Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Lessons from the train

     One sure thing about life: it's full of surprises.  I mean, we mostly go through our day expecting the same things to occur every time: wake up at the sound of the alarm, use the bathroom, have some breakfast while getting the kids ready for school, then head off to work... well in my case it's backwards since I work at night and sleep during the day but you get what I'm saying. People as a rule follow patterns in most everything they do, and whether they realize it or not fall in step with such patterns almost all the time. The illusory security folks feel while involved in their daily meanderings is a way for them to obscure the fact that at any time the normality of their day can be upset at different levels, from the mundane to the life-changing. I was reminded of this during a family weekend outing a couple weeks ago.

     The Battleship New Jersey on the Camden waterfront is a popular day trip location in NJ. It was a wonderful day outside, and decided to take the entire family on the River Line train as it is inexpensive and you don't have to worry about driving or parking (which is ridiculous as anyone who knows the area will tell you). Traveling during the day is reasonably safe as there are random police checks between stops and the conductor can contact the cops and have them waiting at any location. Seats are ok for the short trip and cars have AC/heat.  No problems at all, right?

The River Line stop at Roebling, NJ

     On our way to Camden our train suddenly stopped; the conductor informed us that another train would be along in 30 mins to get us to our destinations and apologized for the inconvenience. Not a big deal: the older kids (19, 13 & 12 yr olds) had their iPods and my 8 & 10 yr old each had their Nintendo 3DS, so boredom complaints were curtailed. We had moved to the front cab as I prefer being closer to the conductor in case there are any unforeseen incidents requiring the conductor to get involved. Good thing, as one person in the rear cab threw up from "the heat" (it wasn't that hot) and another older man decided to piss in the passageway between the cabs. Great start to the day right?  But we made it to the waterfront without any further issues.
The family having a snack break before going to the ship

     We had a great time at the Battleship; lots of great exhibits, kids loved the big guns and helicopter, it was awesome family time. We headed on back to the River Line stop for our return trip, and were on our way home within minutes. Everyone was a bit tired, but happy and looking forward to having dinner once we get off the train.

     We were about two stops from our destination when an unsavory looking fellow threw himself on the seat across the aisle facing me, took off his shoes (no socks on) and put his feet on the empty seat in front of him.  The passenger next to him stood up immediately and cursed at the man, threatening to have the conductor call the cops as he walked away to another seat. At this point I am the closest person to him (my wife and daughter to the right of me on the seats against the train wall, while my other kids were on the seats behind us with their older brother). 

The inside of a River Line train cabin; the guy was right where the guy with his legs crossed is sitting.

     The person in question was a black male, wiry, weight in the area of 180 and short of six feet in height. He was wearing cargo pants, a red t-shirt under a olive drab light safari style jacket. He had been wearing white and red lace up basketball shoes but was now barefoot. During the process of removing his shoes he dropped a rock of crack and makeshift bowl, which he collected hastily but not furtively and placed back in his jacket pockets, replacing them with a zippo lighter and a small roach between his index and middle fingers. After the other passenger moved away from him he leaned forward towards me and said in a low voice: "Do you need to be schooled?"

     So here I am, faced with the possibility of an incident with an individual who was very recently engaged in drug use (not an assumption as I had seen the paraphernalia and drugs) in a confined environment, somewhat  agitated, with all my family mere feet from him. Not a good tactical scenario any day; random attacks on trains are not unknown in the Philly/Trenton rail transit system. Check out the video below:

Man gets attacked with hammer on train, right in Philadelphia

     So I remained wary but non threatening, and said to the guy "No, thanks; I already went to school a long time ago." The man kinda thinks of my reply a second, then leaned back into his seat.  I followed suit and leaned back a bit to create some space and got my backpack on my lap to use as a shield if needed. My wife at this time decided to get my daughter and herself to a different seat, yelling at him for his behavior in front of children, while the man retorted with some barely intelligible apology. My wife told him to shut up, then sat down. I remained in my seat so I could block him from advancing past me if necessary, already planning to stomp on his bare foot while using the backpack to ram him into the seats if he got overtly aggressive towards my wife. But he just sat quietly for the remaining seven minutes until our train reached our stop. I stayed on my seat until my wife got the kids out of the train first, then I stepped out while keeping watch for the troubled passenger in case he made the same choice of train stop. We made it to our van without a fuss, and drove home shortly.

The After Action Report

     Just like in the past, my mind started going through the events of the day, looking for things I might have done differently, where I could have done better. Such evaluations are routine in law enforcement, military and security as the means to identify problems, suggest solutions and compile lessons acquired for further improvement to be applied to training, tactics, strategies and skill development. Usually such reports are analyzed by peers or superiors who then make recommendations and implement changes as needed; lacking other sounding boards, a person should be as honest as possible when examining any incident so as to gather relevant information and make useful changes or adaptations aimed at improving our odds during any similar incident in the future.

     So, what could I learn from this?

1- While I made a point of moving us to the first cab on the way to the waterfront, we got into the last one on the return trip because it was the first one we reached and we were trying to get the kids sitting down as they were a bit tired from the walk from the ship.  When you feel tired or have others to take care of and want to get them comfortable so you can rest yourself you might take shortcuts you usually wouldn't take. By being farther away from the conductor I would have had to rely on other passengers to alert him of any trouble, increasing the response time of assistance if needed.

2- When the man first dropped his drugs I should have made my wife and daughter move away to another part of the train cab rather than stay next to me; he would have to get past me to reach them but what if he had a handgun inside his coat? Could I have stopped him in time? I am pretty quick and I was less than three feet from him, but would I have been able to subdue him if he turned violent and turned on them or my other children (they were occupying the seat rows behind me and to the left)?

3- When the man spoke to me I made a point of answering his question politely and in a conversational tone. I have learned from past experience that this often tends to confuse a person who is angry, intoxicated or under the influence of drugs; they might expect an angry reply or being cursed at, but not an actual civil response. It mellows out some folks from a previously combative mood and it tends to defuse the situation, or gain me some seconds while his mind decides what to do next.

4- After my wife and daughter had moved to a safer location I could have changed seats myself. Why didn't I? Mainly I had analyzed the situation at hand best I could, and resolved that the man, while somewhat obnoxious and obviously impaired from using drugs, was no immediate threat. We would be at our stop in a few minutes, and from where I was I felt reasonably certain I could interdict his approach before he could step into the cab area where my children were sitting in. But feeling sure you can handle things does not always mean you will be able to handle things... I made a tactical choice that seemed acceptable at the time, but had he suddenly decided to go rampant on the train I had left myself no choice but to face him one on one to keep myself between him and my family.

5- Traveling on the train precludes having any serious weapons on you; NJ has very strict weapon laws and no concealed weapon permits. You better have a good reason for a 2" blade folding knife to be found in your possession. In such instances where travel is necessary one must think of improvised weapons and using the environment as a weapon. He might have had something concealed under his jacket (although I don't believe he had a handgun, he might have easily carried a blade) so I intended to use my backpack as a shield to smother an intended draw if it came to that. There were also metal railings, hard back seats and plexiglass windows to be used creatively.

6- Once it was time to exit the train, I made sure I remained where I was until my family was out before I moved from my seat. Even after gaining the platform I kept watch on the train exits as well as the platform itself; maybe the guy had friends joining him and while he had not called anyone I was still operating at high yellow alert and would be doing so until everyone was inside the van and we drove away.

7- There is a lot of information being collected in a very short time frame during an incident like the one I described, whether we realize it or not. Like a good interrogator who brings out details from witnesses that didn't know they possessed them, we can train our minds to sift through the feelings, thoughts and observations occurring in almost real time so they can be used in the moment, rather than be reflected upon later when they might not make any difference. For it is in the now that they have the most impact and are most useful.

     So, a lot to think about, all from an unexpected event in an otherwise very normal thing for a family to do on a Saturday summer day. It could have been worse, for sure, and I am glad that there was no need for violence or confrontation. But it is a good reminder that we must not become overly complacent and should remain vigilant and alert, even during our daily routines and travels. Because you just never know...

 Always have a Plan B


  1. Great lesson, great post. I'm glad it worked out. You did well.

  2. Without a doubt probably the most worrisome of scenarios - loved ones in potential harm. Your mindfulness in handling the potential thug is humbling and educating.

    1. Thanks, while having martial arts training certainly helps if it came to a physical altercation I think it is my security background (where prevention of a possible threat is the primary goal) that gave me the skills to handle the situation favorably. Truth is awareness and prevention are not taught in many martial arts programs, or just skimmed over; sad, because you are apt to use them more than your fists or feet to resolve a situation.