A career of tragic crashes and wild near misses finally brought railroad engineer Harry Stewart to tears one night and persuaded him to help other rail operators deal with tragedies that come with the job.
A man had wandered onto a Union Pacific railroad track and was hit by Stewart's train. The veteran engineer tried not to show his shock and grief over the death, not even to his wife.
"For two days I couldn't even talk about it," the 65-year-old Stewart said of the 2003 incident in east Texas. "She kept asking me what was wrong. And then three or four days later, I started talking to her about it, and I started crying."
Stewart now manages Union Pacific's Employee Support Services as well as the railroad's peer-support efforts as a trainer and coordinator. The peer-support program is based on similar efforts by police and fire departments and the military to help people deal with critical incidents over which they have no control.
Since 2010, there have been 29 deaths in Colorado linked to light-rail trains, buses or commercial trains, according to published reports. Some victims were intoxicated and stumbled into oncoming traffic; others were apparent suicides.
"You just get to a point you have to share it with someone," said Stewart, who has experienced 15 direct impacts on vehicles and numerous close calls. "You carry this around for so long, and it takes an emotional toll. And if you don't watch it, it takes a physical toll as well."
Programs like the one Stewart heads are at work at other railroads — including Burlington Northern Santa Fe — and at Denver's Regional Transportation District, which serves a 2,340-square-mile service area with light rail and buses.
Michael Marks heads RTD's critical-response team of licensed therapists. His team helps bus and light rail operators involved in traumatic incidents, making sure they have emotional support and gauge whether someone may need more extensive therapy.
Most operators involved in accidents come back at least for a short time, Marks said, and many get back behind the wheel for good. Still, "no matter what they do," he said, "accidents can stay with you for a long time, even forever."
There are those who leave the job for good, Marks says, as accidents can trigger past traumas and prompt a cascading effect.
"Some see this is a signal that maybe they need to reset their lives," Marks said. "Take it in a different direction."
Crews remove an SUV from RTD tracks on Kalamath Street after it collided with a light-rail train last month. (Andy Cross, The Denver Post)
There have been 16 fatalities involving RTD vehicles since 2010. In the most recent accident, a 41-year-old man was hit and killed by a light-rail train in downtown Denver in February.
The man was dragged a "significant distance" before it stopped at 14th and California streets. How an operator deals with an incident like that depends on a variety of factors, Marks said.
A person's background, life experiences and ability to tap into a support group — whether it's friends, family or church — influence an operator's recovery, he said.
"The person needs to air their emotions so the trauma doesn't get bigger than it should be," Marks said. "You have been victimized, and you have to decide whether you want to continue to be a victim or do you want to be a survivor."
Across the United States, a person or vehicle is hit by a train every three hours, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. There are also about 270 deaths a year at public and private grade crossings.
But overall, rail accidents have decreased, says the agency. FRA recorded 1,436 total commuter and freight train accidents in 2014, down 58 percent from 2004.
Officials say the downward trend is the result of better technology and heightened public awareness of railroad crossings. The federal government spends more than $287.9 million annually to improve and enhance safety at public grade crossings.
Still, it's not enough to prevent all tragedies, said Sarah Feinberg, acting administrator at the FRA.
"While the overall number of death and injuries from grade crossing incidents has come down significantly in the past two decades, this remains a serious problem," Feinberg said.
In some cases, motorists seem almost blind to the dangers of railroad tracks and crossings.
Stewart said that in 2003, his 5,700-foot-long Union Pacific train was passing through a small east Texas town when he and the conductor saw a tractor-trailer pull into a crossing.
The train blew its horn, but at 65 mph the locomotive couldn't stop in time. The tractor-trailer was cut in half.
The truck driver was still sitting behind the wheel of his vehicle, alive. "I never saw the train," the man told the conductor. "Where did you come from?"
The conductor, Stewart said, pointed down at the rail where the remains of the truck sat. "This is where we came from," he said.
Stewart is one of 300 employees and volunteers who provide emergency help after accidents along Union Pacific's 23-state system. The railroad has more than 1,500 miles of track in Colorado.
The idea is to link people who have experienced trauma with those who are trying to cope with a railroad death or near-death, said Mark Jones, Union Pacific's director of employee assistance and support services.
"People who have experienced a tragedy tend to think that no one else knows what they are experiencing," Jones said. "Through peer support, they realize they are not alone, and that's a driving force here."
Stewart says about 25 percent to 30 percent of engineers and conductors in accidents get long-term help from a mental health professional.
But most come back to the job with more respect for what they do. Stewart wishes motorists and pedestrians would adopt that outlook when they encounter a moving train.
"A train is a very large, heavy weapon," Stewart said. "It's moving steel, running at a high rate of speed, and it's very, very unforgiving."
Monte Whaley: 720-929-0907, mwhaley@denverpost.com or twitter.com/montewhaley
Deaths in transit incidents
A look at the deaths that have involved light-rail trains, buses or commercial trains in Colorado since 2010.
Feb 9: Victoria D. Archibald, 16, was struck by a train in Wellington after walking on railroad tracks while apparently distracted by a personal electronic device.
Feb 12: Naythan Cordova, 41, is hit by a light-rail train and dragged a "significant distance" before it stopped at 14th and California streets.
Aug. 10: Eric Velasquez, 18, is thrown from an out-of-control vehicle onto train tracks near Pueblo, where he is hit by an oncoming train. It happened at northbound Interstate 25 past West 13th Street.
Aug. 22: A 13-year-old is hit while walking on train tracks near Loveland in an apparent suicide.
Sept. 26: A train hits a 54-year-old woman standing on tracks in Louisville in an apparent suicide.
Oct 8: Railroad conductor Dawn Trettenero, 41, is trapped between two train cars in Colorado Springs in an industrial accident.
Oct 12: A 17-year-old girl is hit by a light-rail train in a fenced-off area in Golden, near U.S. 6 and Ulysses Street, in an apparent suicide.
Nov. 6: Charles Dial, 62, is hit by an RTD bus near the Boulder Transit Center.
Dec. 16: A light-rail train hits an Arapahoe County boy, 14, who was in a restricted tunnel area near the Colorado station, in an apparent suicide.
March 6: Delrod Spearman, 29, stumbled and fell into the path of a light-rail train at West 10th Avenue and Osage.
June 28: Richard Paul Christman, 38, fell under an RTD bus as he ran toward the rear door as it was leaving the intersection of South Irving Street and West Alameda Avenue.
Aug. 19: A motorcycle rider was killed after he ran a red light at West 53rd Avenue and Wadsworth Boulevard in Arvada and crashed into the side of an RTD bus.
Aug. 27: A man was killed by a train in Monument near Park Trail Drive and Blizzard Valley Trail in an apparent suicide.
Jan. 1: Joanie Kocab, 29, was intoxicated and walking along Colorado 82 in the bus lane by Owl Creek Road near Aspen and hit by an RFTA bus.
March 12: A 24-year-old man jumped under a train in Fort Collins as he walked along South Mason Street in an apparent suicide.
March 17: Ashley Nicole Vale, 27, was hit by a passenger train as she was walking on the tracks wearing ear buds near Silt in Garfield County.
May 26: A woman in a fenced-off area between East Mississippi Avenue and South Acoma Street in Denver was struck by a light-rail train in an apparent suicide.
Sept. 26: Jack Frost, 48, a transient of Fort Collins, was hit by a train near the intersection of Jefferson and Linden streets after apparently passing out on the tracks.
Jan. 27: A 19-year-old man is struck by a train in Castle Rock, at Perry Street between 1st and 2nd streets, in an apparent suicide.
June 19: Douglas Strickland, 51, is hit by a light-rail train when he waited for a southbound train to pass at the crossing at West 14th Avenue and Osage Street, then pedaled his bike into the path of a northbound train.
Sept. 20: Jessica Lubken, 26, was intoxicated when she was swept under a moving light-rail train in Denver near 24th and Welton streets.
Nov. 6: A man walks into the path of a train near West 76th Avenue and Simms Street in Arvada in an apparent suicide.
Feb. 23: Paul Michael Mettam, 36, is hit by a light-rail train between Union Station and the Pepsi Center when he was on the tracks in a fenced-off area.
March 12: A 52-year-old man ran in front of a train in Fort Collins near Old Main Drive and South Mason Street in an apparent suicide.
April 3: Carla Miranda and Dustin Peletier, both 29, were killed when an RTD bus ran a red light at East Eighth Avenue and Lincoln Street and hit the car they were in.
April 5: Clinton Grider, 78, was intoxicated and stepped in front of an RTD bus near South Peoria Street and East Mississippi Avenue.
April 6: Bicyclist Marvin "Chip" Webb, 42, is stuck by an RTD bus near the intersection of South Public Road and City Center Circle in Lafayette.
Dec. 7: Harry Exner, 19, was crossing the tracks in a restricted area and hit by a light-rail train near the Alameda station.Source: The Denver Post library