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Scores of suicides by train also take their toll on engineers

WASHINGTON -- Scores of times each year, people intentionally stand, jump, and drive in front of trains, figuring it's a sure way to end their lives.

Authorities say Juan Manuel Alvarez wanted to kill himself Wednesday when he drove his SUV onto a railroad track in Glendale, Calif., near Los Angeles. But he changed his mind and left the vehicle on the tracks, causing a chain-reaction derailment that killed 11 people and injured nearly 200.

Many others succeed in killing themselves.

A 13-year-old girl from suburban Chicago committed suicide in March by walking on commuter rail tracks with her back to the train. A 53-year-old woman killed herself in July by lying down on railroad tracks in Boca Raton, Fla. That month in Kansas the 19-year-old Argonia High School valedictorian was struck and killed by a train after tying himself to the tracks with baling wire.

''They're suffering and they see this as a way of ending the suffering," said Dr. Brian Mishara, director of a center that studies suicide at the University of Quebec in Montreal. ''It's not true that it's a sure way of dying."

In Germany, where there are 18 suicides by train per week, one in 10 survives the attempt, often with severe injuries, Mishara said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 112 people nationwide killed themselves using buses, trains, and subways in 2002, a tiny percentage of the approximately 30,000 suicides each year.

People in the railroad industry say suicide by train happens far more often than the public hears about.

John Tolman, spokesman for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, said the average train engineer will see three suicides during a career of 25 years. A commuter rail engineer will see as many as 20.

''Where you're frequently interacting with passengers -- with platforms, grade crossings -- that's where the suicides and the close calls are," Tolman said.

Engineers are traumatized when they hit a person, something they can't prevent because trains can't stop on a dime, Tolman said. Engineers and trainmen experience post-traumatic stress disorder afterward, he said.

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