A train tragedy humanized
by James Alan Fox

 Thursday, June 8, 2000

Fortunate that my Monday agenda ended early, I ran to catch the 12:13 p.m. commuter train home from Ruggles Street Station. I was to meet up with my 15-year-old son after school and spend some quality time on the baseball field. Instead, I spent the afternoon focused on another boy - a boy whose death was just a few minutes and a few miles down the track.

Shortly after the train pulled away from Canton Junction, I heard the shrill blast of the whistle followed by the agonizing screech of the brakes - the awful sound of metal upon metal.
"What now?'' I wondered with a bit of impatience and annoyance as the train came to a halt. "Another MBTA screw-up?''
The conductor - a woman who showed little emotion - passed through the train to announce that there had been a fatality. The train had struck a pedestrian.
"That's too bad,'' passengers responded, "How long do you think we'll be stuck here?''
Whatever air of concern there was at first quickly changed into a collective sense of irritation. Several passengers were concerned about missing appointments. One older woman worried out loud about how she would retrieve her grandchildren after school.
Death can be tragic but lives go on. One man questioned why the train couldn't just back up and then switch over to the other track. Apparently, the body lay beneath the train, preventing us from moving until the evidence was removed by the medical examiner.
"It would take awhile,'' we were informed.
No one was permitted to leave the train. Yet a few indignant passengers refused to be held hostage by the T and jumped off anyway.
After well over an hour, we were advised that we could wait for several hours more until the scene was cleared and the train could proceed, or we could be shepherded back to Canton Junction. But there was a catch: We would have to walk past the body.
As several passengers quietly weighed their options, police and firefighters gathered alongside the train, inspecting the grim scene and taking their measurements.
Being in the business of studying murder, my own exasperation was eclipsed by curiosity. I maneuvered my way through the cars toward the rear of the train, despite the woman conductor's admonition to stay up front.
The rear car was dark and empty except for a couple of MBTA employees. I walked to the window at the back and gazed down at the tracks. Between the rails just behind the train lay the body shrouded with a small white sheet that managed not to cover nearly enough of it.
A pair of sneakers were strewn on the tracks. They appeared to be the kind that boys wear - boys about my son's age.
In my profession, I have dealt with violent death before. Yet the contrast between the eery stillness of the scene before me and the impatient chatter of passengers up front made me ill.
An announcement came over the speaker that a bus would soon arrive to take us to our destinations. We were led away from the train, not near the body after all but through a neighboring yard. TV camera crews filmed our exodus as if we were something more than inconsequential bystanders - as if we too were victims.
Once aboard the bus, several commuters complained about the slow response time until our evacuation and the circuitous route the bus was following.
They seemed to have forgotten why we had been detained. It is not that they were callous people. Rather they were detached from the tragedy by the span of several train cars, and were able to disassociate their inconvenience from the death of a boy.
I have not been able to shake the image of those remains on the track and of the boy's sneakers. His name was Matthew Melket and he was only 17 and a student at Canton High School.
Friends have asked why I would have wanted to look at that grim scene. I'm not sorry I did. Seeing is much more than believing; it humanizes tragedy.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. Professor Fox has asked that his honorarium be donated in Matthew Melket's memory to the Mulitple Sclerosis Foundation as an example to those similarly touched by this tragedy.