
Iseli was 55, single, and estranged from his family. He had been fired from his last job more than a year before and had drunk away his savings. For months Iseli had been ducking eviction notices from his landlord, certain he was about to become homeless. He was too proud to ask for help, and no one would understand anyway. But his suicide options were limited. He didn’t know anyone who would give him a gun. He was too broke to buy enough drugs for an overdose. Slitting his wrists or hanging himself in his apartment would unfairly burden his roommate or whoever would have to clean up the mess.
So Iseli decided to throw himself in front of a speeding train. His death would be painless and instantaneous. He’d jump from the platform as the subway approached and simply dematerialize. Two nights before Iseli went through with his plan, he composed a suicide note. “It’s not your fault,” he wrote. “No one could have known what I was planning to do.” He folded the paper and tucked it into his wallet, hoping it would be found on his body.
Iseli’s path to oblivion sounds almost exotic in Los Angeles, where the car has long claimed dominion. But the region often leads the state in train suicides. After all, L.A. is among the busiest rail cities in the country: It is a major freight hub and home to an expanding network of mass transit lines. The Metrolink commuter service, which shares rights of way with Amtrak, operates on more than 500 miles of track in Southern California, while the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s lightrail and subway lines cover 87 miles, a figure that funding from Measure R will increase dramatically in the coming years.
The number of train-related fatalities will likely increase as well. In 2010, there were 19 pedestrian deaths caused by trains; 11 were declared suicides, though the actual number is unknowable. That’s in part because of the overlapping jurisdictions of rail companies, police departments, and transportation agencies. But also, without the sort of note that Iseli wrote, it can be difficult to distinguish cause from effect. Was the victim just zoning out with his headphones, unaware of the train behind him? Was it a homeless man—the victims are more often than not male—who’d passed out? Or was it someone like Iseli, his will to live seemingly exhausted? (In Los Angeles County suicide has recently risen to the number four cause of premature death in the general population and the number two cause for white males.) So authorities go with the rubric “trespass deaths,” a vaguely chastising term that encompasses any fatality involving a pedestrian and a train.
Some routes are more troubled than others. Along the Gold Line two people have died, both suicides, since its lightrail trains began rolling between Pasadena and downtown in 2003. The toll along the Green Line is the same, while the subway has been the scene of at least eight suicides and four accidental deaths since 1993. But none compares with the Blue Line: An estimated 113 trespass deaths have occurred along the route between Long Beach and downtown since 1990. Twenty-four of those have been classified as suicides—a statistic that has seen a recent spike, according to Marc Littman, an MTA spokesperson. “I don’t know if it’s because of the economy,” he says, “but it seems in the last six months or so, there’ve been four or five. That’s a little disturbing.” Especially for the people who operate the trains because, whether the fatality was accidental or intentional, they have to cope with the immediate aftermath. For them death is a horrifying and inevitable part of the job.
It had been a long slide down for Ron Iseli. Born in Washington, D.C., and educated at Lafayette College, Iseli had worked as a hospital security supervisor and been active in a human rights organization. In 2000, he moved to Los Angeles, began working at an advertising agency in the San Fernando Valley, and found an apartment south of Hancock Park. His drinking was already a problem. Years before, he had crashed his car in a blackout and wound up in a D.C. hospital. He promised himself he’d never drive drunk again. But getting back and forth to work in L.A. sober became difficult, so in 2006, he sold his car and stopped driving altogether. Every workday since then he had ridden the 210 bus north into Hollywood to catch the subway to North Hollywood and the Orange Line bus to his office.
Eventually, though, Iseli’s drinking cost him his job. Too disorganized to apply for unemployment, he was soon broke. He began buying Old Crow bourbon, or whatever brand was on sale, at Rite Aid and started drinking first thing in the morning, mixing a shot into his coffee or taking it straight. At times his hands shook so badly that he couldn’t keep the bourbon in a glass without spilling it. The day he decided to kill himself, he was probably still drunk from the night before.
The subway station was hot and quiet. Iseli walked past a group of young people and went to the end of the platform, where the Red Line train to North Hollywood would be rolling in. He chose this station because he knew the train reached high speeds on the one-mile leg from the station at Hollywood and Western. It would be moving fast when it arrived.
Iseli had been waiting a short time when he felt a rush of cool air: The train had left the last station and was pushing its way through the tunnel. He took off his jacket, lest it protect him from the impact, and moved closer to the mouth of the tunnel. Looking into the cavern, he could see the reflection of the train’s headlights on the tracks and then the train itself. As the first car entered the station, Ron Iseli stepped off the platform, locking eyes with the train operator in the split second before impact.
Jim Smith was a young man when he became an engineer, running freight trains from Bakersfield to Stockton. That’s where he encountered his last suicide: It was an attractive woman in a blue dress walking across the tracks through the train yard. Smith figured she was just taking a shortcut and would be out of his path well before he got there. But once she reached Smith’s track, she turned and began walking toward him. “She walked directly into the nose of the locomotive,” says Smith, who today is the state legislative director of the engineers’ union, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. “I cut her in two, right at the waist. Then I had to stop the train and go back and view the remains. It was 20 years ago, but I can see her face to this day.”
Early in their careers railroad engineers and conductors have to learn to cope with hitting things with their trains or they get out of the business. Train operators in Southern California have routine encounters with sofas, shopping carts, dogs, coyotes, cattle, even bears. Several times in recent years Metrolink trains on the Antelope Valley route have struck riders on horses. Fred Jackson, Metrolink’s manager of system safety, estimates that the average locomotive engineer will be involved in three fatal incidents in his or her career.
When a train strikes somebody, it’s usually the conductor, if there is one, who has to take “the long walk” to inspect the scene. Railroad veterans talk about how a body explodes on impact. “It’s like bits of bacon,” says one operator, who asked not to be identified. Police are called to investigate. Chaplains may be brought in to console witnesses, while a special crew may be summoned to remove blood and body parts. For the cleanup Metrolink uses a firm called United Pumping Service; the consoling falls to the Railroad Chaplains of America.
The nonprofit is part of Marketplace Ministries, an organization that was launched in 1984 by a former army chaplain named Gil Stricklin and has 2,650 chaplains in its network. One of them is Wes Sullivan. At 67, Sullivan is bald and chunky, with blue eyes and a soft voice. Like his boss, he is a retired army chaplain. Wearing a yellow shirt with MARKETPLACE MINISTRIES stitched over the pocket and sipping an iced coffee in Union Station, Sullivan remembers his first railroad call: It was in November 2006. A 15-year-old girl named Brittany had been playing on the tracks near Bakersfield one night when her friend’s foot got caught under a rail as a train approached. “Brittany tried to free her friend’s shoe,” says Sullivan. “The girl got out of the way in time. Brittany didn’t.” Sullivan arrived early the next morning. By the end of the day he had met with the victim’s mother and grandmother, advised them on arranging appointments with mental health officials, asked school personnel to visit with the children, and had the local church organize the funeral. In the five years since, Sullivan has been on the scene of 39 railroad fatalities in Southern California. He estimates that a third were suicides. When he visits the family of the deceased, they almost always ask about the engineer. “They know how devastating it is,” Sullivan says.
After a fatality, engineers can request to meet with employee assistance personnel or peer counselors. They’re offered psychiatric help as well. Some rail companies (Amtrak, Union Pacific, and BNSF, among them) give their employees up to three days off to pull themselves together. Metrolink has a service—managed by the railroad union—in which engineers who’ve experienced fatal collisions volunteer to help fellow operators.
James Salazar has already experienced six incidents—five of them fatal—in 14 years on the railroad. He comes from a family of trainmen. His father is an engineer with Amtrak’s Sunset Limited, traveling between Los Angeles and New Orleans, and his grandfather was a brakeman with Southern Pacific. Salazar started as a conductor on Amtrak’s Surfliner, Coast Starlight, and Southwest Chief routes. His first fatality occurred south of Santa Barbara. Salazar was inside the train when the emergency brakes went on and the train ground to a halt. “I just hit a lady,” the engineer told him. It was Salazar’s job as conductor to check on her. “She was a crumpled heap under the rails,” he says. “The wheel had run over her head and popped it. Her face was still intact, but there was no bone structure in it. It looked like a rubber mask lying on the ground.”
In his third year as an engineer, Salazar and his co-engineer were moving at 60 mph through an industrial swath of El Monte when they ran into a homeless woman (many trespasser strikes involve homeless people) walking on the tracks with her back to the train. A short time later Salazar was in almost the same place when he saw a man in his forties sitting on the tracks. He blew the horn and pushed the brake so hard, he almost broke his hand. “I knew I was going to hit him, and I knew he was going to die,” Salazar says. “You know it’s not your fault, but the guilt is terrible. ‘Could I have done something different? Could I have seen him earlier? Could I have blown the whistle earlier?’”
Salazar started getting calls from other engineers at once. The fellowship circled around him. His dad told him to expect some post-traumatic stress. “He said, ‘You don’t think that’s what’s giving you headaches or not letting you sleep at night or making you irritable. But it is.’ I’ve got friends who are police officers. In 15 years on the job they’ve never drawn their weapons or shot anyone or even seen a dead body.”
“The stress on the operators is tremendous,” says Jon Waide, who is a rail safety consultant for the Federal Railroad Administration. A Huntington Beach native, he started working with railroads years ago as a police officer in Tempe, Arizona, where the tracks were in his jurisdiction. “You see a trespasser near the tracks. You have no way of knowing whether he’s going to wave at you or jump in front of your train,” he says. “Even if they see someone standing or lying on the tracks, they are unable to do anything but blow their warning horns. Imagine that happening dozens of times a day. And some of these guys have been doing the same route for 30 years.” They can’t swerve or stop their trains in time. They must simply watch in horror and hope they are wrong about the person’s intentions.
Rail corridors like the one between Los Angeles and San Diego, where trains moving as fast as 90 mph pass through beach communities, are notorious among train operators. Waide has photographs, taken on ride-alongs, of near misses involving surfers with their longboards, children pushing bicycles, and women carrying babies. Because the trains are so large, they appear to be moving more slowly than they are. Despite the NO TRESPASSING signs and the engineers’ warning horns, people in his photographs always look undistressed by the close call. Waide brings the images when he goes before safety boards to argue for safer rail crossings. He shows his pictures of women and children and says, “Which one do you want to see killed? Pick one!”
Ever since the trains began chugging across the landscape, they’ve been hitting people. For train operators, simply minimizing the number of unintentional deaths is the first goal. In Northern California the Bay Area’s Caltrain has spent $4 million in the past five years putting up fences on busy routes to discourage trespassing. When Metrolink was adding express service to existing runs in mid-2011, it posted warning signs: ALWAYS EXPECT A TRAIN. ANY TIME! ANY TRACK! ANY DIRECTION!
The denser the region, the bigger the challenges and the greater the dangers. Najmedin Meshkati, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at USC and an expert on rail safety, has long been critical of the Blue Line. “It has the highest number of casualties for its length of any rail line in the country,” he says. Meshkati has argued for better measures to keep pedestrians off the tracks and has said the same of the street-level crossings along the new Expo Line, which links downtown to Culver City. During construction, lawsuits led to a court order requiring the MTA to add a bridge near Dorsey High School and a stop by Foshay Learning Center in South L.A. to reduce the risk of students being hit by trains. But Meshkati notes that the trains still pass within ten feet of the high school grounds.
So it was an inauspicious start for the Expo in March when six people were injured after a car collided with it during a trial run downtown. That same month a Metrolink train struck a man who was sitting on the tracks in Van Nuys. The month before, two pedestrians died, presumably by accident, on Blue Line tracks. The previous June, a young man either jumped or fell in front of a northbound Blue Line train in Compton. “I don’t know what it is about the Blue Line,” says the MTA’s Littman. “I see it myself constantly. I see people walking on the tracks. I see them going around the gates.”
He’s referring to four-way gates that have been put in, along with red-light cameras and train warnings—part of a strategy the MTA calls the Three Es: Engineering, Enforcement, and Education. As for the education component, Littman points to community outreach. “We’re out there,” he says. “We go to schools and churches and everything, and we’re on the platform with our passenger safety ambassadors, and we’re telling everyone, ‘Hey, if you see somebody who looks like they’re about to try to hurt themselves, please tell someone so we can intervene.’ We’ll get the sheriffs out there and try to stop it.”
Railroad tracks aren’t like, say, the Empire State Building, where the fence that was installed in 1947 stanched the flow of jumpers. The Golden Gate Bridge, the most popular site in the world to commit suicide, may be a closer analog. There are patrols and signs emblazoned with hot lines, but neither has been effective in keeping people from free-falling into the bay. Now there’s a plan to add netting at a projected cost of $50 million. In Tokyo, where suicide is epidemic, some rail lines have experimented by installing mirrors along train platforms—perhaps jumpers would reconsider after glimpsing themselves—as well as blue lighting intended to soothe would-be suicides. Some stops in that city now feature automated barriers that resemble sliding glass doors, opening only once a train has arrived. Of course, it’s a prohibitively expensive approach in L.A., where the daily ridership of 324,000 is a fraction of Tokyo’s.
John Fenton, who stepped down as CEO of Metrolink in May, has given a lot of thought to suicide prevention. “It is a horrible situation,” he says. A youthful silver-haired 53-year-old with an easy demeanor, Fenton was brought to the train agency after the 2008 Chatsworth disaster, in which a locomotive engineer who was texting in his cabin ran through a signal and collided with a freight train, killing 25 and injuring 135. That was just three years after Juan Manuel Alvarez caused what was then the deadliest derailment in Metrolink history when he parked his Jeep across the tracks near a Costco in Glendale, abandoning the vehicle before impact. Eleven people died. Alvarez claimed that he was trying to kill himself but had second thoughts; a jury concluded it was a “pretend suicide” intended to win back his estranged wife.
Fenton, who has been working in the rail industry since leaving college, remembers the first suicide he witnessed. A man had thrown himself onto the tracks in front of a train. “He had lost both his legs and an arm, and he was looking at me like he wanted me to help him,” Fenton says as he heads onto a Metrolink locomotive at Union Station. “It was more than 20 years ago. It still haunts me.”
He knows Metrolink’s 56 stations will only get busier. Los Angeles will continue to grow. The population of commuters will continue to grow. In fact, Fenton predicts train ridership in Los Angeles will double over the next two decades. Construction is already under way to complete the Expo Line’s course to Venice (with an estimated arrival time of 2015) and the Gold Line’s extension to Montclair (set for 2021). By year’s end crews could begin building the Crenshaw Line, which will roll through southwest L.A. to LAX, while digging for the Subway to the Sea is on the calendar for 2013. Minimizing the number of accidents involved with these trains will be challenging enough. Suicides? They are one of those realities that rail personnel see no way to avoid.
Gray Crary, chief strategic officer at Metrolink, tells the story of a man who sneaked onto the tracks and laid his arm on the rails, waiting until a train came along and cut his hand off. The man was taken to a hospital and put on a 72-hour hold. After being released, he returned to the tracks and laid his remaining arm on the rails, waiting until a train came along and cut that hand off. “What could we have done, even if we had known he had been released from the hospital?” Crary asks. “Nothing.”
Nothing could have swayed Ron Iseli from his decision to die that day. Depression and hopelessness had created a literal tunnel vision: The subway was his ride out of this life, with all of its complications. As Iseli stepped forward to meet his fate, there was the roar of the train, the whoosh of its approach, the glimpse of another life rushing toward him, a searing, crushing pain, and then blackness. Somehow, though, Iseli survived. When he regained consciousness, he was lying on his back beneath the Metro train. He had been thrown 30 feet on impact, landing between the rails as the train rolled to a stop. Blood was all over him. Iseli sustained severe trauma to the head and upper body. Rescuers had to crawl under the train to reach him. “Hang in there, buddy. Stay with us,” paramedics were saying as they applied pressure to the injuries on his head and face. Iseli’s only thought was, “I can’t even do this right.”
As Iseli was loaded onto a body board and transported to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, rail service through the station was switched to the southbound track. Normal traffic on the northbound line did not resume for several hours. Over the next months Iseli was nursed back to health at the hospital and underwent a series of reconstructive surgeries. The left side of his face had been destroyed, costing him the use of his left eye and the hearing in that ear. Plastic surgeons rebuilt his nose, eye socket, cheek, and jaw. Drug and alcohol rehabilitation, through a residential treatment program at a facility near MacArthur Park, restored his sanity.
On a hot July afternoon, wearing baggy shorts and an ORANGE CRUSH gimme cap, Iseli walks through the Hollywood and Vine Metro station and stands again on the spot from which he stepped onto the tracks. He thought he would black out at the moment of impact. He thought he might be severed in two. He thought his back might be broken. But he couldn’t imagine that he would survive, and he had no thought about the impact on the train’s operator. “It never crossed my mind how it would affect the driver of the train,” Iseli says now. “I didn’t think about it. It just never occurred to me. But—how horrible it must be!” Iseli doesn’t remember much about the driver who hit him. He saw a face and looked into its eyes. A man? A Latino man? Iseli isn’t sure. But he wants to meet him. “I’d like to say, ‘I’m sorry.’”
Charles Fleming, an editor with the Los Angeles Times, wrote about house swapping in the February 2011 issue of Los Angeles.