Reports of “subway surfing” increased in 2019, MTA figures show, though transit officials say the toll of those wild rides is likely even higher and deadlier than statistics indicate.
There were 461 reported incidents of people riding on top of or outside a train in 2019 — a 15% increase from a year earlier. Officials confirmed one death: a 14-year-old boy killed in November while subway surfing in Queens.
“It not only puts the surfer at extreme risk, it puts our first responders at risk, it can put our employees and even our customers at risk,” Sally Librera, head of subways for New York City Transit, told THE CITY. “It’s something that we want to eliminate completely.”
Officials believe the surge was driven in part by one transit-obsessed 23-year-old Brooklyn man who was charged in May with pulling an emergency brake on a No. 2 train. He is suspected of riding outside trains in dozens of similar incidents that delayed thousands of straphangers.
“This behavior is reckless and incredibly dangerous and it needs to stop,” Librera said.
MTA figures show three injuries and the one fatality directly were pinned on subway surfing last year. But officials say riding on top of or between subway cars may have been factors in some of the 34 subway system deaths in 2018 that were not classified as suicides.
Police were looking into the possibility that a man found dead on the tracks early Thursday took a fatal tumble while trying to walk between subway cars.
“It’s incredibly dangerous to ride on the outside of a train,” Librera said.
One Family’s Grief
Few know that better than the family of Eric Rivera, the 14-year-old who died Nov. 23 after riding with friends on top of a No. 7 train near Queensboro Plaza.
His mother, Maritza Santos, told THE CITY that “about a week” before Eric’s death, she thought she spotted her son in a television news report about subway surfing.
“I asked him if it was him, he was like ‘No,’” Santos said. “I told him it’s very dangerous, that he could get hurt, that he could pass away from that.
“And he said, ‘Don’t worry, Mom,’ that he’s not doing that kind of stuff.”
On the night he died, Eric spoke to his mother by phone and told her he was at a movie with friends.
“It was 7:06 and he said he was in the movie theater and that he loved me and he would see me in half an hour,” Santos said.
But just before 9 p.m., police say Eric was found “unconscious and unresponsive” on the tracks just outside Queensboro Plaza after apparently striking something while riding atop the train.
The death along the No. 7 line’s elevated tracks came about 90 minutes after records show the MTA’s Rail Center reported to police that three people had been spotted on top of a train pulling out of the Court Square station.
‘Proceed With Caution’
In such instances, transit officials said, crews are instructed to “proceed with caution” to the next station and investigate. But the alleged subway surfers — believed by Eric’s family to be the friends who were with him — could not be found by the train crew.
“He was just with the wrong dumbass kids,” said Jason Santos, 21, one of Eric’s three older brothers.
The ninth-grader’s death has left his loved ones grasping for answers amid grief.
“I can’t believe that you would risk your life to do that,” his mother said. “What’s the joy of it, what’s the fun of it? I don’t see it.”
Maritza Santos described her youngest son as a “gorgeous kid” who loved rescuing animals and dreamed of leaving The Bronx.
“He was tired of the city,” Santos said. “He wanted to move to a house so the dog could have a backyard.”
Overall, the MTA said there were 68 deaths in the subway in 2018 — half of which were classified as “alleged suicides.” That was up from 46 in 2017.
In response, Librera said the MTA has increased the number of announcements and signs on trains and in stations warning people not to ride outside of trains. New York 1 reported last month that subway surfing has caused more than 2,700 train delays and cancellations since 2017.
Jason Santos said he would have set his younger brother straight if he had known he was going to climb atop a moving train.
“I loved him so much,” he said. “I would have kicked his ass.”
This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.