Fortunate that my Monday agenda ended
early, I ran to catch the 12:13 p.m. commuter train home from Ruggles
Street Station. I was to meet up with my 15-year-old son after school
and spend some quality time on the baseball field. Instead, I spent the
afternoon focused on another boy - a boy whose death was just a few
minutes and a few miles down the track.
the train pulled away from Canton Junction, I heard the shrill blast of
the whistle followed by the agonizing screech of the brakes - the awful
sound of metal upon metal.
"What now?'' I wondered with a bit of impatience
and annoyance as the train came to a halt. "Another MBTA screw-up?''
The conductor - a woman
who showed little emotion - passed through the train to announce that
there had been a fatality. The train had struck a pedestrian.
"That's too bad,'' passengers
responded, "How long do you think we'll be stuck here?''
Whatever air of concern there
was at first quickly changed into a collective sense of irritation.
Several passengers were concerned about missing appointments. One older
woman worried out loud about how she would retrieve her grandchildren
be tragic but lives go on. One man questioned why the train couldn't
just back up and then switch over to the other track. Apparently, the
body lay beneath the train, preventing us from moving until the evidence
was removed by the medical examiner.
"It would take awhile,'' we were informed.
No one was permitted to leave
the train. Yet a few indignant passengers refused to be held hostage by
the T and jumped off anyway.
After well over an hour, we were advised that we
could wait for several hours more until the scene was cleared and the
train could proceed, or we could be shepherded back to Canton Junction.
But there was a catch: We would have to walk past the body.
As several passengers quietly
weighed their options, police and firefighters gathered alongside the
train, inspecting the grim scene and taking their measurements.
Being in the business of
studying murder, my own exasperation was eclipsed by curiosity. I
maneuvered my way through the cars toward the rear of the train, despite
the woman conductor's admonition to stay up front.
The rear car was dark and empty
except for a couple of MBTA employees. I walked to the window at the
back and gazed down at the tracks. Between the rails just behind the
train lay the body shrouded with a small white sheet that managed not to
cover nearly enough of it.
A pair of sneakers were strewn on the tracks. They
appeared to be the kind that boys wear - boys about my son's age.
In my profession, I have dealt
with violent death before. Yet the contrast between the eery stillness
of the scene before me and the impatient chatter of passengers up front
made me ill.
announcement came over the speaker that a bus would soon arrive to take
us to our destinations. We were led away from the train, not near the
body after all but through a neighboring yard. TV camera crews filmed
our exodus as if we were something more than inconsequential bystanders
- as if we too were victims.
Once aboard the bus, several commuters complained
about the slow response time until our evacuation and the circuitous
route the bus was following.
They seemed to have forgotten why we had been
detained. It is not that they were callous people. Rather they were
detached from the tragedy by the span of several train cars, and were
able to disassociate their inconvenience from the death of a boy.
I have not been able to shake
the image of those remains on the track and of the boy's sneakers. His
name was Matthew Melket and he was only 17 and a student at Canton High
asked why I would have wanted to look at that grim scene. I'm not sorry
I did. Seeing is much more than believing; it humanizes tragedy.
James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal
Justice at Northeastern University. Professor Fox has asked that his
honorarium be donated in Matthew Melket's memory to the Mulitple
Sclerosis Foundation as an example to those similarly touched by