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Bucharest's Metro Drivers See Too Many Suicide Attempts

"After his second 'execution', he aged visibly overnight. He was extremely traumatised. He told me that the last guy he ran over had blood running from his neck like a decapitated chicken."

by Alex Nedea
14 July 2015, 8:30am

All photos by Mircea Topoleanu

This article originally appeared on VICE Romania

All of Bucharest's Metrorex subway-trains have a daunting red button in the driver's cab. Big and bold, it sticks out like an ominous plastic mushroom on the dashboard, waiting to bring the train to a halt in the event of someone jumping out from a platform on the tracks. A long time can pass without someone having to press that red button, but driver Ştefan Căpăţână never keeps his hand far away from it. If he sees the slightest warning sign, his instincts are trained to smack it as if he's swatting a fly.

Căpăţână has become a legend amongst the city's metro operators. He seems to have an uncanny ability to sense suicide attempts moments before they happen. He's had people jump in front of his train four times so far, but none of them have ever been killed.

The last time he came face to face with someone trying to end their life was two years ago. Early one morning, Ştefan's train was pulling into the platform of Bucharest's Titan station at about 50 miles per hour, when he managed to spot a person standing extremely close to the edge of the platform. Realising that something wasn't quite right, he pushed the emergency button and the train howled to a standstill. Ştefan remembers it as if everything went into slow motion – the teenager jumped from the platform with his arms and legs locked perfectly straight. "He jumped so neatly. It seemed as if he was diving into a swimming pool. He was so tall that when he landed, he was spread out over three tracks. If I'd run him over, he'd have been cut up in three pieces."

Miraculously, the train stopped two inches from his neck. He wasn't harmed but he was very much stuck under one of the carriages. Ştefan did what all drivers are instructed to: he contacted the train dispatcher to report the incident, then made a public service announcement purposefully avoiding using the word "suicide". "Due to some technical issues involving a passenger on the tracks, this will be the final stop," he said.

Ştefan Căpăţână. The red emergency button is on his right-hand side.

In all the madness, he remembers one passenger coming up to him trying to start a fight: "You asshole, I'm going to be late for work!" the man shouted. Ştefan didn't have time to reply. Instead, he bounded out of the train so he could comfort the suicidal boy, who was lying on the tracks, curled up and screaming for help. While waiting for the ambulance, Ştefan asked him why he did it. "Get me out of here and I'll tell you," said the teenager. It turned out that his girlfriend had just left him.

Out of the 43 subway trains that Ştefan has driven in his 30 years on the job, he's strangely only experienced suicide attempts on one of them: Train number five. All of the suicides had the same root cause, too: Love. He recalled one young, beautiful lady jumping out on tracks. Again, he was lucky enough to hit the breaks in time. "She stank of alcohol so I told the station's guards to take her to the police station until she sobered up. The guards were so enamoured by her beauty that they just let her go when she said was fine. Unfortunately the moment they did, she tried the exact same stunt at the other side of the station." Amazingly she dodged another bullet after wrongly guessing which side of the tunnel the train would come from.

Love was again the cause of another suicide attempt back in 2000. The poor guy had found out that whilst he'd been busy working abroad as an engineer, his wife started seeing another man. There's a good chance he may never have known about the infidelity if his wife hadn't gotten pregnant. She might even have been able to get away with it if it wasn't for the fact that they hadn't seen each other for longer than nine months. When he found out, he lost his mind; he went straight down to the station and lay down across the tracks. Luckily, the wind made the corner of his jacket wave up in the air like a little flag and Căpăţână was able to stop the train from running him over.

Last May, a 38-year-old man jumped onto the tracks at Universitate station. His name was George Dumitru – a lawyer employed by famous Romanian businessman Dan Adamescu, who is currently under investigation for bribing judges. Friends knew George as a lawyer who swore by one principle: "You should never do anything that keeps you up at night".

After jumping, Dumitru fell between two carriages but was not killed immediately. He managed to stay alive for a couple more minutes, in excruciating pain. A student named Raluca Popescu happened to be on the train behind the one the lawyer had thrown himself under. "Back at the station, rumours were floating about that he was still alive. The driver had made the mistake of publicly announcing that there was a suicide and everybody was just screaming about the fact that they were going to be late. Others were complaining that he'd chosen rush hour to commit suicide," Raluca remembers.

According to psychiatrist Gabriel Diaconu, "some studies examining suicide on subway systems have shown that the survival rate is actually quite high but that the consequences are quite dramatic as the victim is often left with multiple handicaps and injuries. Usually, these are people who attempt suicide for the first time – people who are under the impression that this particular method is foolproof. But they're wrong."

As I stand on a platform talking to Ştefan Căpăţână, a train stops behind him. He surveys it with a trained eye and immediately recognises his co-worker. "That's George; he's been through a lot of, well, 'executions'," he says. It is obvious he's had a hard time choosing the right word to describe these deaths. Apparently, George has had 11 people jump in front of his train. He's never managed to avoid any of them but, somehow, only two have died. Many of those who have survived have had their limbs severed.

Căpăţână knows just how much this has affected his colleague: "After his second execution, George aged visibly overnight. He was extremely traumatised. He told me that the last guy he ran over had blood spraying from his neck like a decapitated chicken."

There's no public record of how many people throw themselves in front of Bucharest's subway trains and how many survive; Metrorex keeps those numbers a secret. It also remains unknown just how many tube drivers suffer from nervous breakdowns after such incidents.

Piața Unirii Station, Bucharest

Some psychologists argue that the emotional aftermath can be so powerful that the drivers could end up with the exact same psychological symptoms as the person who attempted suicide to begin with.

"The first phase that the driver goes through is psycho-emotional shock, which can later lead to post-traumatic stress disorder. If the shock isn't treated quickly, the subject can experience feelings that could lead to severe anxiety and depression," says clinical psychologist, Alina Maria Blăgoi.

In many cities around the world, platform screen doors have been fitted to prevent suicide and accidental falls from the platform. The doors look like giant shop windows and only open when the train reaches the platform. Other countries have gone even further and looked at different ways of calming people. Researchers in Japan realised that the suicide rate was very low in stations lit with blue light so they installed blue LEDs everywhere. Apparently, this light has a calming effect on agitated people as humans associate it with the sky and the sea.

In terms of modernising its infrastructure, Metrorex told VICE Romania that they are considering different options but didn't go into specifics.

Psychiatrist Gabriel Diaconu has a more nuanced take on the matter: "It's a very delicate subject. Look at it like this; A bridge's architect isn't responsible for those that jump off it. On the other hand, if the authorities were to install platform edge doors at subway stations, then such situations would probably be avoided."

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