Priority One: suicides on the subway tracks—how many, how often and how to stop them

Priority One: suicides on the subway tracks—how many, how often and how to stop them

In the first five months of this year, 17 people jumped into the path of oncoming subway trains. A scheme to outfit stations with safety barriers is low on the TTC’s to-do list, leaving us with the ugly problem of how to stop suicides now

After his train ran over David Dewees, Kevin Pett took six months’ leave and underwent therapy. “A lot of drivers get angry after they’ve had a suicide,” he says. “I just shut down” (Image: Sandy Nicholson) 

On Saturday October 3, 2009, at about eight o’clock in the morning, Kevin Pett, a subway operator, was on his usual Bloor-Danforth route, driving his train eastbound into High Park station. Pett, who is 38, solidly built and soft-spoken, had been working for the TTC for 12 years. On board that day were a few dozen passengers, and up ahead he noticed three people waiting on the platform. Entering the station, Pett was travelling at roughly 50 kilometres an hour and preparing to slow down.

Then he saw a man on the platform jump down in front of the train. Slim, with short brown curly hair and a soul patch, he moved so nimbly that Pett thought he was a teenager playing chicken. It looked as though he was going to run across the median to safety. Instead, he paused and laid down on the running rails, with his head on one track.

Pett knew operators who made it to retirement without hitting a jumper. He thought he’d be one of them. Even as the facts rapidly tumbled into place—the man wasn’t getting up, he wasn’t going to get up, he was trying to kill himself—Pett couldn’t believe he was about to hit someone. He blasted the horn, threw on the safety brake and braced himself. He was terrified.

The man looked up, and for a moment, they made eye contact. Pett noticed the jumper was shaking. Then it was over. “It was horrible,” he says. “I knew that I had just killed someone. It felt like a car going over railroad tracks.”

Pett called the transit control centre at Bathurst and Davenport and ran onto the platform to press the emergency button, which cuts power to the rails. A Priority One alert, the code for a suicide on the tracks, went out to staff. Meanwhile, the guard—the person at the back of the train who shuts the doors—evacuated the passengers and went car to car cranking the six handbrakes to stop the train from rolling. Passengers were told to proceed upstairs to the concourse, and witnesses were asked to wait to be interviewed by the police. Pett felt himself shivering and zipped up his jacket but couldn’t get warm. Within minutes, a transit supervisor, police, TTC constables and emergency services arrived. While paramedics removed the body from the tracks, Pett was questioned by the police: Was the man alone? Did he appear agitated? Was he pushed? Could it have been an accident? Where was he standing on the platform? How far from the wall? From the other passengers on the platform? After about 45 minutes, Pett was taken to a TTC office where he called his wife, Shelley, also a subway operator, who was at home getting ready for her 10 a.m. shift. “When I came to pick him up, he was so pale,” she says. “He was in shock.” She gave him a hug and got him a glass of water.

Only 60 per cent of people who jump die. Organs are destroyed, limbs are amputated or crushed, and hemorrhaging is extensive

The TTC has a policy not to release personal information about jumpers, so subway operators rarely find out the name of the victim, or their circumstances. But in Pett’s case, the death was newsworthy, so the TTC and the police released his name to the media: the man he hit was David Dewees, a 32-year-old teacher at Jarvis Collegiate. Two days before he died, Dewees had been charged with Internet luring and invitation to sexual touching involving minors. The case had been widely covered in the press, and so, too, was his death.

Pett developed what he called “an addiction to the news.” He was on the computer all the time, reading the papers, trying to find out everything he could about Dewees. He discovered that Dewees had taught English and Latin at Jarvis for six years and was adored by his students, that he performed as a tenor with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, and that he’d also been a volunteer counsellor at the Ontario Pioneer Camp in Muskoka since 1997. (Police allege that he had met two teenaged boys at the Christian camp and had later made inappropriate contact with them over the Internet between July 2008 and July 2009.) The charges against Dewees shocked his colleagues, who rushed to his defence. Students praised him on Web sites and in letters to newspapers. More than 1,000 people attended Dewees’s funeral at Runnymede United Church, including former campers. The principal at Jarvis delivered a eulogy.

As much as Pett wanted to forget what happened, he couldn’t stop thinking about the man who leapt in front of his train. For weeks afterwards, he had flashbacks, as many as three or four a day. “I kept seeing him jumping in front of me,” he says. The memory of meeting the man’s eyes haunted him. He’ll never know why Dewees chose suicide, whether he was guilty of the crimes he was charged with or falsely accused. “I can’t say what goes on in someone else’s head,” Pett explains. “But no one deserves to die like that.”

(Homepage thumbnail: Half my Dad’s Age, from the Toronto Life Flickr pool)

Subway barriers are in use in Toulouse, where they help with noise and air quality. It’s unlikely they’ll be installed here anytime soon: they cost $10 million per station, and the TTC can barely pay for its current capital projects (Image: courtesy of KABA Group) 

Seventeen people jumped in the first five months of this year. (The number of these who died hasn’t been released.) The majority of jumpers die from massive head or chest trauma from the impact of the subway trains, which weigh more than 200 metric tonnes. Other victims are electrocuted by the third rail, which delivers 600 volts of current to power the trains. Depending on your position on the platform and your relation to the train when you jump, you are either run over, tossed along the tracks or pulled underneath the cars and dragged. Siobhan Carlin, a former TTC medic, arrived at suicides that reminded her of smashed watermelons.

If a body is trapped under the subway, freeing it can be difficult. Sometimes a TTC supervisor is recruited to move a train or uncouple cars so that paramedics can get access to bodies. The dead are zipped into body bags and stored in a utility room located off the platform; they are guarded by a police officer until the coroner arrives. On average, it takes more than an hour for a jumper to be treated or removed and for the track and platform to be cleaned up before the trains can start running again.

Survivors of subway suicide attempts often say they chose the method because they believed it would be a fast and certain death. In fact, in Toronto, only 60 per cent of people who try to kill themselves this way die. Last year, 14 of the 18 people who jumped died. Those who live suffer devastating injuries: organs are destroyed, limbs are amputated or crushed, and hemorrhaging is extensive. “When a subway suicide comes in to the hospital, they are covered in grease and brake dust,” says Robin Richards, an orthopedics specialist and surgeon-in-chief at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. “It’s a big zone of injury because of the nature of the impact and the width of the wheels. There aren’t clean cuts. And if they survive, they’re left with brain damage, chronic pain or deformities.”

Subway jumpers are relatively rare—they constitute only about four per cent of the city’s 250 suicides each year—yet they inspire a disproportionate fascination. Since the subway opened in 1954, there have been 1,200 of what the TTC refers to as “suicide incidents” (both attempts and deaths) on the system; the first death occurred seven months after the trains started running. The descent underground and the confined space of the subway can have a vertigo effect that’s heightened by the speed and noise of the trains. Drivers say it’s common for people to tease the trains by standing as close to the edge of the platform as possible, while others hug the walls as subways approach.

Barriers, which span the length of the platform and have doors that are synchronized to open when the train is stopped, are in use on subway systems in London, Paris, Toulouse, Hong Kong and throughout China, where they’re now mandatory. They help with noise and air quality and keep trash off the tracks, where it can catch fire. (This is a major issue in Toronto: 100 bags of garbage are cleared from the tracks each day, and there were 125 track-level fires in 2009.) Their main purpose, of course, is to prevent people from falling, being pushed or jumping. In March, the TTC recommended installing floor-to-ceiling barriers, but it can barely pay for current capital projects, and the new barriers would cost an estimated $10 million per station. Another obstacle is that the barriers require trains to be run by an automated signalling system. (No matter how skilled an operator is, it’s difficult to manually stop a train so its doors line up with platform doors at each station.) The TTC doesn’t plan to begin installing the automated system until sometime next year.

The barrier proposal has opened a bigger, thornier debate about the nature of suicide itself, how we talk about it and what we can do to prevent it. The argument against spending money on subway barriers or other prevention methods, like bridge guard rails, is the widely accepted belief that people determined to kill themselves will find a way—any way—to do so. But suicidologists and mental health experts say a significant number of people who are prevented from committing suicide won’t try again.

Most of Toronto’s jumpers attempt to kill themselves in the daytime, between the hours of 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., and particularly during the lunch hour. The highest concentration of deaths is on the Yonge line, between Bloor and Sheppard, the lowest on the Spadina section between St. George and Downsview.

Suicidal individuals fall into two categories: those who have a chronic desire to kill themselves and perhaps even meticulously plan their death, and those who act more impulsively, driven by a setback like a divorce. What’s difficult to assess is how and when certain triggers will come together and drive someone to end his or her life. Karen Letofsky, the executive director of the three Toronto Distress Centres, calls this “the mysterious X factor.” There is a tendency, she says, to look at the last negative event that happened in that person’s life and pin their death on it. “But rarely does a single event in a life of stability and good mental health cause a suicide. Inevitably, there are other factors.”

In some notable ways, people who choose to commit suicide in the subway are a breed apart. The subway is one of the only violent means of suicide that women are as apt to use as men. (Suicidal women tend to prefer pills and cutting themselves, while men prefer more deadly means, such as guns.) Paul Links, a professor of psychiatry and the chair of suicide studies at the University of Toronto, has studied suicidal behaviour on subway systems around the world and proposes that subways are a draw to people who impulsively commit suicide, for the simple reason that they are convenient. His theory is backed up by a Montreal study that found most people attempt suicides at the subway station closest to home. “A characteristic of a suicidal state of mind is that planning is affected,” Links says. “A suicidal person isn’t thinking, ‘Well, I have six options, so if this doesn’t work, I’ll try another method.’ ” If you can prevent a person committing suicide by one method, he says, the crisis may pass, and so may the desire to die.

Most deaths occur during lunch hour. The highest concentration is on the Yonge line, between Bloor and Sheppard

The convenience theory undermines critics of subway barriers, who believe that a suicidal person who encounters such a barrier will simply find another place to die. The effect of the suicide barrier installed on the Bloor Street Viaduct seems to support Links’s findings. Between 1918 and 2003, more than 400 people died by jumping from the overpass above the Don Valley; it was second only to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge as the most frequently used site for bridge-related suicides in the world. In 2003, the city built the Luminous Veil along both sides of the bridge, ignoring criticism about cost and aesthetics. Since then, no one has died from jumping off the viaduct, and the total number of suicides in the city has dipped from 273 in 2003 to 244 in 2007. Of course, the drop could simply be a statistical anomaly.

Researchers have tried to understand suicidal behaviour by following thwarted subway jumpers and seeing if they re-attempt. One decade-long study undertaken in Britain in the 1980s followed a group of 94 people who had survived a suicide attempt on the London underground. Only seven went on to die from a subsequent suicide (three in the subway). For most of the 94, the desire to die was fleeting. More recently, there was an 11-year study of suicides on the Hong Kong subway system, after the city installed platform barriers. Only some of the stations have barriers, but jumpers didn’t flock to unprotected stations to kill themselves. Instead, fewer people jumped, period. Researchers concluded that not only did the existence of barriers at some stations physically prevent suicides, the barriers “delethalized” the image of the subway system altogether.

Two and a half months after her husband’s train killed Dewees, Shelley Pett hit her own jumper. “Time slowed down,” she says. “I put on the brake and closed my eyes, tucked up my feet and screamed” (Image: Sandy Nicholson) 

Shelley Pett has red hair and a loud, bright laugh. She and Kevin live in the Birch Cliffe neighbourhood of Scarborough, in a large home tailored to the tastes and habits of their four children, who range in age from five to 15. An overstuffed leather couch and loveseat flank a big screen TV surrounded by towers of DVDs and video games. The centrepiece of their kitchen is a dining table covered with homework and school projects; in the corner, there is a gleaming stainless steel refrigerator the size of a walk-in closet. Kids tramp though the house demanding snacks. Except for the pall cast by the previous few months, their home is the very picture of happy suburban family chaos.
After Dewees’s death, Kevin took a leave of absence and underwent six months of counselling, covered by the TTC health program. His therapy mostly consisted of talking about the incident, every single thing that happened, over and over, with a psychologist at St. Michael’s Hospital. “A lot of drivers get angry after they have a suicide,” Kevin says. “I just shut down.” He wasn’t sleeping well, and he was depressed.

Kevin heard through an acquaintance who worked with Dewees that the teacher would have felt terrible knowing the pain his death caused a stranger. “It’s just so sad,” Kevin says. “I don’t think anyone who commits suicide on the subway is out to get the train operators. They just want their pain to stop.”

While her husband was in therapy, Shelley continued to work, but with less confidence than she used to bring to the job. She started driving trains eight years ago, when she was 26, and instantly fell in love with the feeling of solitude. “When you’re driving, you don’t feel like you have all that metal behind you,” she says. “It’s just you.” Kevin’s experience rattled her. She was afraid that she would hit someone, too. Then, just two and a half months after Kevin’s train killed David Dewees, she did.

When TTC staff spot a potential jumper, they call transit control, and the next train enters the station at a walking pace

It was on December 19, a busy Saturday afternoon. The cars were packed with Christmas shoppers, and as she approached Broadview station, coming westbound from Chester, Shelley could tell that the platform up ahead was crowded, too. When her train was still in the tunnel, just a few feet away from entering the station, an elderly man who had been tucked against the wall where she couldn’t see him hopped out in front of the train, so close to her that she thought he might come through the window. “Time slowed down,” she says. “I put on the brake and closed my eyes, tucked my feet up and screamed.”

Passengers at the front of the train and on the platform were screaming, too. After Shelley called transit control, she took charge of the evacuation of the train and the platform. The guard, who saw the body under the train when he was setting the handbrakes, was in shock. Shelley hugged a woman who was weeping on the platform and helped a man with a young son navigate through the train’s inter-car doors to get out onto the platform. When the police and EMS arrived, she asked to leave the platform and be questioned elsewhere. Kevin had told her how hard it had been to be sitting on the subway platform, watching the paramedics tend to Dewees.

Unlike her husband, Shelley learned little about the man who died—just that he had a note in his pocket with his name and his address on it. She was desperate to know whom he had left behind and why he wanted to die. She searched the obituaries to see if she could identify him. Even now, she says, “When I close my eyes at night to go to sleep, I see him.”

Kevin returned to work in March, at first driving short shifts that were limited to the east end, away from High Park station. Shelley is still on leave. As part of her counselling, she sat with a therapist on the platform at Chester station and listened to trains. “My breathing got tense, and I wanted to disappear,” she says. She waited for something to happen, for the power to be turned off and to hear a Priority One announcement. She rides the subway sometimes, but only the back car. “If I try to get on the front one, it’s like an invisible wall goes up and I can’t move,” she says.

Recently, while out jogging, she had a flashback to the cab of the train and the moment the man stepped out in front of her. Tears streamed down her face as she ran through her neighbourhood. “I was just doing my job, and this person decided to take his life, and as a result he took away my control,” she says. “I have to work really hard now at things, to feel safe, to feel calm.”

According to a 2008 provincial report, TTC bus, subway and streetcar drivers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder at a rate four times that of Toronto police officers. TTC drivers deal with fights and shootings, traffic accidents and harassment, as well as jumpers. Until recently, there was almost no support for operators. Jim Goldberg, another subway driver, hit a jumper in 1984. He was driving into Castle Frank station near the end of his shift and noticed a man taking off his clothes as he climbed down onto the tracks. The man was at the far end of the station, so Goldberg knew the train would stop before he came close to hitting him. But then he realized that the man had both of his hands on the third rail and his stomach on the running rail. He had electrocuted himself with Goldberg as his witness. Goldberg went home early that day and was back at work the next. “It was a completely different culture,” he says. “Most of the drivers I worked with at the start had served in the war. The attitude was, Real men don’t cry. I don’t think operators even talked about suicides. You just compartmentalized it. You had to do that so that you could get on with it.”

Now, in addition to a counselling program for drivers who witness suicides, the TTC runs a suicide prevention program. Ticket collectors, subway operators, supervisors and TTC constables are taught how to deal with people with mental illnesses and trained to spot behaviour that might suggest a potential jumper. If TTC staff see someone suspicious—a person who wanders around the platform and doesn’t board the train, someone who is crying, pacing or hanging around near the entrance of a tunnel, a person taking off their clothes, or missing shoes, or dressed in a hospital gown—they call transit control. The next train is given a “slow order,” which requires it to enter the station at a walking pace. Staff are then dispatched to speak with the passenger. They’ve been trained to bluntly ask the passenger if he or she is contemplating suicide. Based on the number of successful interventions reported by constables, the TTC estimates that as many as five suicides each month are averted because of this training. After 2005, when the prevention plan was put in place, the rates of subway suicide declined.

The TTC stopped releasing information about jumpers in the ’70s, when it was suspected that media coverage led to a spike in copycats

The TTC’s oldest and most controversial suicide prevention strategy has been the media blackout. In all but the most newsworthy of cases—high-profile deaths like that of David Dewees or of Suzanne Killinger-Johnson, a 37-year-old doctor and psychotherapist who jumped in front of a train at St. Clair West station with her six-month-old son in her arms in 2000—the TTC releases no information about jumpers to the media. This policy dates back to the early ’70s, when transit officials noticed a spike in subway jumpers. At the time, the coroner held an inquest for each victim, which generated even more press. The TTC suspected that media coverage was exacerbating the problem, and stopped talking.

The belief that media coverage leads to copycat suicides has long been accepted as gospel in the psychiatric community. The American Association of Suicidology and the Canadian Psychiatric Association have both published a set of guidelines for the press, cautioning against romanticizing a suicide and dramatizing the reaction to the death. Within certain geographical clusters, or social networks, suicide can be contagious. This is sometimes called the Werther Effect, named after the callow hero of Goethe’s 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, who shoots himself in the wake of a failed romance. After the book’s publication, there were reports of young men killing themselves; in some cities, the book was banned to prevent further deaths. Copycats almost inevitably occur when a person is already vulnerable due to depression or trauma. Their suicide attempt is triggered by a suicide that they identify with—because of the motivation, or because the person who took their life was the same age, gender or was in a similar situation. In Canada, the effect is seen among young aboriginal men—already a high-risk group—living on reserves.

However, there is evidence to suggest that a decline in media coverage doesn’t always result in a reduction in suicides. In Toronto, subway suicide rates reached an all-time high of 54 incidents in 1984—more than a decade after press coverage was curtailed. And following the death of Killinger-Johnson, arguably the most publicized subway suicide in recent history, there was no subsequent increase in jumpers.

The TTC broke its silence and disclosed suicide statistics last fall, but only because it was forced to. James Wallace, the Toronto Sun’s editor-in-chief, says his reporters had heard from subway operators in distress over the suicides they’d witnessed and wanted to investigate the issue. “From our perspective, there were a number of legitimate public policy issues at stake,” Wallace says. “The only way for us to know the extent of the problem was to get statistical evidence. For all we knew, the death toll was outrageous.” The TTC refused to give the Sun numbers—Wallace calls the commission’s attitude “obstructionist”—and the paper made a successful appeal to Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner.

Wallace believes the TTC’s guidelines don’t reflect changes in technology and media. “I can go on the Web right now and find video footage of suicides,” he says. “The world has changed, and the arguments supporting media contagion haven’t caught up with this century.” In the end, the TTC might be grateful to the Sun and its insistence on getting the statistics: the resulting discussion about subway suicides might stir up enough public interest to get funding for the platform barriers.

Soon after Dewees’s death, Kevin received a message on Facebook from a man he’d never met. He had been suicidal himself and had even considered jumping in front of a subway train. Then he’d read an interview Kevin had given with the Sun, and for the first time considered that his death could hurt other people, too.

On an unseasonable sunny and hot Thursday afternoon in April, Kevin Pett is in shorts and a T-shirt, building a new deck in his backyard. Shelley is barbecuing lunch and chatting with a neighbour. While Kevin has returned to full-time work, Shelley still doesn’t know when she’ll be ready to go back. Her kids love the fact that she’s often home, but she misses her job. “I’m disappointed that I’ll never be the same way again,” she says, “that I can’t just get back in my seat in the cab, put my foot up on the dash and away we go.”

She can’t yet bring herself to put on her uniform. When Kevin comes home from work, instead of napping in his uniform on the couch the way he used to, he hurries upstairs to change. “We’re both different people now,” she says.

For Kevin, each day on the job gets a little easier, but there are still bouts of panic. Recently, when he was driving into a station, a janitor was cleaning up a puddle on the platform, and he squeezed water from a mop onto the tracks. As it caught the light of the approaching train, Kevin saw a flash, and for an instant he thought it was a person. It brought him right back to the moment when Dewees jumped in front of his train.

Kevin believes that the TTC’s steps to reduce suicides have been effective, but he also knows first-hand that you can’t save everyone—without the barrier system, there will always be jumpers. A few years ago, he got out of his train to speak to a young woman on the platform who looked agitated. Other operators had noticed her, too, and had reported her to transit control. She told Kevin she was fine, that she wasn’t planning to kill herself, and got on another train. She returned to the subway later that day and jumped.