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Jerry Davich: Suicides leave more than just one victim in their wake

A South Shore tra57-year-old Michigan woman Sept. 25 The Pines. Her death was later ruled suicide. | Sun-Times Media

A South Shore train a 57-year-old Michigan woman Sept. 25 in The Pines. Her death was later ruled a suicide. | Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 7, 2013 6:08AM



Sharon Spitler had every intention of taking her life when she left her motel room in the early morning of Sept. 25.

At 6:40 a.m., the 56-year-old Westland, Mich., woman walked to the nearby South Shore railroad tracks and stood between the long twin rails that disappear in both directions in The Pines. With a fast-approaching westbound South Shore passenger train heading her way, Spitler turned her back to it.

She didn’t kneel down, but instead positioned herself into a slight crouching position, bracing for the inevitable.

The impact wasn’t pretty. The scene wasn’t all nice and tidy like in a TV show.

She died instantly, which is presumably what she wanted. But did she consider how her final action in life would impact the train engineer and conductor who had to watch the incident? Unlikely.

“My God, that poor train crew!” Spitler’s brother, Steve Spitler, told police afterward amid tears. “What they must be going through right now having to have experienced this.”

Steve Spitler was absolutely correct. In most every rail-related death — whether it’s a suicide or vehicle-versus-train crash — there are always other victims. I’m speaking of the train engineers and conductors who can’t do anything but apply the emergency brake, brace themselves and witness a horrific event unfold in front of them.

“Please extend to the train crew our most sincere apologies,” Spitler told police after learning more about the incident’s details. “I am so sorry that they had to endure all of this.”

Bob Byrd, police chief for the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, told him, “Steve, that’s an incredibly kind and thoughtful thing to say. The (train) crew is hurting bad right now and I will make sure that your caring words are passed on to them.”

Whenever I hear or read about such rail-related crashes, incidents or suicides, my first thought is with the train engineers, who must deal with what happened long after the deceased victims are hauled away and buried. NICTD, like all rail lines, have an Employee Assistance Program to assist workers confronted with these types of tragedies and any post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The crew was interviewed and offered the opportunity to step down from service and seek counseling,” said Bjarne Henderson, NICTD’s director of human resources and labor relations.

For this column I was unable to interview an engineer or conductor who has experienced such a situation, but I’m still interested to hear their perspective and feelings after the fact.

After this incident, the train was recrewed before proceeding to Chicago. If or how long they attend counseling is entirely up to them and NICTD’s medical provider, I’m told.

Since 2000, four people have committed suicide by way of a NICTD South Shore train, though a total of 18 rail-related deaths have occurred.

According to statistics from the Federal Railroad Administration and National Operation Lifesaver, 434 pedestrian “rail trespass fatalities” occurred in 2012 along the country’s 160,000 miles of railroad tracks.

Of those deaths, 12 occurred in Indiana, which is ranked 11th in the country, though the underlying reasons of each fatality are not known.

“It could be that the person was fishing from a railroad bridge without clearance, trying to hop a freight train, failing to hear the train while walking along the right of way, as well as an intentional choice,” NICTD’s Henderson said.

“Intentional choice” equates to suicide, I’m guessing.

If you recall, three years ago Metra’s own head honcho, Phil Pagano, took his own life in front of a speeding Metra commuter train in McHenry County, Ill. Pagano, who was facing a criminal investigation into his finances, left a letter “indicating his intentions.” On his body was reportedly a copy of Metra’s procedures how to deal with a service disruption after a suicide.

How ironic? How sad? How cruel, I thought, knowing damn well that his deliberate action could traumatically affect his own train engineers for possibly years to come.

Sharon Spitler possibly never considered this aftershock from her last decision and action in life. We’ll never know for sure.

Spitler, who worked for only a brief period in her life, lived at home with her parents whom she took care of during their later years. As what often happens with older couples who live a lifetime together, Spitler’s parents died about three weeks apart, police said.

Spitler and her brother sold their parents’ house and she decided to travel around the country, see the world, so to speak. She converted the family minivan into a traveling van and headed across the country, sleeping in the van but staying in hotels along the way.

Police determined that Spitler was recently in Colorado, then Terre Haute, before arriving at Al and Sally’s Motel in The Pines, presumably to visit the Indiana Dunes. She checked into her room on Sept. 22 and paid for it through Sept. 25, the day she died.

Police say Spitler was alone in life, with no one except her brother.

Depending on your beliefs, she is still alone or she is in an eternal afterworld that has finally given her the solace and warmth she may have sought. Maybe she missed her parents so much she simply wanted to be with them again. I don’t know.

But I believe she dragged into the grave with her, at least to some degree, the train engineer and conductor who witnessed her death at no fault of their own.

As I’ve learned from the many suicides I’ve covered and written about through the years — whether it’s done with a gun, a noose or a train — most every suicide has more than just one victim. And they must trudge on with it rattling around in their head until their death.

Connect with Jerry via email, at jdavich@post-trib.com, voice mail, at 713-7237, or Facebook, Twitter, and his blog, at jerrydavich.wordpress.com.



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