“Man Under!”

From the window of his W train, the motorman watched the “jumper” rise from the tracks and start for the platform, as if he’d belatedly realized that he wanted to live after all. But even as the motorman prayed for him to make it, he knew it was too late.

The incident happened in November 2003 at the Bay Parkway station. Its platform was virtually empty, which is the only reason the driver, who wants to be known as “Dennis,” was focusing on a fiftysomething man in a tan overcoat smoking. The man tossed the butt and leapt. Dennis pulled the emergency break. The man was larger and larger in the window, until he was gone.

“12-9! 12-9!” Dennis screamed on the intercom—the code for “Man Under.” He then fumbled through procedures he dimly recalled from a rushed seminar, retrieving goggles and descending to the tracks to check the body.

Drivers like Dennis are traumatized by “jumpers,” particularly this time of year. While there were only three Man Unders in January 2004, according to the NYPD, there were ten in December 2003. Between November 20 and November 30 this year, there were six attempted suicides, according to the TWU Union Local 100.

Drivers react differently. “We see everything from workers who go right back to work to people who are totally dysfunctional,” says Ronnie Sue Jaffe, clinical director of the New York City Transit’s Employee Assistance Program. Dennis says he was drug-tested and given three days off, and discouraged from filing for workers’ comp. Jimmy Willis, a conductor who worked as a union rep for Dennis and other drivers with 12-9s, calls this a common problem. (New York City Transit denies this.) Dennis wasn’t ready to be driving so soon: “I always wondered why these guys with 12-9s would come back to work, and then you’d never see them again.”

At first, thinking everyone on the platform was about to jump, he pulled the break so often that he was ten minutes late on all his routes. Dennis began to focus only on the “ten-car marker” indicating where the train should stop. Eventually he was able to look at the people again. When a train pulls in, it’s often hard to remember—staring at its blank, silver face—that it’s powered by someone. And jumpers may not be able to consider their effect on drivers: “They take their own lives,” says Willis, “and a piece of the person operating the train.”

“Man Under!”