OLYMPIA — It’s every train conductor’s worst nightmare.
On a sunny morning in July last year, a Tacoma Rail train hauling 10 rail cars filled with cargo bound for the Mottman Industrial Park approached the tunnel in downtown Olympia at Cherry Street and Seventh Avenue.
As conductor Max Chabo entered the darkened 1000-foot long tunnel, at first he thought he saw debris on the tracks. But as he got closer, and the train’s headlight curved around the tunnel, Chabo saw that what looked like discarded blankets or trash was actually a man lying in the train’s path.
“I saw his face,” Chabo said. “He was sleeping.”
Chabo said he immediately pulled the emergency brake, but no train, even one like his that was traveling at only 10 miles per hour, can stop on a dime.
“You’re hoping it’s going to stop,” he said. “It came to the point where I realized, it’s not going to stop.”
Chabo said he knew the man lying on the tracks would be run over if he didn’t do something. So he sprang into action. He climbed down the steps of the slow moving train and jumped off, running ahead as fast as he could to where the man lay on the tracks.
“I was pumped,” he said.
Chabo said he grabbed the man by his jacket with both hands and pulled him with all his strength. Chabo said a backpack being worn by the man may have cushioned him as Chabo dragged him down the track.
There was not enough room on the sides of the tunnel for the man to be safely dragged to the side – the train still would have hit him, Chabo said.
Chabo estimates he dragged the man 20 feet down the tracks. When Chabo finally stopped, exhausted, the train had stopped too. The man’s legs were directly underneath the front of the train, but he was safe.
“I dragged him until the engine stopped,” he said.
On Wednesday, Sept. 26, Chabo was honored for his bravery during the July 31, 2012 incident in Olympia. A state safety board appointed by the Governor presented Chabo with a lifesaving award during the Governor’s Industrial Safety and Health Conference in Tacoma.
Chabo, 57, who has worked as a conductor for Tacoma Rail for 26 years, said there is no training for railroad employees to save people who may be sleeping or trapped on the tracks in a tunnel.
“But there is no railroader I know who wants to be involved in one of these incidents,” he said.
Olympia Police Department spokeswoman Laura Wohl acknowledged that people sleeping or traveling through the railroad tunnel is a huge ongoing problem for police. Police continually try to keep homeless and transients from hanging out in the tunnel. During a recent cleanup, a city work crew cleaned debris and discarded hypodermic needles from the tunnel, she added.
In November, 2010, a 22-year-old man lost both of his arms in the same Olympia railroad tunnel when a Tacoma Rail train ran him over as he slept on the tracks.
During a visit to the tunnel on Tuesday, a man was walking through the tunnel from Cherry Street to where it ends near Capitol Lake. A “no trespassing” sign is posted, but frequently ignored.
Chabo said he understands why homeless people would want to enter the tunnel if they have nowhere else to go, because it’s dry and can offer some protection from the elements. But he said being stuck in a railroad tunnel could easily kill someone.
Tacoma Rail trains drive through the tunnel twice a week, delivering corn syrup for the Pepsi plant, as well as plastics, lime and steel for other businesses in the Mottman Industrial Park.
“Being around railroad tracks or being in railroad tunnels is no place to be,” he said. “It’s an easy way to get hurt.”
Chabo said that during last year’s incident, he had to wake the man up afterward. Olympia police arrived at the scene and issued him a citation for criminal trespass, Chabo added.
“It was terrifying,” Chabo said. “I know if I don’t make the move, this guy’s dead.”