In 1975, a different subway horror, with a different ending

86th Street station. (gmanviz via flickr)
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On "The Brian Lehrer Show" this morning, a woman called in to tell a story of another subway horror, one with a happy ending.

Her uncle, Everett Sanderson, was given a medal by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for an amazing act of heroism in early 1975, on the local uptown platform of the 86th Street station at Lexington Avenue. She told a brief version of the tale, and I found myself wanting to find out more.

There's actually very little to be found about him. There's an old New York Times clip, a stub of an article detailing how a year later he was awarded the Carnegie Medal for Heroism, and $1,000, for his act.

And on a website where people just paste in stories they find elsewhere, there's an old article by Warren R. Young, and a shorter version of it in the Sarasota Herald Tribune. The latter appears to have been syndicated by Reader's Digest, and the web instructs me that his story was collected in a 50th anniversary anthology by the magazine.

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Young's story is incredible, though the person who pasted it in to the website Tripod seems to have strange ideas about capitalization. He tells it beautifully if you can get past that, here. But here's a guide.

First, you have Joanna DeJesus, her right eye bandaged from a recent operation, with her sister Margarita Esquilin and four-year-old daughter, Michelle, who made their way through the turnstile and walked to the edge of the platform.

There, waiting for the train, was 34-year-old Sanderson, an unemployed musician headed home from a visit with his mother.

Also on the platform was 20-year-old Miguel Maisonet, a young black man who recently had lost his job with the city as a rat inspector in a round of cutbacks.

Arriving shortly thereafter was transit patrolman Rex Johnson, and, conducting a train that was just pulling out of 77th Street on its way to the station was motorman Daniel Miller.

Then, suddenly, Michelle's hand slipped from her mother's grasp as she went to the edge of the platform to look for the train, and before anyone knew what was happening someone was screaming "There's a girl on the tracks!"

Sanderson and Maisonet were 85 feet apart from each other on the crowded rush-hour platform, and both sprang to action.

Witnesses estimated to Young that 15 seconds elapsed before anyone did anything, but some, at least, were roused by the distant rumble of the approaching subway.

Sanderson, leaving his son with his ex-wife, leapt down to the tracks and started running the 35 feet toward the girl. An accomplished football and basketball player, Sanderson was in good shape for a job like this.

So, too, was Maisonet, who had the added advantage of having played daring games with friends growing up in which they leapt down onto the tracks and ran to the opposite platform. He know what to do down there.

But he was further down the tracks than Sanderson, and saw that he wouldn't get there first.

"With an easy vault perfected by years of boyhood practice," Young wrote, "Miguel swung his body up onto the platform."

Unfortunately this was not a skill Sanderson had.

The train started to rumble into the station, and even using the emergency brake, the motorman, Miller, would have been unable to stop the train before it ran over the two.

"On the platform, Miguel was also in the path of the train, kneeling and leaning over the edge toward Everett with outstretched arms," Young writes. "With three seconds to go, Everett seized Michelle in his right hand and, possessed of a strength he never knew he had, hurled her into Miguel's waiting arms. The impact knocked Miguel onto his back, with the child sprawled on his chest, safe at last."

And now, for that vault.

The train was now down to 16 miles per hour, but it was only 40 feet away now. From Young's account:

Everett placed his hands on the edge of the platform, jumped for his life-and failed. By now, there was a single second left before the train would pass the spot where he was. Everett got ready for one last, desperate jump. Then, with the train so close that its mammoth bulk seemed virtually on top of him, he felt himself rising like an elevator. Hands belonging to Officer Johnson, Michelle's aunt Margarita, and Miguel were lifting him by the jacket and his arms. Everett hoped that his torso would clear the Train, but he felt sure his legs would be amputated.

As the train passed, Motorman Miller lost sight of Everett. With a sinking feeling, he thought the first car must have caught Everett's legs and pulled him under. But he was puzzled by the absence of the familiar, sickening thud he always heard when a Train passed over the body of a suicide. For more than three seconds, the train kept skidding, Finally, it stopped, 26 feet beyond where Everett and Michelle had been. Miller stepped out on the platform to see what had happened.

A pile of human figures on the platform were struggling to their feet. The three rescuers had tugged so mightily on Everett that some of them fell-with Everett, unharmed, landing among them. (Later, he would find a mark made by the train on the edge of his right shoe.) For the next few minutes, while Motorman Miller and Officer Johnson made sure of the happy outcome, the crowd patted Everett on the back and kept telling him he was a Hero. At last, everybody went on about his business-Miguel went home in a taxi, Mrs. DeJesus took another cab to the hospital to make sure Michelle was not really hurt, Officer Johnson resumed his beat, and Motorman Miller announced that the train would continue its regular run. Everett Sanderson got on the train, too, and rode it to his stop.

In addition to the awards and acclamation, Sanderson got a lifetime of free rides on the subway, and Maisonet got the same, for five years.

And the jobless Maisonet got a job with the M.T.A.

Sanderson had this to say: