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. "
Terror and void
For Busler, the "unknowns" used to keep him up at night.
In his 35 years in the rail industry, Busler has worked as a conductor and is now an engineer for Amtrak. Busler said he has seen more than 15 fatal incidents, many of which were suicides.
On a recent clear and sunny afternoon, Busler sat in a Pacific Surfliner as a passenger and took the train from his home in Los Angeles to Ventura. It's a trip the 57-year-old used to make every day as part of his route, which changes from time to time.
As he sat in the cab car, Busler pointed outside the window. As the train started to pick up speed through Oxnard, Busler noticed a young boy probably 10 to 12 years old on his bike watching the train speed by.
"Technically, what he is doing is trespassing, and that's what you see a lot of times in this area and especially in California," Busler said of the young boy. "You always have to comply with the rules and have your eyes out there. Even though you train for it and retrain to become really good at dealing with it, you are always under a lot of pressure."
Busler said some of his colleagues have decided to stop working on train routes in Southern California because of the amount of trespassers they see daily.
According to a report compiled by the American Association of Suicidology, about 77 percent of train suicides involved freight trains, and the other 23 percent involved passenger trains.
To keep his mind on the tracks, Busler said, he tries not to dwell on the amount of deaths he has seen. But he still remembers his first incident while operating an Amtrak train from Del Mar to Miramonte. The passenger train was traveling at 90 mph when a man suddenly jumped in front and laid down on the tracks.
Decades later, Busler still cannot forget the mixed look of terror and void in the man's eyes.
After his sixth fatal incident, Busler said, he decided to no longer get out of the train unless he is needed to help inspect the tracks or train. He rarely searches later for information on the victim, because it just became "too hard to shake off."
Busler said the best advice he received as a student engineer was from a supervisor, who said that as long as all rules and safety precautions were followed "to what was humanly possible," there must be some acceptance that unfortunate incidents do occur while operating such a powerful machine.
"I try not to dwell on them, but it does become a part of the video of your life that you sometimes can't shake," Busler said. "This is also what makes us so vigilant about our rules and applications. You kind of have to let it go as best as you can, but you do wonder: Who was this guy? ... Why was he there? It's what I don't know that bothers me."
Although there is no identifiable pattern to when train suicides most occur, there are statewide and national programs geared toward prevention and education.
The Rail Suicide Prevention Project, funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation, was established to identify hot spots and develop countermeasures.
In California, September has been designated as Rail Safety Month. Officials from Amtrak, Metrolink, Union Pacific and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen partner with local police agencies to enforce crossing laws and educate the public on safety around trains and tracks.
Yet there are no guarantees, said Metrolink's Lustgarten.
"When the train is approaching, it could be a bit of an illusion and could appear not to be coming as fast as it really is," Lustgarten said. "If someone is determined to take their own life or think they can beat a train as it's approaching, there really is not much you can do to prevent that person from taking that action."
For a train veteran like Busler, the goal is not only to get all passengers safely to their destinations, but also to support fellow engineers and conductors.
"Some people go their whole career without anything like that happening. For some, it happens with some frequency," Busler said. "The railroad is a family and we all bond together under those tragic circumstances."
Copyright 2014 - Ventura County Star, Calif.