Wrong Side of the Tracks

So far this year, two people have been killed on Colorado railways. But there are six victims.

On April 8, 1995, Larry Fiolkoski and his partner were piloting their freight train through a dark night when they came to the crossing at Titan Road in Littleton. The conductor was at the switch when Fiolkoski heard a muted crunching sound beneath the engine's rolling steel wheels. "What'd we hit--trash?" he asked the conductor, whose response was: "We hit a car." Fiolkoski looked in his rear window and saw the tumbling car engulfed in flames. After finally stopping the train half a mile down the tracks, the two men ran back to the burning wreckage. A young woman's lifeless body, ejected through the sun roof, lay by the tracks. As his partner vainly doused the inferno with a fire extinguisher, Fiolkoski ran for the crossing to separate the train's cars so that the approaching fire trucks could reach the site. Five other Heritage High teens, including a driver with a blood alcohol content of over .30, were burning to death in one of the worst train-car collisions in Colorado history.

It was the fourth time Fiolkoski had seen death on the tracks, and the kids killed at Titan Road brought the number of fatalities he'd witnessed to an astonishing nine. In all of those accidents, Fiolkoski had escaped physical injury, but the deadly collisions still had penetrated the safety of his engine's thick metal walls. "My wife said she could see the effects after this one," Fiolkoski says. "It triggered a whole bunch of stuff in me, really busted me up. I almost went off the deep end. Titan Road still affects me."

George Last, another local train engineer, understands. "I was driving across Nebraska," Last recalls in deliberate sentences. "I hit a pickup truck. With a family in it." Then a newcomer to his job, he'd heard of such moments from his older peers but was hardly ready for the grim scenario. After bringing his train to a halt, Last took a long, anxious walk back up the moonlit tracks. Five corpses--two young parents and their three small children--lay scattered about their mangled vehicle, killed on impact with Last's train. Twenty-five years later, he says, "I still have flashbacks and strange dreams about it sometimes. It just reappears over and over again."

So far this year in Colorado, two people have died in train incidents; that number already equals last year's death toll. On New Year's Day, a Colorado Springs man stretched himself across steel rails to end his life, staring down the train's helpless conductor as the engine crushed his torso. In a railyard in Commerce City a few weeks ago, a man lost his life in a failed attempt to hop a moving freight. "We found about 495 feet of him scattered down the yard," says a security guard.

The National Transportation Safety Board reports that somewhere along the 172,500 miles of rail in the United States, a train collides with a vehicle or a human about once every 100 minutes. In 1998 trains and vehicles clashed 3,446 times, and there were 979 fatalities on America's rails--more than in an average year's worth of plane crashes in the U.S.

Even light-rail engineers are not immune to the possibility of killing someone. Since its inception in 1994, RTD light-rail trains have been involved in 123 accidents, most of them involving collisions with cars, two of them fatal. In October 1994, a man who appeared to be drunk walked out in front of a light-rail train at 15th and California and was killed. In August 1996, a motorist drove around stopped cars and through the crossing gates at 13th and Pecos. A light-rail train hit the car, killing the person on the passenger side.

According to the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, a driver who's been at the switch for ten years is statistically assured of being involved in at least one fatal crash. Many drivers, like Fiolkoski, have experienced a much higher number, and their experiences sound like campfire horror stories. In Denver a man lies down before an oncoming train to end his life but changes his mind at the last moment. When he fails to scurry off the tracks in time, he loses both arms and both legs to the wheels of the train. The mutilated victim lies among his limbs, reciting the Lord's Prayer to the stunned engineer who attempts, somehow, to comfort him (the man lives). Another driver recounts the sight of a car full of people pinned to the front of his skidding engine, their faces white with the knowledge of impending death. An instant later, the engine's nose punctures the car's shell and crushes its occupants.

Whether it's the March 15 Amtrak collision near Chicago that left eleven dead or the October 5, 1998, suicide of David Letterman stalker Margaret Ray on Union Pacific tracks hear Hotchkiss, train drivers say the tally of victims is always off by at least two. "There's the person who gets hit," says Rich Dooley, a local engineer who's been operating trains for 22 years, "and there's the crew on the train."

"These men are unwilling participants in a horrific thing," says Dane Freshour, a counselor who works with Burlington Northern Santa Fe drivers involved in train accidents. "It's very gruesome when you look at the aftermath--the body parts, the blood. It's very traumatic." Flashbacks, including visual images and returning smells from the scene of the accident, are a frequent problem, along with fatigue, depression, sleeplessness and a sense of constant frustration over what happened. Occasionally, these effects are enough to prevent engineers and conductors from returning to their jobs, but such psychological stresses have been a part of train culture since its beginning, Freshour says. In the 1800s, engineers suffered "railway brain" and "railway spine"--what psychologists now call post-traumatic stress disorder. "Our awareness has improved a lot after the World Wars and Vietnam, when we saw combat veterans come back from dealing with traumatic experiences and exposure to situations outside the usual realm of human experience," Freshour says.

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