A train ride, a delay – and a death

July 31, 2019 11:02 pm

Police in Chesterfield investigate a 2018 death on the train tracks. (Virginia Mercury)

Amtrak Train 93 was already an hour late when it headed south out of Washington bound for Norfolk the other evening. Many passengers – including me – just longed for a cozy bed to envelop them as we got closer to Hampton Roads. The Petersburg station, the penultimate stop on this journey, was tantalizingly close. 

That’s when the conductor, in a somber voice also tinged with frustration, took the microphone around 10 p.m. Friday night. 

A northbound CSX train, running along the same tracks we needed to use, had just struck and killed someone. The man had been lying across the tracks, the conductor noted. Given the experience with similar incidents, we were destined for at least a two-hour wait as police and medical examiners investigated.

Some folks gasped. Others were pissed – especially those planning to exit in Petersburg, just one mile away. “I didn’t expect for a three-hour trip to take eight hours!” one guy fumed. He threw in a few expletives to spice up the commentary. 

I wondered whether the mortally injured man, whom Chesterfield County Police later identified as 30-year-old Ronnie R. Coleman of the Ettrick section, had committed suicide. 

That’s because “suicide by train” happens frequently enough nationwide. Why else would Coleman be lying across tracks used by both CSX and Amtrak? 

The commonwealth, meanwhile, has witnessed an uptick in the number of suicides – whatever the method – over the past several years. A state report last year said suicides have slowly increased since 1999. 

The same report noted what the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services is doing to try to stem the rise. The techniques include partnering with gun shops and shooting ranges to discuss suicide prevention with clients, and promoting mental health awareness programs. 

Virginia’s rate of suicide in 2016 was 13.4 per 100,000 people, roughly the same as the national rate, according to an analysis of data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

I need to make this clear, too: No one has officially declared Coleman’s death a suicide. It could be something else.

Lt. Brad Conner, with the Chesterfield County Police, told me Tuesday it’s either a suicide or an accidental death. Police had ruled out homicide. 

But no suicide notes were found, Conner added. Family and friends told investigators that Coleman didn’t have any mental health problems; most suicides are related to mental illness. 

“The family hasn’t given us any indication he had intended any harm to himself,” the lieutenant continued. I couldn’t reach Coleman’s relatives. 

An official with the state medical examiner’s office told me the cause and manner of death could take months, but he added the circumstances were “pretty horrendous.” A news report noted the train tracks pass right behind Coleman’s home, near where the CSX train struck him. 

Suicide by train doesn’t happen often in Virginia, according to a federal database. Three cases occurred from Jan. 1, 2017, through April of this year. 

Across the country, there were 573 suicides by train in that time frame. An Amtrak spokeswoman, by email, said nearly 200 National Suicide Prevention LIFELINE signs are placed along the right-of-way, on platforms and at stations that have the highest suicide strike rates involving Amtrak trains. 

Like many methods of suicide, it seems a particularly painful, and brutal, way to die. 

As Friday night turned into Saturday morning, we finally got moving again at 1:30 a.m. , a 3½-hour delay. Norfolk-bound passengers didn’t arrive at our terminal until after 3 a.m.

At least we weren’t mourning the loss of a loved one. Or wondering why he was prone on those train tracks near Petersburg.

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]