Warning: this post contains details some may find distressing.
I attended my last train fatality in mid-April, 2015. It happened just before 10.00 am on a Wednesday, when a woman stepped out in front of a passenger train that was travelling at speed between two stations. In these situations, the train driver can do nothing but bring the train to a stop and radio it in. He then sits in his cabin and waits for police to arrive.
We park our car next to the train, get out and begin to walk the tracks. I always found this to be the worst part of it. Looking for a victim and not knowing what condition they’re going to be in. We walk for a minute or so, then find her under the third carriage. She’s been ripped apart.
I lift my radio and inform the operator that it’s a confirmed fatality. There’s no need for paramedics and no need to check for a pulse. It’s simply not possible for a person to survive those kinds of injuries.
I continue to walk beside the train and spot more body parts underneath it. I’m vaguely aware of passengers on the train looking down at me, wondering what’s going on and how long they’re going to be delayed. I don’t react at all to what I’m seeing, so they have no idea.
By that stage, the smell has well and truly hit me. There’s no other smell like it in the world. I’ve been around dozens of bodies in all different stages of decomposition, but train fatalities have their own unique odour. I could be blindfolded and would still be able to tell you what kind of scene I was at, just from that smell. It’s an overwhelmingly sickly, meaty smell that there’s no getting away from.
I suppose it’s because of the smell that all my other senses seem overloaded. I hear the sound of the train idling on the tracks, because they haven’t shut it down yet. And I hear the level crossing. It’s nearly two hundred metres away, but the bells are ringing in my ears. The boom gates were activated when the train approached and will stay activated until the train is moved. That will be hours away.
The ground beneath my feet is unsteady, not because of what I’m feeling, but because I’m walking on crushed rocks. Even in patrol boots, you need to step carefully around train tracks, or risk rolling an ankle.
The blood on the tracks is bright red. The victim’s clothing also provides unexpected flashes of colour here and there. Purple coat. Brown shoes. White socks.
We board the train and speak to the driver. He seems to be okay under the circumstances. Then we walk through the carriages and escort all the passengers to the back of the train. The fire brigade arrives and a ladder is propped underneath the last carriage door. Together, we help the passengers disembark. They are told to walk back towards the last station, where buses will be waiting. Some ask what’s going on. There’s been an accident, we tell them. We’ve made sure they won’t be able to see anything when they get off the train.
These jobs usually go for about three or four hours and there’s a lot of standing around, waiting. We have to wait for the railway investigators to come out and do their thing, then we wait for the undertakers. Time in between is spent searching the scene for the victim’s personal items and shielding the body from sight.
I don’t know, but maybe these scenes would be a little easier if we had more to do. I know why we’re there, that’s not the problem. It’s an unexpected death and we’re there to report to the coroner. I get that. I just wish we could do more. We’re there but we don’t do anything to help anyone. It’s much too late for that.
When the investigations are complete, we make sure the victim is completely covered with tarps, then the train is slowly moved. It will be cleaned thoroughly before being returned to service. The undertakers arrive next but before they start to move the victim, we have our crime scene officers photograph the body. We have found the victim’s wallet and with it, a driver’s licence, but the body before us is unrecognisable. They will have to rely on DNA evidence to confirm who she is.
We hold the tarps up to shield the victim from sight and the undertakers get to work. They end up using two body bags because there are just so many pieces. The smell is so strong at this moment and I feel sick to my stomach. Sight and smell are now the only two senses I’m aware of, both seem to be at their absolute peak.
The undertakers leave and a small army of trauma cleaners move in to rehabilitate the scene. All traces of blood and tissue are soon gone and it’s like nothing extraordinary has happened here today.
We get back to the station at about 2.00 pm, it’s the first break we’ve had all day. I forego lunch because I still have that smell in my nose. I feel like I never want to eat again.
The smell is so strong that I start to suspect it’s gotten into my uniform. I contemplate going upstairs and having a shower, before realising I don’t have a spare uniform at work. I’ll just have to put up with it a few more hours, I tell myself.
I’d been to half a dozen train fatalities during my career, all but one of the scenes were really messy. I remember the first one I went to was some poor guy who realised he’d boarded the wrong train. He stepped out onto the little platform between two carriages and tried to jump off, but never had a chance. He went straight under the wheels and nobody even noticed his body on the tracks until the next train came along.
The largest part we found of that victim was the bottom half of one of his legs. The rest was just torn apart. I’ll never forget the sight of the undertakers walking the tracks, picking up the pieces and dropping them into bright yellow hazardous waste bags.
I was aware of the smell at that first job, but it went away pretty quickly. I think it was gone that same day. But this last job was different and no matter what I did, I just couldn’t get the smell out of my nose. I showered when I got home and washed my uniform twice, but the smell remained.
I eventually found that the only way I could get rid of the smell was to replace it with something much stronger. So I got a handkerchief and poured some eucalyptus oil onto it, held it to my nose and inhaled deeply. This seemed to work well.
So there you go, I was grounding before I even knew what grounding was.
But over the next few weeks, I found that whenever I thought about that last train job, the smell would return. Then I’d start to get it whenever I was around trains. If I was in my car and stuck at boom gates, for example, the smell would come on and I’d start to feel sick. I began to rely more and more on the eucalyptus oil and was soon carrying it on a handkerchief wherever I went. Just in case.
I didn’t tell anyone what was going on and the handkerchief thing was a discrete way of dealing with it. As far as I know nobody ever noticed what I was doing and even if they did, they wouldn’t think anything of it. She’s using a handkerchief, so what?
I then started to ask myself what it was about that particular job that got to me. Why that one and not the others? But then I thought, maybe it wasn’t just that job. Maybe it wasn’t just that day. This had been going on for months. Maybe it was the death in custody. Or the other train fatality – the one I went to the day after the death in custody. Could it have been the siege? I couldn’t make sense of it at first, I just couldn’t put my finger on it. It felt like it was one thing in particular and at the same time it felt like it was everything.
I soon began to worry. I worried that that every mechanism I had put in place, either consciously or subconsciously, every system I had for coping with these kinds of jobs were all breaking down.
I felt like I was falling apart.