Awaiting a Manhattan-bound 3 train on Tuesday, a woman at the Utica Avenue station stop in Crown Heights fell sick. She quickly fainted and fell onto the tracks; she was then hit and killed by a subway train. The woman, who remains unidentified, is one of the many fatalities by the New York City subways in a given year.
For a system that transports more than five million passengers a weekday, injuries and fatalities are far and few between, but the idea of death by subway has a chilling effect on riders. With each death or injury, New Yorkers stand a bit further away from the tracks and pay a bit closer attention to their fellow subway passengers.
According to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority – the state-created entity that runs and operates the city’s subway system — the number of subway injuries in 2012 was 141. Fifty-five of these were fatal. The cause of the injuries range from accidental slips from the platform to suicide attempts to intentional pushing onto the tracks.
In December 2012, Sunando Sen, 46, an immigrant from India, was fatally shoved into the path of an oncoming train. Erika Menendez, 31, was charged with the murder.
Menendez, who has a documented history of psychiatric problems, sparked a debate as to whether or not those with mental illnesses should be better tracked by the city’s hospital system as a means of preventing those who are severely mentally ill from riding — and by connection harming — other subway riders.
Legal and policy changes from the 1960s through the 1990s allowed for the release of many mentally ill people from psychiatric institutions. A 1984 New York Times article detailed financial problems of state hospitals and the over-reliance on medications as a cure for psychoses and other mental illness sparked the clearing out of hospitals. Mayor Michael Bloomberg pointed to these changes when asked whether detaining the mentally ill would be a wise solution.
"The courts or the law have changed and said, no, you can't do that unless they're a danger to society; our laws protect you. That's fair enough," Bloomberg said on "The John Gambling Show with Mayor Mike" on WOR-AM.
Brooklyn attorney Roger Archibald told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “Tracking the mentally ill is not the solution.” Archibald is representing the family of an East Flatbush man who went missing on the subway tracks in November 2012 and was killed a few hours later by a northbound 5 train.
Briant Rowe was heading home from a night out with his fraternity friends when he went missing on the tracks at 5:49 a.m. MTA personnel’s initial search for Rowe came up empty. He was killed at 7:33 a.m.
“The MTA needs to look at solutions to prevent these things from happening ... targeting the mentally ill is not it,” Archibald said.
The City Council’s Transportation Committee held an emergency hearing to address these very solutions. The MTA revealed that it is in the early stages of beginning to test platform safety barriers, but this measure will be extremely costly. With an estimate of $1 billion to retrofit stations, barriers may not be the ideal solution.
“It’s not a silver bullet,” New York City Transit President Thomas Prendergast told members at an MTA board meeting. “[Barriers] would not solve the problem totally.”
To further avert the possibility of death by subway, the Transport Workers Union Local 100 suggested that the MTA slow trains down as they enter stations. At present, trains enter the station at a rate of approximately 30 mph; the union suggests a rate of 10 mph.
"The working people of New York are afraid of the subway because they know the trains come barreling into the station," said union Vice President Kevin Harrington.
Carmen Bianco, senior vice president for subways for the MTA, disagreed. Testifying before the City Council’s Transportation Committee, Bianco said that slowing down into the station is “just not feasible on our system” due to the possibilities of overcrowding.
With the unions pushing for slower trains and the MTA pushing back, “There has to be a happy medium,” said Archibald.
Public awareness campaigns have also been on the rise to bring riders attention to the possibility of injury or death in subway tunnels. The MTA has announced that flyers and announcements will be provided, in varying languages, bringing awareness to the dangers of standing too close to the platform edge. “We also use the back of MetroCards for safety messages,” said MTA spokesperson Paul Fleuranges.
The transit union is taking a more grim approach to awareness. With the image of a MertoCard specked with drops of blood, the front message warns “Use at your own risk.” The back side contains the grim reaper draped in the MTA logo.
Despite how safety messages are presented or measures being proposed by the MTA, Brooklyn attorneys are looking for justice for clients who have suffered death or injuries by the very subway system most New Yorkers take every day.
“Our office represents families of victims who allege negligence on behalf of the transit authority for their wrongful death or horrible injuries when run over or seriously injured when struck by a train while on the tracks,” said Brooklyn attorney Sanford Rubenstein.
Archibald is still pursuing the $50 million wrongful-death lawsuit against the MTA on behalf of Rowe’s family. “We are in the painstaking process of discovery,” he noted. Tedious as discovery may be, “We are moving forward with bringing those responsible accountable.”