Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Amtrak Accident: Sorry This Tragedy Inconvenienced You

Anna Marie Stickel was walking to school this morning in Middle River, Maryland, when she was struck and killed by an Amtrak train.  She was 14 years old.  A friend with whom she was walking got out of the way in time, and called 911 after the accident.  It's not clear whether she was crossing the tracks as part of her usual route or if the girls were walking on the tracks where they shouldn't have been.  Whenever someone is hit by a train and the reason isn't completely obvious, people have a question about suicide in the back of their minds.  The publicly available details are sketchy enough that there's no way to know whether that's an issue in this case.

As frequent Quarterbackers know, "trespasser fatalities" are quite common on railroad tracks.  There are more than 600 such deaths every year.  A large number of these are suicides or suspected suicides -- sometimes there's no way to know.  Every one of these deaths is a tragedy that affects the family and friends of the deceased as well as the train crew, who may experience several of these incidents over the course of a career.  The passengers on board the train may also be impacted once they learn what happened.  Unlike the train crew, there are no systemic supports set up to help them process any reactions they may have.

With an average of almost 2 trespasser fatalities per day in this country, it is not surprising that most do not get much attention outside of the local area where the accident occurs.  I would love to be able to tell you that this one made the national news because Ann Marie was a great kid, or because of her age, or because of any factor that had anything to do with her.  That is not the case however.  This story made the news because the location of the accident was such that Amtrak service was significantly disrupted through its entire Northeast service corridor.

Certainly such a delay is news.  It also makes sense to report on the cause of the delay if you're going to report on the delay at all.  But imagine if you are Anna Marie Stickel's parents, teachers or friends.  This child whom you care about has been suddenly and shockingly killed.  The details are horrific.  You are going to have nightmares and be afraid of trains and have trouble eating.  Press coverage never helps in these situations, because no matter what the media reports they can't possibly capture who the victim was in life or what she meant to you, and because reporters can really be invasive in these situations.

This incident, however, is even worse than the usual problems with press coverage.  In this case, not only is your loved one's death splashed all over the news, it's not even because people care that she died.  It's because her death caused a problem for a bunch of people taking trains.  And let me tell you, at this point, you really and truly do not care whether people's trains were on time today.  It's bad enough feeling like you have just stepped off a cliff and the rest of the world hasn't noticed.  It's even worse when they did notice, but only because you got dust on their shoes.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at www.SchoolCrisisConsultant.com
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