The Taste of Fear

Subway Surfers Risk Their Lives Atop the City’s Trains. Only Mad Fools Take the Dare. Only the Lucky Survive.

Hidden on the roof of an elevated subway station deep in Brooklyn, a gangly twentysomething man watches as a train rumbles in, its awesome power shaking the structure to the foundation. Later he'll claim to have felt no butterflies, but now he moves with the speed of a man who knows he might get caught—or killed.

When the Coney Island-bound local lurches to a stop, the man, known by his graffiti tag, DI, springs the short distance from the overhang to the top of the car, undetected by the passengers below him. Emerging just as quickly from the shadows are his three friends, known on the street as Seiz, Desif, and Seec. Within seconds they are all lying on their stomachs, clutching the grooves in the iron horse's back.

The 400-ton machine starts up again, building toward a speed of 30 miles per hour, and the young men move to their feet, defying the laws of physics and common sense. Dressed in ordinary jeans and rubber-sole sneakers, they perch on the only space available—a four-foot-wide flat spot on the roof. They lift their arms like wings and shift their weight as the beast sways, knowing the edge and death are a single misstep away.

As the train hurtles down the tracks, they grow more comfortable, hopping from car to car, leaping over gaps, and relishing the adrenaline sweeping through their bodies.

"It got boring just riding in the car and bullshitting," says DI, reflecting on the deadly art of subway surfing. "So it was like an adventure, like going on the ultimate adventure."

His partner Seec adds: "It's as close as you can get to flying without taking drugs."

It's also notoriously dangerous, an ultraextreme urban sport that makes the fashionable bungee jump off the Manhattan Bridge seem like a prance through Gramercy Park on visitors' day. There are no safety harnesses or cool-headed guides to soothe your fears, though there's plenty of reason to be afraid. Surfing an underground train, which sometimes has mere inches of clearance from the tunnel roof, is nothing more than a suicide mission. The elevated lines aren't much safer, with signal lights jutting toward the tracks, and trains barreling through sudden curves and dipping without warning into tunnels.

If you are unlucky enough to fall or be struck, you're probably dead.

This year has been one of the bloodiest for subway surfers, who transit officials say are almost impossible to stop. In the first seven months of 2000, three people were killed and two critically injured after soaring on the city's subterranean finest.

In May, a man believed to have been surfing atop the Flushing-to-Manhattan 7 train was found lying on the tracks in Grand Central Station. He was pronounced dead at the scene. Two Irish nationals spent a March night drinking in the Village, then decided to surf the E train and were struck in the tunnel between the 65th Street and Roosevelt Avenue stations in Jackson Heights. They were taken to Elmhurst Hospital with serious injuries. And in January, 15-year-old surfers Billy Quinn and Cory Hammerstone were killed as their N train entered the Bay Parkway station in Bensonhurst.

"Look what happened to my baby," Quinn's mother, Cathy, told a group of kids who gathered at her home, according to a newspaper report. "Please let this be a warning to you, or all your mothers will be suffering like I am. It's not worth it. I have to carry this pain around in my heart forever."

"I want my baby back," Hammerstone's grief-stricken mother, Shelley, told the reporter. "Why, God, did you take him?"

Police theorize that the graffiti-writing youths—Cory was known as Sone, Billy as Hex—climbed from the roof of the Kings Highway station onto the top of the Manhattan-bound train. They made it only a single stop before colliding with a bar that hangs near the entrance of the station. On a recent afternoon, all the N trains sounded their horns just before passing the spot, an ear-shattering warning to any copycat surfers.

"I couldn't believe it," says a 17-year-old boy whose tag is Risk, languidly strolling down the Bay Parkway thoroughfare with a few friends, not far from the station where the boys died. "Billy was like a regular kid. He played football. They weren't in trouble. I mean, they used to go to school."

Another boy, Sir Spiticus, tooling around on roller blades, says he doesn't think the pair surfed much because if they had they would've known the dangers of the tunnel. "It wouldn't have happened," he says.

"The whole idea of surfin' is old school," pronounces 19-year-old Drone, wearing a baseball cap slightly askew and smoking a cigarette. "Let's leave it there."

Would he ever surf? "Never," says Risk. "I know what can happen."

Neither the Metropolitan Transit Authority nor the New York Police Department keeps statistics on the number of subway-surfing deaths. The MTA charts how many people have been killed by trains—42 in 1999—but doesn't specify the nature of the deaths, says spokesman Al O'Leary. Despite the seeming spike in numbers, he says there's no evidence surfing fatalities are on the rise.

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