By Katherine Minkiewicz
Early last Wednesday a Sonoma County woman was struck and killed by a SMART train while standing on the tracks in Santa Rosa near Hearn Avenue despite being warned several times by the train’s deafening horns — the Santa Rosa Police Department is now ruling the fatality as an apparent suicide.
In the transportation agency’s first train-involved fatality, police and witness reports say that despite being aware that a train was approaching, the woman, 64-year-old Marion Harrison, made no effort to move out of the way of the train’s path.
The speed limit for that area of train tracks is 79 MPH, according to an article in the Press Democrat, Santa Rosa police are still in the process of investigating how fast the train was going at the time of the accident.
While the train did not have time to stop prior to the collision, Chief of Police for SMART, Jennifer Welch, said, “Anytime there is something on the tracks, the train engineer will immediately apply the brakes.” And when asked if the engineer took all the proper steps to warn the woman, she mentioned that they did blast their horn several times to try to notify the pedestrian that a train was approaching.
Train dispatchers reported the collision around 7:36 a.m. and according to a press release from the Santa Rosa Police Department, responding officers found the woman’s body about 100 feet south of Hearn Avenue on the west side’s dirt shoulder of the tracks and seemed to have died instantly and appeared “severely injured.”
“Fire and medical personnel attended to the female, but she was immediately pronounced deceased at the scene. The SMART train had stopped south of the victim on the tracks,” the press release said regarding the first responders. No foul play is suspected of the incident.
According to witness accounts, all train crossing controls appeared to be working properly at the time of the accident.
Welch said there were about 40 or so passengers on board during the time of the incident and according to police, nobody on board was injured in the accident.
Around the early morning 8 o’clock hour, the Santa Rosa Police Department issued a Nixle alert telling drivers and residents to avoid the Hearn Avenue area as the eastbound lane of Hearn was closed.
The SMART train did not return to its regular route and was inspected by SMART officials. Welch said a bus bridge was set up to get the stranded passengers where they needed to go. Hearn Avenue reopened later that day around 11:28 a.m.
Unfortunately, other train transportation agencies, such as Caltrain have seen similar accidents involving suicide. According to an
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article in the Mercury News, in 2015 alone Caltrans had 11 fatalities and 2014 saw 10. And according to the same article there has been an average of 12 deaths per year since 1992 on Caltrans tracks.
The Caltrans website even operates a suicide prevention page and lists a number of Bay Area prevention resources in San Francisco, Santa Clara and San Mateo County.
According to the Caltrans public affairs page on suicide prevention, warning signs of suicide can include, “Talking about wanting to die, looking for a way to kill oneself, talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain, talking about being a burden to others, increasing the use of alcohol or drugs, acting anxious, agitated or recklessly, sleeping too little or too much, withdrawing or feeling isolated, showing rage or talking about seeking revenge and or displaying extreme mood swings.”
The website stresses that the more signs someone shows the greater the risk and that signs may not be what causes suicide but may be associated with it.
Mary-Frances Walsh, the executive director for NAMI Sonoma County, a mental illness support organization that fosters mental illness awareness and education, said they offer a number of programs to raise awareness for mental health issues such as depression and suicide.
“We do training in 17 local Sonoma County high schools to help them recognize signs of suicide and of staying silent,” she said.
While their staff is trained in helping with those who may be suffering from a mental health crisis, she says the County of Sonoma spearheads the effort with NAMI, offering complementary services.
NAMI’s “Warm line” offers free listening support and will provide resources and information on mental illness treatment as well as recovery strategies.
“Anybody can call if they are dealing with a mental health crisis… and while we don’t handle it (suicide calls) on a day-to-day basis… we will always direct the person to the proper help,” Walsh said.
If anyone you know exhibits warning signs, do not leave the person alone, remove any sharp objects, drugs or alcohol that could be used, or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or seek professional medical help or call 9-1-1 in the event of a mental health crisis.
The North Bay Suicide Prevention hotline for Sonoma County is, 885-587-6373. The hotline can also accommodate Spanish speakers.
For information in QPR – question, persuade refer, training for suicide prevention visit, www.qprinstitute.com or https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/September-2016/Promote-Hope-Healing-and-Help-to-Prevent-Suicide.