When a 6 train killed a woman recently after she jumped onto the subway tracks to retrieve her bag, MTA motormen all over the city shuddered. The city’s subways strike about 90 people a year, and these incidents are a harrowing psychological hazard for the drivers. Recently there appears to have been a spike: During a twelve-day stretch last month, eight people were hit—nearly three times the usual number. Not every incident is fatal, but in subway parlance they are all known as 12-9’s, the radio code for Man Under.
Most 12-9’s never make the papers, like the one that happened as the A train rolled into the Aqueduct–North Conduit station at 6:43 a.m. one morning last August. “A woman jumped right in front of my train,” says motorman Jermaine Dennis, 37, who had been on the job for only two years. “Her body hit the running rail, and she flew underneath the platform.” He found her under the fourth car, still alive. “She was kind of in a daze,” he says. “I saw the blood running from her head.”
He never did learn her name. All he knows is that she was in her seventies, appeared dressed for work, and died that day in the hospital. “It was really tough sleeping,” he says. “I had visions of this woman in my head.”
When a motorman has a fatal 12-9, the MTA gives him three days off. Many workers have a difficult time coming back; some never do. Dennis stayed out for two and a half months. “I wasn’t really ready to come back,” he says. But he’d fallen behind on his mortgage and needed the paycheck. “It may sound crazy,” he says. “I was grieving for this woman.”
Joe James, 60, has had four 12-9’s—two in the last eighteen months. Last year, he spied a man in a hoodie on the tracks as he approached a station. “I thought he jumped down to pick something up,” James says. He blew his horn, but the man didn’t get out of the way; instead he turned his back to the train and crouched down, straddling a rail. The train killed him.
Nobody knows which motorman has had the most 12-9’s, but Kevin Harrington, a vice-president in the union, recalls having one fatal strike and “ten or eleven others.” There was the guy in the Bronx who tried to leap in front of his train, but took off a moment too late. “He hit the front of the train and bounced off,” Harrington says. And there was the woman dressed all in white lying between the tracks at Grand Central. Half a subway car rolled over her, but somehow she didn’t get hurt. Harrington and a supervisor got her off the tracks. Before they could find out who she was, she took off—only to jump in front of another train.
Every motorman reacts differently, but some find it easier to recover if the 12-9 was a suicide. It’s the cases in which a passenger fell on to the tracks by accident that are much harder. “The people that I’ve encountered who have had 12 9’s, it’s like they’re holding this thing inside,” says George Stamp, 55, who has been a motorman for twenty years.
Fifteen years ago, while driving the A train through East New York at 4:34 a.m., Stamp thought he saw a body. “All of a sudden it seems like a lady stood up in the middle of the roadbed and just disappeared,” he says. “I wasn’t too sure.” He stopped the train and walked back along the tracks, flashlight in hand. “When I got to the sixth car, I could see trickles of blood,” he says. “And when I got to the seventh car, there she was.”
He doesn’t know whether the death was an accident or suicide, but he did find out her name: Gladys Lu. She was 28. In the months that followed, he battled depression, endured flashbacks, and had trouble sleeping. Even today, when he drives the A train by the spot, just past the Euclid Avenue station, he always has the same thought: “It was right about here. I can still see Miss Lu.”