A bizarre series of attacks on subway systems in New York and Philadelphia proves the unthinkable can happen. People were thrown or pushed onto the tracks. What if something like this were to happen on the Washington D.C. area's Metro system? It hasn't happened yet, but people do fall, and if a train is coming, there may be only one way to survive.
Every month, Metro Transit Police gets three to five calls over the radio for a person on the roadway, which is what Metro calls the track. That means up to 60 people are on the tracks every year mostly by accident. Sometimes it's people who just aren't paying attention who fall. It's rare but it happens, especially when people are jostling, pushing and shoving on crowded platforms.
"It's almost like a wrestling match," said rider Nick Hewitt during rush hour.
Some people make a conscious decision to stay as far away from the edge as possible until the train arrives.
"I'm very cautious. I stand back," said Ross Henderson, a visitor for London.
He says there are several deaths a year in London from people falling in front of trains.
It's extremely dangerous for anyone on the tracks. It's not just the train, but the 750-volt third rail that could kill you. Yet sometimes people drop things on the track and jump down to retrieve it without considering the risk.
"Typically in most situations, the customer finds a way back up to the platform," said Metro Transit Police Deputy Chief Ron Pavlik.
But sometimes people can't climb up. They may not be strong enough or there may simply not be enough time. Surveillance video at the Gallery Place Metro station four years ago shows a woman falling on the tracks just 17 seconds before a train pulled in. As the crowd is walking away, you can see the woman fall onto the track. People try to help, but within seconds, the lights at the edge of the platform begin blinking, signaling a train arriving. People wave desperately to stop the train, but the train can't brake fast enough. It comes to a stop about halfway down the platform, past the woman who fell. Houston transit police officer Eliot Swainson remembers it clearly.
"I turned and looked into the track line and saw a person standing there with their arms in the air," he recounted to FOX 5.
Officer Swainson was working with Metro for President Obama's first inauguration. He had only a few hours emergency training on Metro's system.
"She didn't have a lot of pull in her body to pull herself up," he said. "I tried lifting her back up on the platform, couldn't do that," he said.
How she survived is a lesson that's become increasingly important after recent subway attacks elsewhere. Last month, surveillance video from Philadelphia's SEPTA system shows a 23-year-old woman dragged off the platform and thrown onto the track.
"I've been here 20 years and I have never seen anything this horrific," said Mike Gritsko, a SEPTA detective.
That came after two subway pusher attacks in New York City, including a man police say was pushed to his death on December 3 after an argument. The man, later identified as Ki-Suck Han tried desperately to climb up from the tracks, but no one helped.
"My dad was never a person to hesitate not helping someone else," said his only daughter Ashley Han.
If this had been the Washington Metro rail system, there may have been a way to survive. It's called an area of refuge right under the platform overhang. The area is 23 inches wide, just wider than the length of two pieces of standard paper. It's big enough for most people to fit, but is meant to be a last resort when there's no escaping an oncoming train. You should lay flat on the ground or up against the wall as still as possible.
"That entire train is energized at that time so you could accidentally touch a piece of that train that is electrified and end up being electrocuted," warned Pavlik.
Many Metro riders don't have a clue this area of refuge even exists. Looking at it from the platform, many are skeptical they would fit.
"I don't think so. We need to see someone do it to believe it," said Mary Henderson.
She and her friend, Latoya Sims, said their first instinct would be to try and climb back up. Even knowing the refuge area exists, they're not sure they'd remember what to do in a panic situation with a train coming.
"I'm just going to start praying. That's all I got," Sims said.
But that 2009 surveillance video of the woman falling is proof the refuge area beneath the platform can and does work. The train was unable to stop in time and the woman was still on the tracks. That's when Officer Swainson remembered something from the brief safety training he received.
"I just started pushing her down, telling her to stay down underneath the platform," Swainson said. "The train came a little closer. She kind of jutted back out again. I pushed her back in. It was about that time the train rolled through the station."
The train and track were de-energized, while the woman remained trapped between the platform and the train car still alive. Rescuers went in and brought her out. The woman escaped without any serious injuries. Even Swainson remembers being surprised that it worked.
"I had time to watch and look at it and just scratch my head, thankful that it was there," he said.
The Houston system where he works is street level, so it's not something he would have experienced back home. But the recent subway attacks in New York and Philadelphia brought everything flashing back again.
"It happens. You hope people will react and not just stand by and watch," Officer Swainson said.
Metro has stairs at the end of the platform from the track bed, but if a train is approaching, there may not be time to get there. If you've managed to avoid being electrocuted by the high voltage third rail, the refuge under the platform may be the only hope of survival. Metro stresses that this area is only meant as a last resort. If you see someone who has fallen on the track, call 911 and alert the station manager. Whatever you do, Metro says don't jump onto the track to help because then it's not just one, but two lives in danger.
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