By Alan Prendergast
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Several factors contribute to the severity of an engineer's PTSD. The age of the victim is always a major factor, especially if it's a child and the driver has children of his own. The number of fatalities also plays a role. "I've had clients who've had six, seven, eight experiences like this," Freshour says, "and there's a cumulative effect that makes it worse. But if we get them the right support and respond appropriately, hopefully we're able to salvage a man's life and career. That's our goal."
Freight-train drivers involved in crashes are met within a few hours of an incident by peer counselors, co-workers who have been involved in similar situations. Within 24 hours of the crash, they are "diffused" by a psychologist, who leads the driver through a retelling of the accident. "We know that the best treatment for any critical incident is for the person to revisit the incident," says Tom Scarano, a Denver psychologist who counsels drivers for Union Pacific and BNSF. "One of the major themes we deal with is the issue of personal responsibility," he notes. "No matter how irrational it seems, most people think that they could have somehow prevented what happened. It's amazing."
Scarano has been working with train operators since 1985; every year, he gives critical incident counseling to around fifty patients. He says most of them are able to return to their jobs within a few days, albeit with lingering emotional burdens that may stay with them for years.
In the past, drivers involved in crashes were given a different type of therapy: After the bodies and wreckage were cleared from the track, crews were told to get back in their engines and finish their routes. Starting around 1990, however, railroads began sending relief crews to finish the train's route and giving its crew members up to three days off with pay and counseling. These changes in policy are welcome, Dooley says. "People think we're all tough old guys at the throttle, but nobody's that tough. If he is, he's got a cold steel heart. Or he's been in too many [accidents]. Some of these guys have been out in the yard and come across a guy who has been cut in half trying to hop a train. It used to be you just sucked it up and you'd go on. But that doesn't work. It causes problems."
During one run through Sedalia, a truck driver raced through a crossing in front of Dooley's train, resulting in a collision. The driver suffered a deep gash to his head, and Dooley, a trained first-aid technician, helped save the man's life by holding his brains in his skull while waiting for emergency crews to arrive. The man survived, but another man was less lucky. A couple of years ago, a Colorado Springs man ended a fight with his spouse with a promise to kill himself. He chose Dooley's train to carry out the pledge. As Dooley's train rode out on a bridge near the Garden of the Gods, the man jumped out of the darkness and into the path of Dooley's train.
"I heard a thump," he recalls, "and as I looked in the rearview mirror and applied the brakes, I could see him flopping along the railing, bouncing off the engines. He just kind of cartwheeled along the bridge. It killed him. Turned him into Jell-O inside. He was already cooling off by the time we got back to him." Following such incidents, Dooley says, "you're stunned, and you get a feeling of helplessness, of what could I have done to have prevented this from happening? You're always second-guessing yourself, wondering if you should have been looking out better. And all of these things are fallacies."
Train crews say suicides are a recurring dilemma for them. "But people don't realize the pain and the heartache that they cause when they lay down on those tracks," says one engineer. "They have no idea. You're driving that train, and all of a sudden somebody jumps out between the rails. Well, you're the last person to see another human alive. They're standing there in front of you; you see their faces and the whites of their eyes looking up at you. The emotional impact is too much...But what can you do?
"You take that Margaret Ray," the engineer adds. "Someone like that looks at the train and thinks it's some big piece of machinery that runs itself. But there are human beings inside of it, with emotions and families. If these people want to end their lives, why don't they go up on some cliff and jump? Keep me out of it."
Some engineers say law-enforcement officers untrained in how to investigate suicides and crashes add to their troubles. Many engineers complain of inexperienced police officers who arrive on the scene, brand the train conductor a homicide suspect, demand his driver's license and registration as if he'd been driving a car, and refuse to keep his name off any accident report. "Somebody gets ahold of that," a Denver engineer says, "and here comes the guy's relatives wanting to crucify you. You get calls in the middle of the night: 'Murderer! Killer! You killed my son. You killed my brother.' I don't need that. My wife doesn't need that."