In June of this year, a video of a group of young people in black clothes jumping from the roof of one New York subway car to another quickly spread across social networks. The footage captures the train from a distance as it crosses the Williamsburg Bridge and heads toward the East River.
Soon after, a much more horrifying clip surfaced online showing a 15-year-old boy suffering a severe head injury while riding on the roof of a train in Queens. In the footage, rescuers could be seen lifting the profusely bleeding teenager from the ground. During the accident and subsequent fall, part of his skull was separated.
On Monday, another 15-year-old boy in Queens tried to climb onto the roof of a train with three friends, but his hand was amputated by the moving train when he fell onto the tracks, according to reports. The report of the British newspaper The Guardian brought the information.
June 11, 2022 at 2:08 a.m. Post Archived: September 2, 2022 at 1:54 p.m.
According to statistics from the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, there have already been 627 cases of people riding on the roofs of trains from January to July this year. The number of cases of so-called surfing in the metro rose by hundreds of percent from January to May this year compared to the same period in 2021. There were only 68 incidents in the same period last year and 97 incidents in 2020, officials said. There are dozens of victims, as well as the number of injuries.
Nothing new under the sun
Brave people have been riding and dying on the roofs of wagons practically since the first years of the existence of railway transport systems. Over time, beginning in the second half of the 19th century, as the size and speed of trains increased, so did the number of such recorded cases.
In the United States, rooftop travel became a common mode of transportation after the American Civil War, when the railroad began to push westward. It was a popular mode of transport especially among migrant workers, who came to be called hoboes. It continued to be widely used, especially by those who could not afford other transport. This was especially true during times of widespread economic downturns, such as the Great Depression.
Surfing on trains first appeared as an extreme hobby in the Republic of South Africa in the 1980s, especially among teenagers from poor families. After that, the hobby began to appear in other countries around the world. In 1988, the media reported that teenagers as young as 13 were surfing trains in Rio de Janeiro! In the 1990s, commuter train surfing became popular in Europe among young people who lived near railway lines.
It’s about making fun
Only the advent of social networks, where they can brag about their achievements, brought about a powerful development of this activity. A young man, Ken, who lives in Brooklyn, confided in the editors of the Guardian about the topic. “Last week I was riding a train from Delancey-Essex Station in Manhattan when a group of about eight boys got on with backpacks on their backs,” Ken recalls. Some, he said, looked twelve years old at most. “They started heckling each other, then used the railing between the subway cars to climb onto the roof. The train was already rushing over the Williamsburg Bridge,” says the young New Yorker.
“As we crossed the bridge at full speed, we heard their footsteps through the roof of the wagon. I was of course quite worried. If someone slips and falls, it’s game over,” says Ken. According to him, it is sad to see their carefree approach to life and how they succumb to peer pressure. “And they do incredibly stupid things,” adds the young man.
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The 30-year-old New Yorker, who calls himself D-Side, also confided in the Guardian newspaper about his experiences surfing the New York subway cars. He started riding his carriages with his friends as a teenager, when one day a train missed him and he decided to grab the last carriage. According to him, the experience was as exciting as anything in the world and even said to be addictive. “It feels good, even if it’s completely insignificant. Why does someone skydive? Why do people take drugs? They like how it makes them feel. And then they chase after it again and again. It’s the same with trains,” says D-Side.
Soon, however, his best friend Alex Nasad had a tragic accident. A New York graffiti artist died in 2002 when he hit his head on one of the support beams while surfing on an Uptown subway train. “I think he was completely drunk. Shit, I’ve got to go right now,” he recalled of the moment of the D-Side accident. After the death of his friend, he swore that he would never ride on roofs again. “A lot of people I know who I told are dead now. So at the moment I don’t have a clear answer on how to prevent people from doing this,” says the young man.
Entertainment exclusively for young people
The adrenaline-fueled pastime of train surfing dates back more than a century in New York. Local newspaper archives mention people being maimed or killed while riding on the roof of a train as early as 1904, the first year the subway opened there. That’s when two boys, ages thirteen and fourteen, lost their lives when they were swept off the roof of a train car heading into Grand Central Station by a bridge structure. One of the young men died on the spot, the other suffered serious injuries. One thing, it seems, hasn’t changed at all over the decades: the victims are young men. As a 1991 New York Times article about subway surfing put it: risk is the biggest draw.
In 2016, a 25-year-old Instagram influencer killed himself while trying to surf the Brooklyn subway, apparently under the influence of alcohol. A year later, a 30-year-old surfer died in the Bronx after he fell from his rig and was run over by it. Another twelve months later, a 24-year-old man was electrocuted after climbing onto the roof of a commuter train after a Yankees baseball game.
In 2019, a 14-year-old boy named Eric Rivera killed himself while surfing on the roof of a train. “I can’t believe he would risk his life like that,” his mother told local newspaper The City after the tragedy. “What joy could he have in that? What kind of fun is this? I don’t understand it!” Last year, a thirty-two-year-old young man also died while surfing the subway when he fell onto the tracks and was run over by a train.
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Few know the consequences of this pastime better than the doctors who treat the victims. “I once treated a surfer who had terrible head injuries,” says a doctor at a major trauma hospital in New York who spoke on condition of anonymity. He remembers how the other doctors in the hospital spoke of the young man with disdain. “Their usual response was that what they were doing was stupid. “People are living their crazy lives and they want us to witness it,” adds the doctor sadly.
“Driving outside subway cars is reckless and extremely dangerous. Such behavior can have dire consequences, which is likely what happened to the young man who was seriously injured on Monday,” Subway Safety and Security Manager Patrick Warren commented on the latest accident in an emailed statement. The fine for running outside the train is ridiculous. In New York, it’s only $75.
Network pressure is high
The New York train surfing death toll reflects a growing global trend of injuries and deaths from stunts showcased on social media. The apps’ algorithms reward users for creating extreme content, sometimes as part of viral “challenges” that youngsters hear about. “The comeback of train surfing is 100 percent due to the use of social media, which has intensified people’s desire for attention,” says former D-Side surfer. According to him, people are chasing exceptional experiences. They care about other people’s opinions. “They care about being someone who makes a name for themselves. That’s also why there are more and more people who want everything now,” he adds.
Today he is a father who no longer chases adrenaline. “My excitement now is watching my kids grow up,” he said. “Honestly, I’m lucky to be here at all,” concludes the former rooftop surfer, according to The Guardian.