Stricken rider collapses, but train rolls on

Man evacuated six T stops later

By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / January 31, 2009
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A man who was stricken Thursday evening on a rush-hour Red Line train as it left Harvard Square - collapsing onto the floor - was not taken off the train for medical help until 22 minutes later while the train made regular stops in Cambridge and Boston and passengers frantically tried to summon help.

MBTA officials said yesterday that crew members on the train determined the man was merely drunk and did not need immediate medical assistance. "Their assessment was that it wasn't a situation that warranted medical attention, and we rely on the experience and the expertise of train crews that have been doing this for many, many years," said Joe Pesaturo, spokesman for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

But a woman who boarded the train at Harvard Square, Angie Puckerin, 56, described a maddening ride, in which a well-dressed man carrying a laptop computer clenched his fist and fell to the floor with his eyes squeezed shut. After passengers rushed to help and hit an intercom button to summon the crew, T employees took only a cursory look at the man at two different stops, Central and Kendall, before walking away, she said. One frustrated passenger even yelled out the train's open doors for a doctor at Park Street, before the doors snapped shut and the train continued on.

"Everybody was trying to help him, and they said, 'What happened? Why aren't you taking him off?' " Puckerin said. "I just feel so sad to see that this is somebody that was sick and you don't know what happened to him."

Puckerin's account portrayed a transit system blithely indifferent to the possibility that the man was undergoing a medical emergency, as the train made regular stops at five stations, bypassing one of the world's premier hospitals at Charles/MGH. Even when T police summoned emergency medical technicians to Park Street Station, they didn't wait for the help to arrive. When the EMTs arrived, T police told them the train had already left, and was carrying the man two more stops, to South Station.

The man, whose identity was not released, was examined by EMTs at South Station and taken to Tufts-New England Medical Center. Jennifer Mehigan, spokeswoman for the Boston EMS ambulance service, said EMTs at the scene determined his condition was "minor" and that he was not in pain. More about his condition could not be verified yesterday.

The ordeal recalled for some an episode in 2002, when Dr. James R. Allen, a Wellesley scientist, died of a heart attack aboard a commuter train as it continued to pick up passengers for 20 minutes after he collapsed and reached medical aid too late to save him. Raymond A. Levy, coordinator of the EMS program at Boston University, said that immediate medical attention should be given to anyone who is in "an altered level of consciousness or is not fully responsive."

Thursday's incident began just before 6:07 p.m., as about 30 passengers rode on the inbound train from Harvard, said Puckerin. She was sitting a few seats from the man when he collapsed. After passengers hit the intercom button, a crew member entered the car at Central Square.

"He came into the car and he looked at the guy," Puckerin said. "The guy was lying on the floor and I thought they would have taken him off, but the doors just closed and he said, 'Next stop: Kendall Square,' and they did that all the way to South Station."

Pesaturo said the crew member, an attendant responsible for making announcements and keeping the doors clear, had radioed the T's dispatch center, saying the man was drunk and not in need of emergency medical help. Asked if the crewmembers had any medical training, Pesaturo said only that the judgment was made based on "years of experience."

At the next stop, Kendall Square, a T customer service agent boarded the train. "She looked at the guy, and she had a phone in her hand," and then left, Puckerin said, adding that she assumed the woman would use the phone to call for help. Pesaturo said that the T employee "made a similar evaluation" that there was no emergency.

At Charles MGH, with the man still on the floor, tension was rising on the train, Puckerin said. A passenger knelt down, took the man's pulse, and said she believed he was having a stroke, Puckerin said. The man could "barely speak," Puckerin said, and could only utter his first name. The train picked up passengers and left the station.

About that time, according to Boston EMS, T police called to report that "a man had passed out and would be on a Red Line train at Park Street."

Mehigan said EMS classified the call as a "priority one" emergency and sent an ambulance and a firetruck racing to the station. But the train did not wait for EMTs to arrive.

"The information was not communicated to the Red Line dispatcher, who would have said, 'Hold the train at Park,' " Pesaturo said. "So that's when they corrected it by having them meet them at South Station."

At South Station, two T employees boarded the train and carried the man off, while another carried his belongings, Puckerin said. EMTs arrived and took the man's blood pressure and blood sugar, Mehigan said.

Yesterday, Puckerin was still distraught that the man didn't get immediate help. "What if it was my daughter or my son . . . ?" she said. "It's not right."

Michael Levenson can be reached at

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