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.