Victor Ortiz, a 16-year-veteran with the New Jersey Transit Police, had worked the overnight shift. He was ready to clock out and start a Caribbean vacation when what started as a small incident ballooned into a terrifying and life-changing event.
“I go through the whole scenario in my mind often,” said Ortiz. “People always ask me or say, ‘You’re crazy, would you do that again?’ And I say, ‘Of course, I would do it again, I mean it is my job.'”
The scenario haunting Ortiz: a split-second decision to save the life of a suicidal man clinging to the tracks, refusing to budge as an express train barreled toward them.
‘I knew that this was it’
It started during rush hour late last month. A 56-year-old man had been on a New Jersey commuter train, and he and the conductor got into an argument, police said. The man, who told investigators he was on his way to New York to pick up medication for a psychological issue, became agitated when the train’s conductor alerted police at the Frank R. Lautenberg Rail Station in Secaucus that an unruly passenger was on board, police said.
Ortiz was talking to the conductor about the incident as the passenger became increasingly agitated.
“He was irate at the fact that the conductor had called the police about an incident on the train,” said Ortiz.
Minutes later, the passenger started to run. Ortiz chased him down the platform. Then, the man jumped onto the tracks and crossed over to a second set of tracks reserved for express trains, Ortiz said.
On these tracks, trains from both New Jersey Transit and Amtrak can barrel through the station at up to 80 miles per hour. Trains moving that fast, in transportation parlance, are called a “hot rail.”
“I looked up and saw the train coming from almost a half mile away,” Ortiz said. “I saw lights coming at that point I knew that this was it.”
‘My job is to protect and serve’
Ortiz estimates the train was moving upwards of 70 miles per hour. He heard the train braking, but knew that much weight coming that fast and so close would never stop in time.
Ortiz managed to get one cuff on him. The man’s arms were so sweaty that Ortiz could pull only on the cuff as he tried to rescue him from the tracks.
“He buckled down to his knees and then to his arms and he said at that point, ‘I just want to die,'” said Ortiz. The distraught man kept repeating those words: “I want to die.”
Grainy surveillance of the incident is stomach churning. It shows Ortiz frantically pulling the nearly 300-pound man. As the commuter train enters the frame on the left, Ortiz gives one final tug, pulling them both to safety.
The passenger, who now faces several charges, later apologized to the officer.
“Every life to me matters,” said Ortiz. “He put himself in harm’s way, and my job is to protect and serve.”
A viral video and a vacation
The self-effacing police officer — who says the incident was the most traumatic of his career — hopes it changes some minds about the work, much of it mundane, that law enforcement officials do every day.
“Police, we have a bad stigma on us,” said Ortiz. “Nowadays, with cameras and phones and stuff our job is not appreciated so doing my job at the moment sends an important message.”
Ortiz, the video and his story became such a viral sensation even his 13-year-old daughter was impressed.
“She went to school and everybody was like, ‘We saw your dad on TV, like oh my god.'”
For Ortiz, the gravity of the incident didn’t strike him until much later. When he finally left that morning, he was more than ready for his hard-earned and well-deserved beach getaway.