Transit officers pull Toronto man from tracks on Christmas Day

Disorientated elderly man pulled from life-threatening situation at Union Station.

Dec 27, 2018

When 74-year-old Shirley Lee was found safe on Wednesday night, two days after she went missing from her Scarborough home on Christmas Eve, searchers and Toronto residents breathed a sigh of relief.

Officials used everything from horses to drones as they combed corners of the city for the woman diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. At one point, Metrolinx stopped trains to help in the search.

The story captivated the city – especially as she was missing over the holidays.

But her family was not alone in their worry for a lost and vulnerable loved one on Christmas Day.

Nor were they alone in seeing a safe return of a lost soul.

On Christmas morning, a confused and disorientated elderly man tried to find his way to his downtown Toronto home – and instead wandered out onto active tracks used by Canada’s busiest transit hub.

What was to follow was another version of the search for Shirley Lee – strangers answering a call for the safe return of someone in need, back to the care of their family.

While on Christmas Day patrol around Union Station, just before 10:30 a.m., Transit Special Constables Gregg Pearson and Walter Ribeiro were told of an older individual who was seen wandering on nearby tracks.

They were alerted by UP Express guest service representatives Brent Constantineau and Ismail Bhikha, who had been inside an UP Express train preparing to depart when they saw the man outside. They yelled out to the two officers, who made a call to have all rail traffic stopped.

It was a wonder he was seen at all. The unidentified 87-year-old, originally from Iran but now living in Toronto, was largely blocked from view by the parked UP Express train.

By the time the partners caught up with him, the gentleman – unsteady with his cane, as he tried to step over tracks and close to powerful switches that could easily have crushed his feet – was heading down the busy line.

He was apparently trying to get home, and had lost his way.

Transit officers often deal with the vulnerable and those at risk. It is a sad but essential part of their daily patrols.

In fact, also on Christmas Day, security officers located a different elderly man in Union Station, who had been reported missing by his family in Hamilton. His rescue included Special Constable Bryan Noble, who was assisting in Transit Safety Dispatch, reviewing and finding the 70-year-old man using CCTV camera footage. Officials managed to find the confused man after he stepped off a GO Train at Union Station. He was also returned safely back home.

But it’s the case of the man on the tracks which underscores the risks the vulnerable face, as well as the quick response by front-line officers, and their support services, who constantly watch out for those individuals.

“He was a very fragile old man,” said Ribeiro, adding even calling out to him was difficult with the noise of nearby trains, machinery and the city traffic beyond.

They were able to catch up with him, and asked if he knew where he was going.

“Not really,” he replied in broken English.

“He was defiantly welcoming our help,” said Pearson.

“At any point, he could have gotten hit. He was in a bad position.”

Backed up by fellow Special Constable Charankamal Jassal, they were able to guide him safely inside – reassuring that they would get him back to his family. While there was rudimentary communication due to a language barrier, they happened to catch another break – a phone number included with his passport. It was for his son, who lived nearby.

“There was instant relief when we reached (the son) by phone,” said Ribeiro. “The first thing he said was ‘Is my father with you?”

All within an hour, they managed to bring the older man in from the cold of the tracks to the care of his family.

“It was the timing of Christmas Day,” said Pearson.

But added Ribeiro, his partner of two years, it’s also a story about family – that they were able to bring him home to those who could care for him.

The officers are being commended by their Metrolinx managers for their quick response, as well as the way they dealt with the man – reassuring and supportive.

“As their Senior Supervisor at Union Station, I am very proud of Special Constables Ribeiro, Pearson and Jassal for their immediate actions to save the elderly male before any harm came to him,” said Staff Sergeant Dave Durant, senior supervisor, Central Region Transit Safety Operations, in an email exchange.  “As well, I wish to credit the actions of the two UP Express employees for their observations and quick work to notify our officers of the high risk situation.”

On normal days, as many as 250,000 visitors pass through Union Station. Outside, on those tracks, the traffic of locomotives is constant and exhaustive – even during a holiday.

On Christmas Day, two lost men – the man with the cane wandering on the tracks and the other lost from his Hamilton home – were found just in time. Just like Shirley Lee.

Though as we enter 2019, transit officers know they’ll have to stay alert daily for similar stories repeating endlessly.

by Thane Burnett Manager of editorial content for Metrolinx