What It's Like to Witness Death as a Train Driver
"I can still hear the bang and see the blood. I'll carry that with me for the rest of my life."
This article originally appeared on VICE Germany.
When there's a fatality on the train tracks in Germany, the national railway company Deutsche Bahn calls it personenschaden—"damage to a person." It's a rather sober, bureaucratic term for a bloody, messy, and shocking reality. The driver of the train involved in the fatality usually carries the trauma for the rest of his or her life.
Michael Dittmann, chairman of the Train Drivers' Union of Cologne, told me that, in Germany, train drivers on average experience two rail-related deaths during their career—some accidents, some suicides.
Peter Gutwasser, 54, drove the S-Bahn in Berlin for 20 years and was directly involved in three rail-related deaths. Today, he works as a therapist and lives with his wife and two cats on the outskirts of Berlin. I visited him there to talk about what it's like to run someone over.
"The most awful experience I ever had was when I hit two children at the same time, in October 1996," he said. "They were two little boys, a three-year-old and a six-year old. It was just after 1 PM on the last ride of my shift when those two boys suddenly ran onto the train tracks to play there. I pulled the breaks and switched on the warning signal, but it was just too late. When the boys saw the train, they went into a state of shock and froze. I heard a loud bang, and after what felt like a hundred seconds, the train finally came to a standstill. I got out and didn't see anything at first, but when I walked back a bit, there was this enormous puddle of blood, and I heard a whimpering. They were both badly hurt. The older brother asked whether I had a plaster for his brother. I went back to my cabin to get my first aid kit and call the emergency services, but when I got back, they suddenly tried to run away—in their heavily injured state. The ambulance managed to pick them up. I later found out that the youngest brother died of his injuries. He had got under the train and dragged his brother with him. I'm not entirely sure if the older boy survived—he must have had a lot of internal injuries."
Twenty years later, the noises and smells of that day remain with Gutwasser. "I can still hear the bang when the youngest boy hit the train—I can still see the blood," he said. "I'll carry that with me for the rest of my life, but I learned to control it. I gave the boy a name for myself, so I could give it all a place and move on from it."
Gutwasser's first fatal accident as a train driver was in June 1990, when a woman tried to open the door after the train had started moving and she got stuck between the train and the platform. At the time, train doors could be opened while the train was moving. "She was squashed, basically," said Gutwasser. "I was in shock. My mind tried to tell me what just happened, but my emotions blocked it. I had spoken to that woman on the platform, just moments before she died."
Another time, someone died on his shift, though he only realized it later. "It was an S-Bahn surfer, who was climbing around on the roof of the train when he smashed into a signal post and died. I had no idea—when I got to the next station someone from the federal police asked me whether I had noticed anything. That guy was 22—at that age you should know what you're doing. I was angry, and I didn't feel sorry for him, to be honest."
The fatalities Gutwasser was involved in were all accidents, but he also witnessed a suicide on the tracks during one of his shifts, when a man jumped in front of a train on the other tracks. His body smashed from the first train onto the one Gutwasser was driving. "What was left of him landed on my windshield," he said. "It was a nightmare. My first instinct was to switch on the windshield wipers. You have to be pragmatic in situations like that. People committing suicide on the train tracks really do tick me off. Why drag others down with you in your misery?"
Gutwasser didn't get any psychological help after the fatalities he was involved in—"Each time I had to drive the smashed up train back to the yard and clean it myself," he said—which is why, together with a colleague, he formed a self-help group for train drivers in the late 1990s. Today, drivers are much better cared for after fatalities—colleagues take over the shift, and the drivers in question are offered psychological help.
Psychologist Wilfried Echterhoff treats people who have been confronted with the death of others in their jobs, and he knows it can leave long-lasting psychological trauma. "Some people have never been confronted with death before," he explained. "To suddenly be confronted with it in such a violent way can lead to PTSD or a serious depression." Echterhoff thinks talking about the accidents as much as possible helps people find a way to start over.
That happened for Gutwasser—he accepted death as part of his life. "If you're a train driver, it's just a fact that someone could jump in front of your train," he said. "But you need to distance yourself from the fatalities to protect yourself. These people died—there's nothing I can do to change that. Dealing with death is a long process; I worked very hard on it. I think it might have helped that I've been interested in philosophical subjects since I was little. And you need to reflect on death with humor, too. No matter how tough the situation is, you still have to be able to laugh about it in some way."
The fact that Gutwasser quit his job as a train driver and now works as a therapist has nothing to do with the accidents on the job. "I started working as a train driver for financial reasons and because it gave me a sense of freedom. It was fascinating," he said. "But the hours were very long, and it wasn't a very family-friendly job. I always wanted to be a therapist; I like helping people. I still think about the people I saw die on the tracks, but I don't feel guilty. I didn't do anything wrong. I was just doing my job."
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, please contact the Suicide Prevention Lifeline.