"You shouldn't stand so close to the edge of the subway platform," an MTA employee once told me as I craned my neck impatiently at the 49th Street subway station. I apologized as she shook her head and said, "I've just seen too many people killed by trains. Now stand back."
When I swiped my Metrocard on an unseasonably warm Monday afternoon, I was busy making a to-do list on my iPhone for the day. I thought nothing of it when I saw a middle aged Asian man rush through the subway turnstile shortly after I had, shouting at a black man who was standing toward the middle of the platform.
I finally looked up from my phone as the Asian man staggered toward me, and I smelled alcohol on his breath. "Hey!" he said loudly, and I looked on nervously as he teetered dangerously close to the edge of the platform, making his way toward the black man.
"I don't know you," the black man said calmly. "Get out of my face." As the Asian man continued to scream angry words that I can no longer recall, his back to the train tracks, the MTA employee's words started racing through my head. You shouldn't stand so close to the Subway platform, I thought over and over again as the argument escalated.
"Man, I can f*** you up," I heard, along with a thud and an announcement that the Q train was approaching the station. "Stop the train! There's a man on the tracks!" I heard a woman yell. Terrified, I looked down and saw the Asian man lying face down on the tracks. He has a family! I thought as I too started shrieking, "Stop the train!"
But the Q slid innocently into the station as people continued to scream, and I fled.
I stood on the corner of 49th Street and 7th Avenue completely stunned. I went straight into autopilot, and all I could focus on was getting to work. I had to email my coworkers to tell them I would be missing our afternoon meeting because I had just seen a man die. No, I had just seen a man killed. I leaned against the wall of a building, trying to catch my breath as the sun beat down on my face. I would get to work. I had to get to work. It was my only thought as my brain systematically mapped out different subway routes.
Details of the event unfolded throughout the day, and the New York Post slapped an image of the victim attempting to crawl back onto the platform on its front cover on Tuesday morning. That man, who had a wife and a college-age daughter, had spent the last moments of his life with me. Should I have run to his rescue? Could I have lifted him onto the platform in time? Should I have put my life at risk to save his?
Maybe these are questions I will continue to ask myself in the coming weeks and months, and I doubt I'll ever treat a subway platform with the same impatience. I'll never know what was going through the pusher's mind as he sent a man to his death, and I'll never know what the victim's final thoughts were. Was he thinking about his wife? His daughter? Or was his mind still on the man who had pushed him?
Life is short, and it can end in an instant. It's impossible to know who has the potential to kill, but fear isn't a way of life in this city. As I walked to the 49th street subway station on Tuesday and into the hands of detectives and reporters who were in search of witnesses, I obliged.
"Are you traumatized?" one particularly nosy reporter asked. "I'm very sad. And I wish I had done something to help. But I guess these are the kinds of things that remind us of how precious life is ... right?"