It was a hazy Wednesday afternoon when Amtrak locomotive engineer Doug Busler was driving a Pacific Surfliner train through Oxnard and noticed something on the tracks about a quarter-mile away.
Busler blew the train's horn and immediately engaged the emergency brakes, but at 80 mph, inertia kept the 75-ton train with five passenger cars speeding toward the figure on the tracks.
While seconds ticked and the train continued to advance, Busler realized it was a woman sitting on one side of the tracks. Despite the warning bells and brake screeching, the woman did not budge, her back crouched and head tucked between her legs as she braced for impact.
Despite Busler's efforts to stop the train, it was too late.
"It was clear what the intention was," Busler said. "Even if you knew what that figure was from a half-mile away, you are still going to strike that person. It was unfortunate, but it would've taken superhuman strength to do anything else.
"All you can do is remain absolute vigilant, because you can't look away," he said of operating a train. "It's something you don't forget."
Ventura County medical examiners ruled the woman's Feb. 13, 2002, death was a suicide.
Since 2009, 13 train-related suicides have occurred in Ventura County, according to the coroner's office. In December alone, the county had three such incidents.
And on Saturday, an unidentified man was struck by a train near Fifth Street and Buena Vista Road in Oxnard. Coroner officials, however, are still investigating that incident and have not ruled it a suicide.
For engineers like Busler in charge of maneuvering a locomotive and conductors who manage the crew, the trauma of a suicide incident is part of the job. While police respond to incidents and coroner investigators make the final determination on the cause of death, the engineers and conductors must deal with the initial aftermath of the fatal impact.
Such an incident can be traumatic, so engineers and conductors involved in one receive intensive counseling and time off, said Amtrak spokeswoman Vernae Graham.
"Usually there is very little warning, and usually there is no braking because the engineers don't know that someone is there until that person steps in front of the train," Graham said. "All they can do is follow their training and apply the brakes, if there is even time to do that.
"Some will tell you it's the eyes of the people they see before impact that really haunts them."
To help employees deal with suicides, derailments or other major accidents, the National Railroad Passenger Corp. and Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen penned an agreement in 1995 to provide trauma services. The Critical Assistance Passenger Engineers program was formed out of that agreement and has been in place since 1997.
After a fatal incident, crews are automatically pulled off duty once they talk to law enforcement or coroner officials, Metrolink spokesman Jeff Lustgarten said. A counselor then calls the engineer and conductor within 24 hours. A peer intervention group also contacts crew members to offer support.
According to Operation Lifesaver Inc., California leads the nation in annual rail fatalities. In 2012, the state had 244 rail incidents, including 112 deaths.
It takes the average freight train a mile to stop even after brakes have been applied, according to Operation Lifesaver, a national nonprofit group of Metrolink, Amtrak and Union Pacific representatives who educate the public as well as law enforcement and first responders on railway safety.
"In terms of suicide, obviously it is very tragic and certainly the people who are most impacted are friends and family," said Metrolink spokesman Jeff Lustgarten. "When a person chooses to commit suicide in this way, the ripple effects are huge, not only for the engineer and conductor, but also for passengers on the train who are aware of what has occurred. "