Every time a trackworker goes into the tunnels, there’s a chance he won’t come back out. What the world looks like when a 400-ton train is barreling toward you at 30 miles per hour.
The trackworkers who toil in the city’s subway tunnels call their workplace “the hole.” It’s a dank and dark and unsettling place. Bloated rats float in puddles of muck. The stench of garbage and urine and exhaust permeates the air. It’s either eerily silent or filled with the brain-rattling noise of trains blasting their horns as they barrel by. There’s so much steel dust swirling around that when you blow your nose your snot is black. On summer days, the temperature regularly exceeds 100 degrees; in the winter, it’s below freezing. Lost pets and homeless drug addicts occasionally stagger by, and every so often the cops chase a perp onto the tracks. Other than that, the only inhabitants are the workers and the rats and the ghosts of all the people who have died down here.
Last year, 58 people lost their lives on the city’s subway tracks—an average of more than one a week. Most were “jumpers,” people who decided to commit suicide-by-train. Other typical scenarios include intoxicated passengers who topple onto the rails, homeless people living underground, riders who slip while urinating between cars, teenagers who try to “surf” on top of the train, and commuters who accidentally fall (or, very rarely, are pushed) off the platform just as the subway pulls in. Nine more people perished in the first three months of this year, and then, in early April, two men died within two days of each other: The E train ran over a 21-year-old who’d stumbled onto the tracks, and a C train hit a 67-year-old after he wandered into a tunnel.
But for the community of transit workers, the worst tragedy of all is when one of their own is killed, when someone starts his shift like everyone else, wearing an orange vest and a helmet, and ends it inside a body bag. Repairing and maintaining the city’s 660 miles of subway tracks—while avoiding the third rail and dodging 400-ton trains—is not an easy task. There have been at least 230 employee fatalities since 1946. In the last decade alone, ten subway workers have been killed. Thomas DeStefano and Samuel McPhaul were electrocuted by the third rail. The A train slammed into Christopher Bonaparte; a 3 train killed Joy Antony while he was testing a signal light north of 96th Street; an E train came around a curve and plowed into Kurien Baby, who was trying to put a warning light in a tunnel near Canal Street. In 2004, Harold Dozier was retrieving flags that had been set up to warn motormen about workers on the tracks when the B train slammed into him.
After a subway worker dies on the job, there is typically an investigation and, invariably, talk of new rules and policies. And yet the deaths continue, with one or two names added almost every year to the plaque hanging in the lobby of the Transport Workers Union building honoring “our fallen brothers and sisters.” The name of each deceased worker ricochets through the ranks for years afterward, the story of his accident told and retold, each fatality becoming a cautionary tale for those left behind.
When Marvin Franklin and Mike Williams headed to the hole on Sunday, April 29, 2007, the trackworker on everyone’s mind was Daniel Boggs. Five days earlier, Boggs had been hit by a 3 train near Columbus Circle at 11:20 p.m., twenty minutes after the track had been scheduled to shut down. In the car on the way to work, Marvin and Mike talked about what had happened. “The bottom line is, you gotta pay attention,” Mike said. “But you can’t out-plan death. When it’s your time to go, it’s time to go. You might not like the way you go, but it is what it is. You’re going to have to die one day.”
Marvin and Mike had both had their own close calls. Marvin had spied a train coming around a curve and jumped up onto a catwalk just in time. Mike had been picking up debris on a track that was supposed to be closed. “I had my back turned,” he says. “I went to go pick up whatever I was going to pick up, and when I looked, I see the light.” He jumped off the track and onto the next one, saving his own life. In a way, it’s surprising there aren’t more fatal accidents, considering the number of close calls subway workers report. Last year, a survey found that 49 percent had experienced a “near miss where they thought they came close to being seriously injured or killed”; 19 percent said they had experienced such an incident at least three times.
Shortly before 3 p.m., Marvin and Mike ducked inside a grate that had been propped open at the corner of Livingston and Smith Streets in Brooklyn, then descended a steep set of stairs to the A and C lines. They had both joined the Transit Authority in the eighties, and for most of their careers they had worked on the same track gang in Queens, doing maintenance on the graveyard shift, 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. There are about 1,800 trackworkers in the city. A gang usually consists of six or seven or eight men (and very rarely a woman), and they stick together—sometimes for years. Mike and Marvin were like family. They knew each other’s wives and kids; their houses were a few blocks from each other in St. Albans.
They had both volunteered to work overtime this Sunday, which is how they’d wound up in Brooklyn, on a stretch of unfamiliar track between Jay Street and Hoyt-Schermerhorn. They were assigned to a six-man gang assembled just for today that included their friend Jeffrey Hill. Compared with the other two, Jeff was practically brand-new—he’d been working on the tracks for just sixteen months. He was also the smallest of the three. But he was reliable. Underground, it doesn’t take long to figure out which of your co-workers you can trust to help keep you safe—and which ones are absentminded or reckless or a little too fond of the bottle.
Every night, track inspectors walk the city’s subway tracks, five miles at a time, searching for defects, for broken rails or worn-out plates or debris that could activate the emergency brake or anything else that might cause an accident. Trackworkers are then dispatched to the trouble spots. The work itself can be exhausting. Every tool is heavy—the jack, claw bar, sledgehammer, pinch bar, even the wrench—and the large rubber mats workers use to cover the third rail weigh about 115 pounds. But the most grueling task of all is to install a new piece of track, known as “humping rail.” Each piece of rail is 39 feet long, weighs 1,300 pounds, and requires at least sixteen men to carry it.
Marvin’s body had started to show the strain of so many years spent doing manual labor, and these days he worked primarily with inspectors. But when he worked with a maintenance gang on an overtime shift, like today, he often became its unofficial leader. He was 55 years old, with 22 years on the job. That experience—combined with his six-foot-two, 230-pound build and his shoulder-length dreadlocks—gave him an air of authority. “Every track is live,” he would say, meaning you should never assume a track has been taken out of service.
Today’s assignment was to clean up scrap debris along the A and C lines. The men were told these tracks were shut down, which would make the job much simpler. First, though, somebody had to fetch a dolly to transport the debris. Marvin and Jeff headed off to the Hoyt-Schermerhorn station to get it. As they trudged through the tunnel, taking care to avoid the third rail, they talked about art. Jeff had studied painting at Pratt; Marvin attended classes at the Art Students League in Manhattan every morning after he got off work. For two decades, Marvin had been drawing homeless people he encountered in subway stations. Sometimes he’d bring a bag of sandwiches to hand out in exchange for the chance to sketch them. He didn’t give many details, but he’d confided to Mike that years ago he had once been homeless, too.
That day, Jeff and Marvin discussed their favorite mediums. Marvin said he preferred to work with watercolors. “If you show me how to do watercolors,” Jeff said, “I’ll show you how to do oils.” Seven hundred feet later, they arrived at Hoyt-Schermerhorn. The dolly they had to retrieve was on the platform across the tracks of the G line, which was still running. Jeff and Marvin left the A and C tracks, stepped down the ladder to the G line, looked both ways, then walked across the rails.
Getting out of the way of an oncoming train is known, in the parlance of trackworkers, as “clearing up.” Finding a place to clear up fast can be tricky, and there are numerous candy-striped signs marking those areas where you can’t clear up because there’s not enough room—a niche in a tunnel wall, for instance, that might look like a good place to avoid a train but in fact is too shallow for a person to fit into. Where you clear up depends on where you’re working, but often the best spot is in the middle of two sets of tracks, between two columns, a live track on either side of you. In a worst-case scenario, you could pretend you’re Wesley Autrey and lay down in the trough between the rails, but no one really recommends that. It only works if the trough is deep enough, it’s not full of trash, and the train isn’t dragging any debris beneath it.
Inside a former public school near Avenue U in Brooklyn, NYC Transit conducts safety classes for anyone who might need to go on the tracks—transit employees, contractors, Verizon workers, cops. In the back of Room 206, a bulletin board is covered with newspaper stories: TRAIN KILLS TA WORKER ON TRACKS, TRANSIT WORKER KILLED BY THIRD RAIL, SUBWAY WORKER FATALLY HIT. The instructor peppers his morning lecture with one horror story after another: A worker tried to clear up on a pile of debris and fell onto the third rail; another was hit by a train, the wheels ran over his shoulder, and he bled to death before reaching the hospital. The teacher holds up a shredded jumpsuit and says it belonged to a subway worker who was electrocuted.
Staying out of harm’s way is more difficult than you might think. Trackworkers used to be able to feel the vibrations of an oncoming train on the rails, but now that’s much harder to do, in part because the rails are welded together instead of bolted. With generators running, it’s not always easy to hear a train approaching, either. Sometimes two trains will pass at the same time, and if you’re not paying close attention, you might step out of the way of one and into the path of another.
Trackworkers most fear the narrow tunnels that run beneath the East River, which they refer to as “tubes.” One of the most narrow is the Steinway tube, completed in 1907 and originally intended for trolleys; now the 7 train runs there, from Grand Central to Long Island City. The tube is so narrow that if you’re standing on the bench wall next to the track when a train comes, it’s best to turn sideways and crouch down on your hands and knees. If you don’t, if you instead try to press your back against the tunnel’s curved wall, your head may be right in the path of the train.
The train stopped abruptly, with only two cars in the station, a sign that something was very wrong. “Man under!” It was Marvin’s voice calling from under the train.
In the afternoon, the safety class ventures onto the tracks, and one day not long ago I followed along, walking to the end of a subway platform and climbing down a short ladder. I clutched my flashlight and struggled to get my bearings. My safety goggles kept fogging up, and there was no shortage of items that could cause you to trip—rails, ties, coffee cups, cigarette packs, Red Bull cans. I tried to keep as far from the third rail as possible, and I strained to hear every sound.
A subway worker—playing the role of the “flagman”—was positioned further down the tracks with a light to warn oncoming trains of our presence. When he blew his whistle, we all stepped into the area between the two sets of tracks, bracing ourselves with one hand on a column; this way, we’d been taught, we would be less likely to lean too far forward and get clipped. This situation bore only a minimal resemblance to the day-to-day reality of trackworkers’ lives, of course. There was plenty of room to clear up and none of the unpredictability that characterizes work carried out on live tracks.
Still, as the first train came roaring past us, I felt terrified—and tiny. Down in the hole, the subway looks much more intimidating than it does from the platform; my shoulders barely reached the base of its doors. It seemed to take forever for all the subway cars to go by. All I could see was a blur of steel, my orange vest reflected in the side of the cars, and the enormous wheels passing a few inches in front of my body.
The G is a short train, with just four cars, each weighing about 86,400 pounds. It was making its usual stops that Sunday as Marvin and Jeff moved the dolly across the tracks at Hoyt-Schermerhorn. Neither they nor Mike knew Lloyd London, the foreman who was supervising them. If the foreman had been following procedure, he would have made sure there were lanterns set up deep inside the tunnel to warn approaching motormen about the presence of men on the rails. But the workers weren’t planning to be in this area for long, and the lanterns were never set. Instead, the foreman positioned himself between the north- and southbound rails, pointing his flashlight into the tunnel. In this way, he assumed the role of flagman; motormen who saw his light would know they should brake to the required speed of ten miles per hour.
The dolly they were going to get weighs 175 pounds and is almost 64 inches wide. The easiest way to move it is in two pieces. By 4 p.m., an hour into their shift, Marvin and Jeff had retrieved half the dolly and were carrying it across the tracks. To help out, Mike climbed down the stairs and headed over to fetch the other half. The foreman noticed Mike was trying to move the metal cart by himself and turned to help him.
“No, no,” Mike said. “Send one of the other guys.” A flagman is never supposed to get distracted, never supposed to do more than just that one task.
The foreman, however, was insistent. “We got this,” he said, abandoning his flagging post and walking over to help Mike.
On the other side of the tracks, nineteen feet inside the subway tunnel, Marvin and Jeff hoisted their half of the dolly onto the catwalk extending from the end of the platform. As they were lifting it, Jeff noticed a light above Marvin’s head. He assumed it was the foreman flagging for them. Or maybe it was another worker. A second or two later, he realized it was too high and too bright to be a flashlight.
Across the way, on the southbound track, Mike and the foreman heard a train brake. Kooooooosh. It stopped abruptly, with only two cars in the station, a telltale sign that something was very wrong.
It was Marvin’s voice.
Mike dashed in front of the first subway car and catapulted himself onto the platform. That’s when he saw a single black work boot resting on the platform, a few inches from the edge. There was no doubt the boot belonged to Marvin; the standard worker’s boot didn’t fit him right, Mike knew, so Marvin had gotten a special one.
To his left, Mike could see Jeff hunched forward, clinging to a railing just past the end of the platform, his torso crushed inside the tiny sliver of space between the train and the concrete. Only the outline of his vest was visible in the shadow of the tunnel. He was silent, unmoving. Mike didn’t know if he was dead or alive.
Then Mike saw Marvin. He was lying in the trough between the rails, wedged underneath the second car of the train. Marvin looked as though he were sleeping, with his head resting against his hands and his eyes closed. He had been calling “man under” for himself.
These days, visitors to the Transport Workers Union can ride the elevator to the sixth floor and see Marvin Franklin’s name engraved on a plaque in the lobby, the last name added to this solemn list. After his death, New York City Transit convened a board of inquiry to investigate precisely what went wrong. Mostly, they blamed Lloyd London, the foreman, though he claimed he never acted as a flagman and that he hadn’t ordered the men to carry the dolly across live tracks. (London was later demoted to subway cleaner.)
But the board’s 33-page report also spread the blame around a bit, noting that Jeff and Marvin “could have carried the equipment up an available platform staircase to the opposite platform and avoided entering the tracks altogether.” Asked what percent of trackworkers would take this more onerous route, carrying a heavy piece of equipment up a set of stairs, over a mezzanine, and back down—instead of across live tracks—Roger Toussaint, the former trackworker who now heads the union, says, “Ten out of ten people will not do that.” In truth, the accident and the inquiry were an indictment of the entire system. What is written in the employee rule book does not reflect what goes on hour-by-hour down on the tracks.
Last week marked the first anniversary of the accident, and for everyone involved it was a tough year. Everton Marcus, the motorman who was driving the G train, was found to have done nothing wrong: He had entered the station at about 21 miles per hour, two miles less than the speed limit. Since the accident, he has been unable to return to work. In fact, he has not even been able to ride the subway. He sees a psychiatrist and a psychologist, takes psychiatric medications, and attends group-therapy sessions for motormen and conductors who were involved in “12-9s”—transit code for instances in which a train hits somebody. “If I have a moment to myself, I think about the flashbacks,” he says. “Driving the train and then coming around the curve and the screaming. Just to see someone on the tracks like that … ”
Jeff is still recovering from the accident as well. The G train broke two of his ribs, ripped open his right arm, and injured his shoulder, leg, neck, and back. It’s amazing that he survived at all. If not for his last-minute decision to grab the railing, he too would have been dragged under. These days, his gait is slow and labored, and stairs are especially difficult. He only recently stopped using a cane. But in some ways healing his mind has proved more difficult. He, too, has flashbacks: the moment when he saw two headlights coming at him, when the train snatched Marvin’s body, when he felt the lip of the subway’s doors smash into him again and again. When he rides the subway and hears the screech of the brakes, he can feel his heartbeat accelerate.
Last year, the Transport Workers Union organized an exhibit of Marvin’s art—watercolors and etchings of friends and strangers riding the train, and of homeless men asleep on a station bench or curled up in a subway car. “He had beautiful work,” Jeff says. “I just saw a whole different side of him. I saw his sensitivity. And I felt more connected to him.”
For the first few months after Marvin’s death, Mike regularly visited the site of the accident. It was hard to stay away. He saw a psychologist every Tuesday, and afterward he’d have to take his paperwork to an NYC Transit office in the Hoyt-Schermerhorn station. Some weeks, Mike would drop off the paperwork and quickly leave; other times, he descended the stairs to the G train. Leaning against the wall at the end of the platform, he would survey the place where his friend had died.
Workers had poured sand on the track bed to soak up the blood, and over the months Mike watched the sand disappear. Some days, he peered down into the pitch-black tunnel, waiting for a train to come, trying to figure out how deep the track’s curve was and how much warning the motorman would have had. One time Mike spotted a dreadlock on the track—he knew it was Marvin’s—and on the next visit he retrieved it, then sealed it in a plastic bag and put it on his bedroom dresser. Last fall, he noticed that someone had written in chalk on the column wall separating the two tracks: MF RIP.
Asked why he kept going back, Mike says, “I can’t really put that into words. It just makes me remember him a little bit more.”
Nearly seven months after Marvin died, Mike returned to work. Another employee might have asked for a transfer to a different position—something less dangerous, anywhere but on the tracks—but Mike did not. “I don’t think I could do anything else,” he says. What about becoming a station agent? “You’re just sitting down most of the time.” What about a motorman? “You’re just pushing a thing; you’re not doing work like trackworkers do work. We do work. Hard-labor work.”
The first nights back were the toughest, in part because he was assigned to work on the G line. “I was in a daze,” he says. “Every time a train was going by, I was looking at those wheels.” But eventually he started feeling at home again in the tunnels. He liked the camaraderie of the track gang, the feeling of fatigue that accompanied the end of every shift, the sense of pride he got from knowing that he was doing an important job. And so he keeps going back. Five nights a week, just before ten, he puts on his helmet and his orange vest, and he goes down to work in the hole.