More than once, Caltrain engineer Rob Orantes has locked eyes with a suicide victim right before his locomotive took their life.
Orantes is not alone. According to Caltrain officials, most pedestrian fatalities that occur on the tracks are suicides. In 2005, eight of 10 pedestrian fatalities involved someone who chose to end their life; so far this year, four of eight people who died after being hit by a train knowingly put themselves in death’s way.
“The victims make eye contact, as if to try and make us feel their pain,” said Orantes, who has worked for 12 years on the Peninsula Commute Service.
Immediately after a train hits a human being, an engineer has to put their emotions aside to deal with the victim, passengers and official questioning, Orantes said. Later, after the engineer has been released from duty, when they are at home, that's when the “feelings rush back.”
“These events fuel emotions from the moment they involve me: fear, anxiety, helplessness in trying to stop a train,” Orantes said. “They cut through me like a razor.”
Traditionally, rail representatives have tried to discourage drawing media attention to rail suicides, in fear of encouraging copycat behavior. However, officials from Caltrain and its operator, Amtrak, held a press conference Tuesday to announce sponsorship of a suicide-prevention fundraiser happening in San Francisco this July.
On behalf of the rail agency, Orantes, along with Caltrain conductor Bruce Shelton and Amtrak police officer Jake Mumford, will participate in the 20-mile “Out of the Darkness Overnight” walk on July 22-23, which was created to raise money to support suicide prevention.
Mumford, a former Union City police officer, said he has been assigned to more than a dozen rail fatalities that were suicides during his seven years working as an Amtrak investigator. He echoed Orantes in saying each suicide “haunts” him long after the work day ends.
“I love my job, but the worst part is going to these homes of the relatives of this individual and informing them that their loved one has just chosen to commit suicide on our railway,” Mumford said.