The thing is, we can all imagine a tragedy like the one in New York this week happening to us.
The most terrifying thing that ever happened to me on the subway in New York is actually something that didn’t happen. It was just a regular day in the life of a New York transit rider. As I swiped my way through the turnstile, I heard the train approaching down the tunnel. It was a G train, which is only a few cars long and stops at the center of the platform, so I knew I needed to hurry if I was going to be able to get on.
I started running down the platform. And as I picked up speed, a small child – maybe two or three years old – darted out from behind one of the columns between me and the tracks on my left, heading across my path to reach his parents, who were standing with their backs to the wall on my right.
I came within a half-inch of bumping the toddler at top speed. If I had made contact with him, I almost certainly would have knocked him backward onto the tracks. And the train, which was entering the station at that very moment, would have hit him.
For hours afterward, I couldn’t shake the feeling that in some parallel universe, this actually did happen – that I hit the kid and that everything, everything, was ruined forever. The scene kept flashing in front of me as I went about my day, jolting me with adrenaline all over again each time. Years later, my palms still start sweating when I think about it.
In the last couple of days, all of New York City has been fixated on a subway nightmare that did happen in real life and real time. On Monday of this week, Ki-Suck Han was pushed onto the tracks in the 49th Street station, after apparently having an argument with another man on the platform. Naeem Davis has been charged with the crime. Han’s last moments facing the oncoming train were photographed by R. Umar Abbasi, a freelance photographer, and then – in a widely condemned move – published on the front page of the New York Post (and no, I won’t link to it here).
People die on the tracks of New York City subways at a rate of nearly once a week on average. In 2011, 146 people were struck by trains and 47 were killed. Those numbers are perhaps not surprising, considering that the system saw 1.6 billion riders in the same year. The MTA launched a multilingual ad campaign this summer warning straphangers to “Be Safe, Be Smart” and stay away from the platform edge.
Getting pushed onto the tracks is a rare event, accounting for only 3 percent of fatalities. Most people who get hit by trains are suicides, or jump onto the tracks voluntarily to retrieve something they’ve dropped. Drugs or alcohol are frequently a factor. And almost everyone who rides the subway has put him or herself at risk by standing too close to the edge. New Yorkers just can’t help themselves from partaking in the ritual of checking to see if the train is coming, even though we know it is theoretically dangerous.
The death of Ki-Suck Han has been an all-consuming topic of conversation on the city’s call-in radio shows, its news broadcasts, its blogs, and its op-ed pages ever since it happened. People have expressed disgust at the failure of the photographer to help Han instead of taking pictures. They have wondered why no one came to the man's aid as he stood in the train's path. They have judged their fellow New Yorkers and found them wanting.
The thing is, we can all imagine it happening to us. Not just the heart-breaking plight of Han – although that certainly taps into a deep fear. But we can also, all too easily, imagine being one of the people on the platform as the train rolled in. As we project ourselves into this scenario, we all realize on some level that while we might have heroically saved a man’s life, we might just as easily have been paralyzed with shock and fear, and failed to act.
Life on the streets and in the tunnels of a densely packed city presents us with dozens, even hundreds of daily choices about how we behave toward our fellow humans. Some of these choices are small. Do we say excuse me when we push farther into a crowded subway car? Do we stop in the middle of our busy day to help an obviously bewildered tourist? Do we let an older person go ahead of us in line, or shrug instead of cursing when someone jostles us on a crowded pavement?
Much less often do we encounter situations where the consequences of our actions can mean life or death for someone else, where we would have to risk our own lives to make a difference. We love to tell the stories of the subway heroes, like Delroy Simmonds, who rescued a baby in a stroller that had blown onto elevated tracks, or Wesley Autrey, who jumped onto the railbed to save a man who had fallen there after having a seizure. Autrey held the other man down between the tracks as the train miraculously passed over them. This week has even gotten us to remember the 1975 story of Everett Sanderson, who saved a little girl who had fallen on the tracks and then was himself rescued by others.
"If I hadn’t tried to save that little girl, if I had just stood there like the others, I’d have died inside," Sanderson was quoted as saying at the time. "I would have been no good to myself from then on."
I've been thinking a lot this week about how I would have felt if, in my haste to catch that G train all those years ago, I had knocked a child onto the tracks. "No good to myself from then on" would just about cover it.
I’ve never really had a chance to be a hero. I’d like to think that if I had been in the 49th Street station the other day, I would have tried to help. But I can’t know what I would have done, not really. I can only hope, along with everyone else in this city, that I never need to find out.
Top image: Chip East/Reuters