On a mild February night one year ago, a pair of Boston University students left their dorm to take a curious stroll along the nearby train tracks. What they were doing there, and why they died there, remain frustrating mysteries to their friends and families.
(Illustration / Hadley Hooper)
IT'S A LITTLE AFTER 1 IN THE MORNING when the engineer guides his seven-car commuter rail train carrying just six passengers eastward down the tracks from Worcester to Boston. He has passed the station in Newtonville and is coming up on Back Bay. It's unusually mild for a February night - 43 degrees- and there is no fog or haze. But, still, the engineer can only see about 100 feet in front of him, because, although he has the train's double headlights on, he is required to dim his lights so they don't blind on-coming drivers on this section of the tracks, directly alongside the Mass. Pike, Storrow Drive, and Boston University's Nickerson Field.
A metal fence that's designed to cordon off the tracks from walkers is in disrepair, even torn down in parts, which is why the tracks are littered with discarded coffee cups, beer bottles, and tattered newspapers - remnants of the trips college students make here in search of a place to walk or, as is often the case, to smoke pot. The solitude is what draws a young man and woman on this night. They leave Rich Hall, their dormitory, and walk behind 100-120 Ashford Street, an industrial section of the campus with alleys and utility parking lots that is eerily desolate at night. They walk to where Babcock Street dead-ends at the tracks, passing along the way an empty parking lot, the Department of Athletics, and the Case Physical Education Center, home to the university's ice arena and a pool. They go by a propane storage area and some trash containers, hearing the industrial noise coming from a nearby physical plant and the sounds of traffic from the Pike overpass.
They stroll side by side on the tracks.
JULIA COLLINS FIRST NOTICED THE YOUNG WOMAN because of the hip jackets she sported around Rich Hall. The woman had light-brown hair with side-swept bangs. She wore colorful vintage clothing and a diamond "M" necklace. The "M" hung crookedly off of its prongs. "She had a great sense of style," Collins, now a 20-year-old BU junior, says. "And the sweetest face." Collins mentioned the pretty girl to Andrew "Drew" Voluck, 20, her boyfriend of a few months, and the couple soon started referring to her as "Blazer Girl."
"Blazer Girl" was Molly Shattuck, a 19-year-old freshman from Ipswich who was enrolled in the College of General Studies, an underclassman program at Boston University. She had thoughts of being an architect. "She never really liked to follow trends," says her friend Siv Lie. "She would always kind of [discover] her own tastes and find out what she liked, not what everybody else liked." During high school, Shattuck had worked as a busgirl at The Grog, a restaurant in Newburyport that required employees to wear all black. But Shattuck always found ways to spruce up the dress code. She wore red shoes, headbands, anything she could find to veer from the pack.
In the close confines of dorm life, Shattuck couldn't help but notice Voluck, even though he was taken. Voluck, a sophomore with dreams of going into the music business, had broad shoulders, a slender frame, and short black hair. His dark-brown-rimmed glasses covered his caterpillar eyebrows. He liked to wear beanie caps, Diesel jeans, and the Jack Purcell sneakers that his father gave him. He grew up outside of Philadelphia and spent most of his time with a close group of friends. He was known in the dorm as much for his outgoing personality as for his chivalrous ways, always holding doors open for female friends. "Ladies, after you," he would say. But he also had a stubborn side, even pushy. "If he was upset, he would make sure people knew it," friend Nick Nikaj says.
Eventually, Voluck stumbled onto Shattuck's profile on the popular website for college students, thefacebook.com, and he noticed that she shared his interest in the alternative rock group Head Automatica. He asked his girlfriend if she'd mind if he sent Shattuck an instant message. "Honestly," Collins told him, "it's OK."
Music was one of Voluck's passions. He played the guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards, and listened to Nirvana, Silverchair, and 30 Seconds to Mars. "Music filled him in a different way than anything else could," says Collins. "When he listened to a certain album or when he . . . played music, everything else would just melt away."
The instant message - "Head Automatica Rocks!" - appeared on Shattuck's computer screen, and soon she and Voluck began talking online.
VOLUCK'S FRIENDS HAD STARTED TO DRIFT APART. It's college. It happens. He grew frustrated. It strained his relationship with Collins. "I would want to hang out with someone," she says, "and he didn't want to." The couple began to encourage each other to make new friends. "It wasn't really as ominous as it sounds," says Collins. "We were both deeply in love. . . . Both of us had no intention of breaking up with each other. We were talking about the summer."
On February 8, 2005, Shattuck had dinner with her parents at the Bertucci's in Kenmore Square. Afterward, she returned to Rich Hall, where she studied with a friend until about 9 p.m. Voluck, after eating with Collins and another friend, joined Collins at the Redstone Film Festival, a showcase of BU student filmmakers. He rested his head on her shoulder throughout the evening. Afterward, Voluck and Collins, along with two other friends, walked the mile or so back to Rich Hall. Voluck and Collins would often take long walks to Boston Common or the North End, once wandering for hours along Newbury Street on a frigid winter day. Back at his dorm room, Voluck and Collins practiced some Silverchair and Jimmy Eat World songs, Voluck playing the guitar to Collins's vocals. "He was so enthusiastic about performing somewhere," perhaps at an acoustic-guitar night, Collins says.
After a while, Collins left Voluck's room to go food shopping at Shaw's. Months later, reflecting, she remembers her boyfriend's mood as somber, "kind of tired, kind of apathetically frustrated."
What happened later that night may now make his mood seem more meaningful than perhaps it was. "People like to draw causations between the events of what happened and a normal emotion that is felt by many college kids," she reflects.
After Collins arrived home at her Commonwealth Avenue dorm, she and Voluck had a long IM conversation on their computers. "I guess there's just a feeling, of like, I don't want to say boredom in our relationship, but just a general feeling that you get when you're kind of like stuck with your friends," Collins says now. "The circumstances would make it seem like having a long talk about your relationship also sounds pretty ominous. But we ended by saying, 'I love you.'"
It was after midnight by then. Collins assumed Voluck was going to bed. But it turned out that around the same time, Shattuck was chatting online with a friend, and at some point in their chat, Shattuck told her friend that she would be right back. She did not return. At a quarter to 1 in the morning, Voluck and Shattuck left their dorm together.
"HE AND I HAD JUST HAD A LONG CONVERSATION," Collins says. "After a long conversation, I would probably just want to talk to somebody else. You know, just: 'Hey, can I talk to you for a while?' To anyone else, it might seem crazy . . . but I honestly think it's just that simple."
The train tracks where Voluck and Shattuck wound up are easy to reach and largely ignored by the cops, which may explain why the pot-smoking student crowd goes there. But friends of Voluck and Shattuck insist that's not the reason they were there. "I can say with absolute confidence that Drew never smoked pot," says Collins. "He despised that lifestyle." Friends of Shattuck echo those sentiments. "She was definitely not like an alcoholic or a drug addict," says Lie. "She was a really good kid."
For Voluck, the railroad tracks were simply a quiet place to reflect. Collins had first showed him the way there. One night during their freshman year, she discovered the tracks while on a walk. A dilapidated fence made for ready access. Since then, Collins has visited the tracks herself countless times. Occasionally, she says, a train would pass by, but she was not scared, because she could always hear it from some distance away. She would get up against the fence and watch. "It was actually exciting to see a train pass. . . . It's like watching a movie."
As a child, Collins and her father would walk along tracks when they visited Gales Ferry, Connecticut, sometimes going crabbing where the tracks crossed the water. "It's a nostalgic association for me," Collins says. "I've always found a sort of . . . comforting nature about them."
Collins took Voluck to the tracks soon after they met: "The first time I took him, he was extremely nervous . . . a little bit about the trains, but more just like being in the dark and just like hearing small noises."
Philip Voluck knows most things about his son. Either he, or Voluck's mother, Stephanie, were calling, e-mailing, or instant-messaging him daily. Philip understood his son's passion for performing ("He was a rocker from day one") but helped guide him toward a more practical career in the business side of the music industry. Drew Voluck kept an online journal in which he wrote entries and posted photographs of his friends. Says Nikaj: "I never realized how close he was to his dad, but . . . his dad knew so much about us when we met him."
"He was a fabulous son, brother, grandson, cousin, uncle, and friend," Philip Voluck says. "Sometimes he didn't understand the concept of hands-on parenting, but I think it turned out pretty good."
Collins and Drew Voluck visited the area of the tracks close to a dozen times. They walked on the tracks twice and on the adjacent path the other times. At the end of their freshman year, Voluck and Collins had been struggling over whether to take their friendship to the next level. Voluck wanted to, but Collins was seeing someone else. She and Voluck would go down to the tracks to talk. Eventually, though, her relationship ended, and she and Voluck began dating. The tracks became his place to escape if they argued. "If he was looking for anything that night," Collins says, "it was just a quiet place to take a new friend that he had just met who he thought was really cool and just like share something with them."
WHEN A TRAIN HITS A PEDESTRIAN, it's called a "trespasser strike" in the railroad world, a term that leaves no doubt where the blame for the accident lies. Usually, this is considered a separate category from those horrendous collisions that occur at grade crossings where trains and automobiles meet. For the first 10 months of 2005, US trains struck and killed 412 trespassers and 288 people at grade crossings. California topped the list with 79 trespasser deaths while Massachusetts had five. Since 2000, there have been 92 fatalities on MBTA tracks statewide, and all but a handful involved trespassers on foot. Of those 92 deaths, 49 percent were ruled suicides by the state's chief medical examiner. The remainder were ruled accidental or undetermined, but Lieutenant Detective Mark Gillespie of the MBTA Transit Police investigative services division says he believes many of those could also have been suicides.
Understanding deaths at grade crossings is almost always easier than understanding trespassing deaths. It's often a car that sneaks around a gate, the driver not believing the train would be coming so soon. But trespassing deaths are more complicated. Did the victims slip just as the train was coming? Or jump? Were they pushed? Or did they not want to get out of the way? And then there is what may seem the most implausible question of all: Did they never hear the train coming?
It was just after 1 a.m. on February 9, 2005, when Voluck and Shattuck were walking side by side, east on the tracks, probably heading home after first walking west for a stretch. Their backs were to the train barreling down on them.
Two weeks after that night, I walked down to the same stretch of tracks at the corner of Ashford and Babcock streets. I waited for the same train to come. First I saw a soft light. Then I heard a faint noise, like the sound of water whirring quietly in the dishwasher, followed by a soft banging. The sounds were quieter than the cars and trucks passing on the nearby Mass. Pike. Then came a horn, followed by a bell, and the train raced by. When this particular commuter train travels from Boston to Worcester, it is led by its engine, so it's louder. But when it travels east, it is pushed by the engine, which sits in back. The engineer operates a "control car" in the front of the train. It has a throttle, brake, and emergency brake and a light that illuminates the track. Helping to make the train even quieter are the tracks - made up of welded rail, a newer type installed over the last 20 years that has very few joints and has helped to reduce the familiar "clickety-clack" sounds.
Perhaps it was because Voluck and Shattuck had their backs to the train, but they apparently never noticed the dim light bearing down the tracks. "I don't think anything is illuminated too well on a dim setting," says MBTA Lieutenant Detective Mark Gillespie. Snow banks that lined the tracks may have acted to deaden the train's sound.
Driving the train was Brian Fitzpatrick, an engineer who has operated commuter trains for 14 years (he declined through a colleague to speak about this night), and his lead car was traveling the appropriate speed for the area, about 48 miles per hour, when suddenly, about 50 feet in front of him, he saw two figures walking side by side. He slammed on the emergency brake. The train came to a standstill after traveling 1,610 feet. The conductor, Lawanda Cooley, heard Fitzpatrick radio the dispatcher: "I just hit two people!"
On the train were six passengers, among them Michael Donahue, who lives in Upton and commutes to Chelsea for his night job as a fruit and produce salesman. He felt the train brake hard, but he didn't feel any impact and didn't think much about it, because it felt like the kind of "mechanical brake locking" he had experienced before.
Walter Nutter, an engineer who has spent the last five years of his 33-year career operating the same Worcester-Boston route during daytime hours and has struck and killed three people in his career, leads a support group for engineers whose trains have struck trespassers. When a train strikes a person, the engineer feels "very helpless," Nutter says. "All you can do is put your foot on the brake," because the accidents generally happen so quickly. "When somebody is hit by a train, it's not pretty."
"These kinds of things, they stay with an engineer," says Nutter. "It makes a little video in your head."
Any time a person is struck, it is the conductor's responsibility to get off the train and check to see if the victim is alive, explains Nutter. Following that protocol, Fitzpatrick stayed put while Cooley and assistant conductor Andrea Flattes walked back to the engine, turned on the west-ward-facing headlights, and set off in search of the victims. Flashlights in hand, they walked about 50 feet until they saw what they believed to be human remains. Toxicology tests would later show no evidence that Voluck or Shattuck had been drinking alcohol or using drugs, and eventually the medical examiner's office would say they died of "multiple blunt force trauma" and that their deaths were accidental.
"That has been one of the most confusing parts of it," Collins says. "Every time I've gone there, I've heard [trains] coming. You have enough time to get out onto the alley or to get against the fence and just watch the train pass.
"After someone dies," she says, "people look at everything that happened before as indicators of why. If you said that two people were in a fight and then one of them . . . was killed, you immediately think, well, maybe it was suicide because they were fighting. You try to find causations that maybe aren't really there or look too much for answers or immediate explanations."
On the train, nobody said anything at first to the waiting passengers. After a half an hour or so, they learned that there had been a fatality. By the time another train picked them up, the ambulance was gone, the police were there, and there was nothing left on the tracks except the discarded coffee cups, beer bottles, and tattered newspapers.