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Family tragedy becomes public nightmare when death video hits Twitter

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By the time police asked Internet users to remove graphic photos of a man decapitated after he jumped in front of a train, it was too late for the dead man's son. He had already seen the grisly images — recorded by teenagers just after the incident occurred — when they went viral on Twitter.

You can hear the teens in the background of the shaky cellphone video, recorded Wednesday afternoon in the Netherlands, calling to each other, their adolescent voices tweaked with shock, excitement. "Here. Here is the body. Here he is," one boy shouts in Dutch. Another points to the man's severed head, a few feet away. No one is laughing. 

At least 70 students at a nearby school — in the Kennemerland area of Haarlem — witnessed the accident or immediate aftermath, reports Ijmuider Courant, a Netherlands news site. School officials swung into action. Within 10 minutes of the incident, administrators guided students away from the station and back to the school. There, counselors and members of the Kennemerland police department spent the afternoon talking to kids and later, their parents, about what they had seen.

Yet at the same time that the school was trying to mitigate the psychological damage of the incident, a video of it was being shared among students and making its way out onto the Internet, by way of Twitter.

This is the video the dead man's son had already seen when Kennemerland police broke the news to the family. It was then that son connected the two, and realized the video was of his father. 

When the police department found out about the video, the department took to Twitter and asked the public to stop sharing the video. In Dutch, the police asked, "Anyone who has shared pictures of the Driehuis train victim, remove them immediately. It is disrespectful and goes too far!"

It's a good-faith plea, made by a police department savvy in the ways of the Internet, enough to know it was already too late. It was too late 15 minutes after the video first hit Twitter, when the teenage boy who first sent it out into cyberspace deleted his original tweet. It had already been retweeted countless times. And that is the lesson that Evy Elschot, spokesperson for the Kennemerland police department, hopes people will take away from this incident, instead of the gory details.

"The boy didn't understand the impact of what he had done," Elschot told msnbc.com in a telephone interview. Identifying him only as a teenager between the ages of 14 and 16, Elschot described him choking on tears and shaking with panic when confronted by police. "The boy said he wished he didn't do it, that he could take it back, but of course he couldn't," she said.

The boy tweeted (in Dutch), "I hate myself for what I've done," according to news site RTL

Elschot told msnbc.com she regrets the story receiving national attention, resulting in the inevitable spread of a video that causes pain to a family already suffering. (Msnbc.com will not link to the video.) To protect the family's privacy, she would not share the age of the son who saw his father in the video. 

According to Elschot, it was a very difficult decision to ask people via Twitter to delete the video.

The Kennemerland police department is very active on Twitter, using the official account to communicate with the public on such things as traffic delays, especially crowded areas at festivals, as well as finding witnesses to crimes and fielding complaints (and compliments) from the public. But by using Twitter to discuss a suicide, the Kennemerland police department went against what Elschot describes as Holland's "gentleman's agreement" to not publicize details about suicides.

Elschot said that it's in consideration for families whose members commit suicide, but this practice also abides by the World Health Organization's recommendations for avoiding suicide contagion — a phenomenon which affects those already at risk. Train suicides account for 4 to 10 percent of suicides in the Netherlands, the Journal of Affective Disorders reported in 2010.  Such a video going viral could spread contagion as well.

Elschot agrees that there's an important discussion to be had, but not about this family's tragedy.

"This really is about young people and how the world is different," she said. "When I was a kid, I might say some things in my small town without thinking, but we only had the telephone. Someone else might read your letter, and there is embarrassment for awhile, but not the oil spread of information we now have on the Internet. Kids need to understand that and their parents need to tell them."

The American Library Association website offers a variety of resources to help parents and kids navigate the Internet safely and responsibly.  

If you are thinking about harming yourself or attempting suicide, tell someone who can help right away:

  • Call your doctor’s office.
  • Call 911 for emergency services.
  • Go to the nearest hospital emergency room.
  • Visit the website or call the toll-free, 24-hour hotline of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) to be connected to a trained counselor at a suicide crisis center nearest you.

Ask a family member or friend to help you make these calls or take you to the hospital.

Helen A.S. Popkin writes about the Internet. Join her on Twitter and/or Facebook. Also, Google+.