Archive for August, 2011

I DIDN’T WATCH THE GAP

Eileen on the LIRR (New York Times 12.31.68)

Does anyone remember my  mentioning falling through the infamous Long Island Rail Road “Gap” back in my Introduction to “Perils…?”  If I aroused your curiosity, I won’t keep you hanging any longer.

Back in the mid 60’s, on a freezing winter morning, I reached the top of the stairs at the Laurelton, Long Island Rail Road station and breathlessly sprinted to  my train. Instead of entering the train, I slipped on ice at the edge of the platform — and fell down the ample space between the train.  There were no signs and announcements then reminding us to “Watch the Gap.”

Too surprised and shocked to call for help, I stood there terrified on the rocky railroad bed. No one else was boarding.  The train was ready to leave for New York City.  It must have been only seconds, though it seemed  longer, when a conductor appeared in the doorway, reached down under my armpits and lifted me into the car.

At that moment I saw my mother arrive on the platform for her train to Brooklyn.  The conductor held me, trying to persuade me to stay on the train and report the accident in Penn Station — but all I wanted was my mom — so I struggled free and ran to her.  She’d just missed my dramatic rescue, so I sobbed as I told her what had happened.

We were told I’d need a medical examination, so mom and I bounced along in a creaky old ambulance to a hospital where I was questioned, x-rayed, and examined top to bottom.  Speaking of which, one of my injuries was a bruised coccyx — a body part I didn’t know I had — commonly called the tailbone. I hurt all over, but besides a sore behind, only had a big bump on the back of my head and an ugly hematoma on my right shin.  Also ripped panty hose and a broken umbrella.

Mom and I taxied home and I flopped into an easy chair with my bandaged leg on a footstool while my mom called my office to explain my absence. Intending to rest for a while and go to work that afternoon — what was I thinking? — I fell asleep for several hours.  After a restless night, the next morning there I was on the LIRR again.

I limped into work, feeling like a heroine.  And I called my cousin Tom, the lawyer, to get some advice.  He referred me to another attorney who, when he heard I was calling from work a day after the accident, told me bluntly I had no case.  So I went on with my life  — but now had a gripping story of danger and escape to share.  Sometimes, I reminded myself of “The Ancient Mariner,” who stopped random passersby to tell his woeful tale.

Not long after, the railroad sent an insurance adjustor to my home.  I related my ordeal — and he said that the icy platform was an “Act of God” for which the LIRR was not responsible.  He then had the colossal nerve to offer me about $12.00 for the ripped pantyhose and broken umbrella.  I’m not making this up.  As naive as I was, I  refused and asked him to leave forthwith!

About a year later, on another winter day, I felt some aching in the coccyx area — you could say I had an occasional pain in the ass. So I wrote a letter to the railroad detailing my discomfort.  When they answered with an offer of a $200 settlement, I accepted  gladly. It seemed like a fair amount back then.  My B.A. in English and minor in Philosophy, earned at Queens College in 1953, had led to secretarial jobs and then to my current position as a correspondent in IBM’s Stockholder Relations Department.  Neither very financially  rewarding.  I invested the moneywisely. Keep reading.

I had nightmares for years reliving the experience. Then in 2006 newspapers were full of the sad story of an 18-year-old tourist from Minnesota, Natalie Smead, killed at the Woodside station after falling through a gap. She’d then crawled under the platform to another track where she was hit by an oncoming train. The LIRR cynically tried to blame the victim, saying she’d been drinking and had refused help to be pulled onto the platform by her companions.

Our Long Island newspaper, Newsday, published a series of articles on what the LIRR had been silent about, and they claimed they only knew of the problem for about 30 years.  Many lawsuits had been filed — a former Rockette, Sheila Rann, had been paralyzed after a fall at the Forest Hills station.  There’d been other gap injuries such as torn ligaments, broken bones and even dismemberment. The Woodside horror brought my accident 41 years earlier vividly to mind. I’m sure the railroad knew about the hazard even before then.

After the tragic death at Woodside, the LIRR has reduced the size of the gaps at many stations and tried to raise public awareness of the problem.  Too little and too late for many.  Gap-related accidents totaled 129 in 2006, the year of Natalie’s death, and 175 in 2007. Some stations still have unacceptably wide spaces. I fully realize how blessed and lucky I was to get off with relatively little injury.

The summer after I received my $200 settlement check I bought  a share in a  house in the Hamptons — where I met Kieran, my future husband.  Since this was real life, not a cliffhanger, he didn’t ride up on a white horse to rescue me.  I first saw him with his housemates standing at the top of a dune, surveying the possibilities on the beach.

I didn’t recognize him as my hero for several years — he was in disguise as a buddy — a sweet, smart, funny, generous man who was overweight and overlooked.  The first time he kissed me I was as stunned as I was when I fell into the gap. I thought I’d been in love before, but didn’t know what I’d been missing.

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