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As I See It: Kindness, courage needed to prevent train platform accidents

The JR Yokosuka Line platform at Totsuka Station, where a man fell onto the tracks, is shown in this photo taken on April 12, 2017, in Yokohama. (Mainichi)

Last December, I witnessed a person fall from a platform onto the tracks at a JR station. At first I hesitated to help, but something drove me to jump down onto the tracks. It just so happens at the time that a series of accidents where people with visual impairments fell onto the tracks have been occurring. Just this April, an elderly man who had entered a rail crossing and the man who tried to rescue him were both fatally hit by a train. Drawing on my own experiences, I contemplated how to help people and reduce accidents on train platforms.

    It was a weekday evening and the train was crowded with commuters on their way home. It had already gone dark outside. No sooner had I gotten off the Tokaido Line train at JR Totsuka Station in Yokohama did I hear a dull thump echo across the platform. A group of people including me rushed to the opposite side of the platform for the Yokosuka Line and looked down at the tracks -- a man who appeared to be in his 30s had collapsed face-down and was lying there perfectly still.

    I ran to locate the platform's emergency button, but in my haste, I couldn't find it. A few seconds later, the shrill sound of the emergency alarm began to sound, telling that outbound trains had stopped -- but what to do next? While the voice inside me said, "station staff will help the man," there was no station staff in sight.

    It was then that an elderly man beside me in the crowd looking down at the tracks made his move. He placed his bag on the platform, bent down and jumped onto the tracks. Spurred on by his unhesitating action, I followed after him. Once I jumped onto the tracks, the fear mysteriously disappears.

    Immediately, we were joined by a few other people, and with their help we were able to lift the fallen man back onto the platform together.

    When I later checked the train timetable, only three minutes separated the arrival of my Tokaido Line train at Totsuka Station and the arrival of the Yokosuka Line train on the opposite side of the platform. It probably took roughly two minutes before the emergency button was pressed. I shudder to think what would have happened if there had been a smaller window between the arrival of the trains.

    The man we rescued had deep cuts around his cheeks, but he soon regained consciousness. He wasn't blind. After a day of golfing, he had been drinking. On his way home, he had become ill and got off the train at Totsuka Station, where he lost consciousness on the platform and tumbled down onto the tracks.

    I only noticed after our rescue operation, but the man who first jumped down onto the tracks was an acquaintance of mine. The man was 72-year-old Hiroshi Sasaki, who watched over the students of my son's elementary school on their school route every morning.

    Sasaki is no professional rescuer, having worked as a cram school teacher among other jobs. Even then, he told me he has had experience saving people before, such as once dragging a drowning woman back to shore at a seaside resort in Chiba Prefecture. When he saw the man fall onto the tracks, "My body moved without hesitation," he said. But on being the first person to jump down, even Sasaki admitted, "Looking back, it was scary."

    Actually, I had another accident at the same station at midday on a weekday in May of last year. I was running down the stairs and I missed the last step, twisting my right ankle to the point I couldn't move it. I was later diagnosed with a sprain that took several weeks to heal, but until I made my way to a bench, not one person called out to me.

    Why was the reaction to my case and that of the drunken golfer so different? I asked professor Hitoshi Matsuura of Mie University who specializes in social psychology for his analysis.

    According to Matsuura, the more people that are present at the site of an accident, the easier it is to think "someone else will help" -- a phenomenon known as the bystander effect. On the other hand, there is a higher chance of people stepping in to rescue someone if they have experienced the same accident themselves, even if they aren't in the profession of saving people like station staff or doctors. Like the incident at Totsuka Station, once one person acts, others hesitating to help will follow their lead, he said.

    There have been three cases since summer 2016 where people with visual impairments have fallen onto the tracks and been fatally hit by trains. In response to the repeated accidents, East Japan Railway Co. moved up its deadline for installing platform doors at stations to fiscal 2019, with a particular focus on every station along the busy Keihin-Tohoku and Yamanote lines. However, the station where I witnessed the accident, Totsuka, is outside the target for the moved up work schedule, and the installation of platform doors or other safety measures at every station is close to impossible budget-wise.

    But this doesn't mean that we should risk our own lives to save others. The only reason I jumped down onto the tracks that day was because the emergency button had been pressed first. If that wasn't the case, I might have ended up like a South Korean student and another bystander who lost their lives trying to save a drunken man who fell onto the tracks in 2001, or the unfortunate double tragedy that occurred this April.

    Still, I believe it is important to show kindness and courage to help someone in trouble. On that evening at Totsuka Station, after we lifted the drunken man to safety, there were people who reached out their hands to help each of us back onto the platform. It is simple gestures like that which lead to a change in the strength of an individual or a society to help to avoid or properly deal with emergency situations.

    While it may take time before platform doors are installed at every station, until then, it's up to us to act as human "platform doors" to look after those around us. (By Hitoshi Omae, Foreign News Department)

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