I don't normally post about my daughter Emily's behaviors here. As you may know, she has moderate-to-severe autism and epilepsy and is mostly nonverbal. She has a lot going on, but she handles it well most of the time. Today, we had a very, very rough day.
Chris and Emily and I were in the last passenger car on the 9:55 AM Long Island Railroad (LIRR) train from Hicksville to Penn Station, where we planned to meet Emily's dad, Tim. Tim was going to take Emily out for a fun day together in the city while Chris and I attended the Big Apple BBQ with a friend who lives in Manhattan. It was a good day. The sun was shining. And we were all ignoring the nice weather outside and staring at our electronic devices instead. Emily was jamming to Adam Ant on her iPod. Chris was busy on his iPad. I was checking out Facebook on my iPhone. (We're an Apple family.)
Then our train stopped. The lights stayed on, but the air conditioning turned off. The LIRR has been in the news a lot recently due to bad commuter service delays and cancelations. We sighed, figuring it was the usual; a signal failure or a train stopped on the tracks ahead of us. We'd just passed the Queens Village station.
After a few minutes, the conductor spoke over the intercom. He said that we would not be moving for a while. I barely listened. It was just the LIRR being the LIRR. These things happen. Chris messaged our friend, telling him we would be late. People started making phone calls, complaining. A few minutes later, the conductor spoke again, giving the reason for our delay. My stomach turned when I heard this:
"A pedestrian was struck. We will be sitting here for a while. We don't know yet when the train will be running again. Thank you for your patience."
Pedestrians don't generally survive close encounters with a speeding commuter train. A short time later, the conductor spoke again, calling it a fatality, and requesting that any LIRR personnel or police officers on board move up to the first car. A man sitting a few rows ahead of us got up and walked toward the front of the train.
I was sad. Most pedestrian fatalities on the LIRR are suicides. Two years ago, one of my former coworkers ended his life by stepping in front of a train. I thought of him, his family, his friends.
We waited. The sun beat down on the windows. Trains generate a lot of heat, which is normally tempered in the summer by air conditioning. We were hot and uncomfortable. Many people started bitching about the heat and the inconvenience. I dabbed perspiration from my forehead and judged them silently. At least you aren't dead, I thought. Death is a bit more inconvenient than being late for brunch. To my left, Chris raised an eyebrow and continued doing whatever he was doing on his iPad. To my right, Emily bopped her head quietly in time to the song on her iPod. I was proud of her. She was late getting to see her dad, but she was taking it in stride, not making inappropriate vocalizations or having a meltdown. I squeezed her knee. What a champ.
The conductor made announcements every ten minutes or so. He apologized for our inconvenience and still couldn't provide an answer as to when we might be moving again. After forty minutes or so of the heat, emergency workers came through the train with boxes of emergency water. We took some. Emily was disappointed; the water came in packaging that resembled a juice box. The water was room temperature and definitely not fruit-flavored.
At last, after about an hour, a group of police officers and firefighters appeared and directed us to line up and walk back to the last car. Rather than move to the nearest station to detrain, we were to be evacuated from the open rear door of the last car via a set of temporary stairs that resembled a ladder. This was when I realized we had a problem.
How our ordeal began
Like me, Emily has low blood pressure. She gets dizzy easily and sometimes develops vertigo. This, combined with her epilepsy and her knowledge that she could have a seizure and collapse at any moment, has resulted in an understandable sense of insecurity; she always needs hand-holding on stairs. Open stairs and escalators terrify her, and she will walk far out of her way to avoid them. For this reason, we only board LIRR trains at stations that have an elevator.
This is where it gets difficult to write about our experience. I alerted the nearest person in authority, a firefighter, that Emily has disabilities and cannot navigate the ladder. He asked if we could try it; maybe with assistance, Emily could manage it. I said we'd try. Ahead of us, an elderly woman was assisted down the ladder, with emergency personnel supporting her arms and legs. I could see what they planned to do, and I was pretty sure Emily wouldn't do it. Still, we had to give her the chance; she could surprise us. When it was our turn, Chris went down the ladder ahead of us so Emily could see how it was done. Emily began screaming and struggling, flailing arms and legs and knocking into my face. That would be manageable if she were a small child, but Emily is 21 years old, and just about my height. It was scary. The firefighters conceded we would have to wait and see what alternatives they could come up with.
Chris wasn't allowed to reenter the train to join us. Emily and I were seated in the last car, sweltering, as hundreds of people moved past us and navigated the ladder without an issue. Emily was perfectly content to sit and sip from her water box. I texted Emily's father that we were going to be a very long time.
A special NYPD officer approached me and introduced himself to Emily and me as "Bryan." Bryan made conversation with us, making friends with Emily. The plan was to put Emily into a stair chair, a lightweight transportation device used in emergency situations by EMTs and firefighters to evacuate wheelchair users and other disabled people. Bryan explained to her that she would sit in the chair, put on a seatbelt, and be lifted off the train onto the ground. She could still listen to her iPod and hold his hand the whole way. Did that sound good? Emily said yes.
The stair chair was already in use (Emily was not the only passenger who required this assistance), so Bryan waited with us, chatting with Emily about ice cream and other things she likes. "When you get off the train, Emily, I think you deserve two scoops of ice cream. What do you think, Mom?" I agreed. If Emily could get herself off the train, she could have all the ice cream she wanted.
I asked Bryan about the person who'd been struck. He looked sad. "We don't know for certain why he was on the tracks, but it was a worker. Just a guy trying to make his living, feed his family." That was all he knew. I closed my eyes and hoped the end had been swift and painless. I hoped that true.
Chris texted to say other people were being transported in the stair chair. It might be a while. He was right about that. When it finally arrived, Bryan explained the stair chair again and helped Emily into it. She was okay until she looked behind her and saw the open door. Emily freaked out. Bryan was still trying to fasten the seatbelts, but my 105-pound daughter leaped up, bringing the chair with her, screaming in terror. I jumped up and helped Bryan take off the remaining seatbelt so she could be free of the chair. Emily planted herself in another seat and refused to move. She was crying.
The minutes ticked by. Bryan stuck with us. He gave Emily his sunglasses to wear. "These are magic sunglasses, Emily. When you wear them, nothing can hurt you." Emily put them on, and we made a big deal about how brave she looked in them. Emily was unconvinced. I didn't expect her to be; we've never used "magic" things to convince her of anything, and she's pretty smart -- she knew something was up, but she gave us a chance. In all fairness, Bryan was doing his best and I think his strategy would have been effective on just about any other person with Emily's disability. Bryan got a sheet, which he called a magic blanket. With the blanket wrapped around her, she'd be even more safe. She remained unconvinced, but Bryan and I managed to talk her into getting into the chair again, wearing the magic sunglasses. When Bryan tried to wrap the magic sheet around her, she had another freakout moment, worse than previous. She flailed violently -- not with intent to hurt, just for self-preservation -- and knocked my hat off my head. Emily was terrified, shaking, and justifiably angry with me and Bryan for tricking her.
I held her until she calmed down. I took over the explanations. I was straightforward about the situation: "We have to get off the train, and the chair is the only way to do it. You have no choice here, and you must trust me. You know it's safe because I'm the one telling you it's safe. You know I would never lie to you. Can you get into the chair, please?" No. I sat in the chair and tightened the seatbelts, smiling at her as I did so. "You see? It's easy. And then they will lift you up and carry you off the train where it's safe." I undid the seat belts. "Now, can you get into the chair, please?" Trembling, Emily stood and walked to the chair. She hesitated before sitting. She was crying, tears spilling down her cheeks as we held eye contact. I tightened the straps around her. Bryan made knots in the straps so she couldn't escape from them again. She wept softly. My brave girl. Suddenly, three firefighters were lifting her up and moving her backward to a side door I hadn't realized was open, and Emily was screaming, flailing. One of her shoes flew off. She clawed at Bryan's arms, desperate to make contact with the ground. I wanted to jump out the door and onto the tracks, but the firefighters stopped me and directed me to take the ladder stairs down from the rear door and come around to the side.
I ran to the back door and hesitated. The ladder stairs really did look frightening. Emergency workers put up their hands and I descended with their help, only to be stopped again. The workers had to lay rubber sheets down on the live third rails so I wouldn't be electrocuted hopping over them. It took only a few seconds, but they were the longest seconds of all. All I could think of was Emily. I couldn't see her from the rear side of the train, but I could hear her continuing to scream and thrash. Rubber sheets in place, I hurried over to where my daughter sat, still restrained in the chair, surrounded by officers and firefighters. Bryan was bleeding from deep scratches in his forearms. They released the straps, and Emily clung to me. She was afraid of getting up now. She was afraid of walking on railroad tracks, which she's been told her entire life not to walk on except at pedestrian crossings. Chris appeared, and together we got Emily started walking. An officer stopped Chris to ask for Emily's name and address; I don't know why. Bryan walked with Emily and me to the Queens Village LIRR station. I don't recall how long we walked, but it wasn't far.
When we reached the platform, Emily clutched at me and shrieked. It was only accessible from the tracks via another ladder.
Bryan and I looked at each other. The train platform wasn't that high. I'm five foot three, and my chin cleared it. Emily clung to my arm as I thought about it. I looked at Bryan. "Can we just lift her up? Once she has her butt up there, she'll be okay. She'll still be scared, but she'll be okay." That was what we did (not me -- Bryan and a firefighter lifted her from below, while Chris and other emergency personnel lifted from above). I ran around to the ladder and hurried up to where Emily was sobbing and shaking in someone's arms.
Together, we walked along the platform to the exit. Bryan warned me not to look to my right as we passed the scene of the accident. I made the mistake of doing so anyway, and had to fight back the urge to vomit. I'll never forget what I saw.
Thank goodness the Queens Village station has an elevator. We were able to take it down to the street level below. Bryan was still with us. Emily was still clinging to my side. Chris hovered protectively. Bryan explained the LIRR had provided buses to drive everyone to the next station, where we could continue our journey. Chris and I looked at each other. We looked at Emily's tear-stained face. We thanked Bryan and took a Lyft back to our car in Hicksville.
Emily wanted pizza, not ice cream. We took her for pizza. She wanted her dad. He took the train to Hicksville and they spent the afternoon at the mall. She was low-key, happy to see him. When I picked her up a few hours later, she was exhausted and ready to go home. She's safe in bed now, watching a movie on her laptop and sipping her favorite ginger ale. Her voice is still hoarse from all the screaming. I'm looking in on her a lot, probably too often -- I think I'm beginning to annoy her. But when I went in just now, she sat up and wrapped her arms around me. We hugged for a long time. I told her she'd had a rough day, that even though she was afraid, she'd been brave by allowing us to put her in the chair. She'd done the right thing. I told her that tomorrow would be a better day. It almost certainly will.
It's important to note that I feel very sorry for the worker who was killed. What our family went through today seems small, compared to what his family must be experiencing right now. I don't know his name, but I wish for the best for his family.
Finally, Chris and I are grateful for all the patient support Emily and we received. A thousand people had to be evacuated from that train, and we were certainly the most work for them. We're especially grateful to Officer Bryan Marksteiner for his assistance. Without him, Emily and I might still be on that train.