I had just transferred to the number 1 train at 96th Street heading uptown. I grabbed a seat, earphones in. I was holding a cup of coffee. It was a humid Saturday morning.
I barely noticed him get out of his seat. I switched the song on my iPhone and looked up and saw him standing at the door in between the cars. I thought he was relieving himself. Gross, I thought, but weirder things have happened on the subway. He stood there. The train was moving fast when he leaped.
A man jumped from his seat and pulled the emergency brake. The train came to a screeching halt.
I was panicky and claustrophobic. I also felt the quick rush of guilt knowing that I was in no danger. There were none of the familiar announcements from the loudspeaker about “being delayed because of train traffic ahead of us,” or “we are being held momentarily by the train’s dispatcher.” We sat there waiting.
In the days and months that followed I replayed the incident in my head over and over again. It seemed so unreal that I often questioned whether what I saw actually happened or if I dreamed it all up. What always made it real again was not the image of a man jumping but the memory of the jolt the train made as it ran over his body.
I needed to know who this man was. I looked in the newspapers but found very little. I learned that his name was Dwight Brown and that he was 27 years old. He lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Then the trail dried up. It was as if this man’s trace of life vanished. I thought if I could find more about this man, meet his family and friends, I would be able to make sense of that morning.
June 9, 2012 was a drab day in New York City. By 9 a.m. it had started drizzling. The forecast called for heavy rain later in the day. The air conditioning on the subway was blasting. I was freezing as I sat on the train. I instantly regretted my decision to carry an iced coffee. I was prepared with a sweater but had goose bumps all over my legs.
The train became uncomfortably warm as it stood still in between the two stations. Passengers unzipped their rain jackets and took off their sweaters. Women pulled their hair back in to ponytails. The electricity was turned off so first responders could safely climb down to the tracks and assess the situation. The already dim underground turned even darker with the lights off. My memories of that morning are in a sepia-like tone. The dim lighting in combination with the yellow and orange seats of the 1 train created an Instagram filter atmosphere.
The Saturday morning crowd is different from the rest of the week. There are no businessmen with briefcases. You don’t see party-going twenty somethings ready for a night out. The Saturday morning crowd is laid-back. Families and friends head to brunch. The more ambitious head for an early morning workout.
“I’m going to miss my 5 o’clock flight to Germany,” a woman said, obviously annoyed. Her detachment to the situation was baffling.
Five p.m. flight, I wondered? It was still 9:30 in the morning. We couldn’t possibly be stuck underground for that long, I reassured myself.
For the rest of the day I carried on as nothing had happened. It was Saturday night after all. I met my family for Venezuelan arepas for dinner. I later met friends to watch the Boston Celtics playoff game against the Miami Heat. I told very few people what I saw earlier that day. To those I told, I did not elaborate. I did not tell them I took a very expensive cab ride from Columbia University campus back to my Brooklyn apartment because I did not want to ride the subway again. By not talking about it, I hoped the image burnt into my brain would fade.
It never faded. Neither did my curiosity about witnessing death. If I couldn’t find out more about the jumper, perhaps I might find some clarity in talking with others who, like me, had been proximate to death.
Matt Shaw was the youngest of seven siblings. On the Fourth of July he went out for a Snickers bar at about 11:30 p.m. He chatted with his friends near the A.K. Houses on E. 130th Street and Lexington Avenue. Moments later, a stray bullet tore through his abdomen. Shaw was one of the dozen victims of deadly shootings citywide over the Independence Day weekend.
Matt’s older sister Jay-Shika and his mother Paula opened up about Matt. Jay-Shika shared childhood memories of her “spoiled little brother.” Paula happily talked about her son. She did not want him living in the city during the summer. The violence that tears through New York City terrified her. She recounted stories of her quiet and introverted son. She told me about her unfathomable heartbreak.
Matt’s death shattered Paula’s life. But I cannot put myself in her shoes. Matt’s death was personal for Paula. I did not know Dwight. I barely even got a look of his face.
Hopefully the woman caught her 5 p.m. flight to Germany. We were underground for almost two hours.
Passengers were ushered toward the back of the train. Many questioned the MTA officers’ decision to pack us all in the back. The air conditioning was still off. There was still no clear evacuation plan.
I felt safer being around the people who also witnessed the jump. The crowds were now mixed. I made sure to keep an eye on someone from my car. I looked for the man who pulled the emergency brake. He was my age. Maybe he was a bit older. With his striped blue polo shirt he looked like a preppy LL Cool J. His round face and wide smile exuded a sense of calm I needed.
We stood around for about an hour and a half. The police officers that had arrived on the train told us we’d be getting out of there. The electricity came back on. Cold air flowed through the train again. Another empty train was brought from 96th Street. The two trains created one extremely long runway back to the platform. There was a sizeable gap where the two trains met. It was ironic how we were asked to jump from one train to another given what had just happened.
Firefighters, police officers and paramedics got straight to work when they arrived. The firefighters held fire extinguishers, axes, flashlights and other large, heavy gear I did not recognize. Passengers pulled out their iPhones to take photos and videos. The firefighters looked like celebrities walking down a red carpet.
We were told to keep in a single file line on the right side of the train while evacuating.
“Don’t look to your left,” officers yelled, helping us avoid seeing anything too graphic. “Just keep walking.”
All around me were men and women who, by the nature of their work, encounter anonymous death all the time.
“I am the one who picks up the people who jump off the train,” M tells me. She is a paramedic with 23 years of experience. She’s experienced “every horrific thing you can think of, have read in the news or seen on television.”
M has worked all over the city. She was stationed on the Lower East Side where drugs and crime ran rampant. She recounts shootings, stabbings and overdoses in abandoned buildings of Alphabet City. Porn, drugs and crime overran Midtown.
“What you saw on the subway is old news,” she says. “We see that all the time. Somebody fell, slipped, or was pushed on the tracks and lost an arm, a leg or his life. It was just the norm.”
I explain that what I saw that June morning wasn’t the norm for me.
“You can’t take it home with your or else you can’t work, you can’t function,” she says. “If you take every amputation or every horrific thing home with you, you won’t survive.”
She tells me that she is only human. Of course the things she sees get to her. She’s cried. She’s had heart palpitations. Incidents involving children and the elderly – those who can’t protect themselves – affect her most. There are things that have stuck with her, years after she stopped working. After holding the lifeless bodies of drowned children, M never touched her young children when they were wet out of a bath. She always made sure her hands were touching a towel before she dried them off.
“People think we have ice water running through our veins,” she says. “We don’t. As a medic you just have to react to what you see or else you will hurt people.”
Medics talk to one another. M talked to her colleagues. She’s cried with them. At times, she even joked with them. These are all mechanisms to cope with the job. Her friends don’t understand what she’s been through. Her colleagues know the emotions.
“You can’t always carry everything on your own,” she says. “How many times a day can you carry a body bag and survive?”
M justifies my reaction to witnessing death as a product of my circumstances. I am not an “adrenaline junkie.” I do not love the fear of the unknown. Medics live for that rush. The gore becomes a part of the job.
M insists that my mind will heal and learn to deal with the situation if I truly want it to.
I’ve played out multiple scenarios in my head. What if I had left home 15 minutes early that morning? Why did I look up when I did when my iPhone or a magazine usually distracts me during the long commute?
I walked back to the 96th Street platform through the makeshift tunnel. A police officer asked if I was okay. I was shocked but I was fine. I was happy to see sunlight. Fresh air tasted sweet. The rain showers predicted earlier turned out to be a bust. Ambulance sirens were blaring. Police cars lights were flashing. Amidst the chaos, I hopped on the bus and traveled uptown.