On this Tuesday, ‘we needed to be there to help’
RTD is recognizing the following employees today for the selflessness they displayed when encountering an emergency situation late last month. While the team is not used to this sort of attention, they kindly agreed to share their story.
The members of the N Line maintenance crew rolled into the Tuesday morning after Memorial Day weekend with a manageable workday before them. The weather was expected to be warm, but not too hot. The track team planned to head toward the end-of-line Eastlake•124th Station for a switch inspection, and Jeff Wineteer, a senior instructor and supervisor for the signal team, thought a joint inspection involving both teams would be a good idea. The group puts eyes every month on every switch, checking for operation and longevity in accordance with Federal Railroad Administration standards. First on the list: Control Point Lake, just south of the station and east of Claude Court in Thornton.
Out on the alignment, a dozen colleagues focused their attention on the task before them. “And then we heard something that sounded like a car impact, like a car hitting another car and some spinning wheels,” Wineteer recalled. The sound was coming from a parking lot of a maintenance and operations facility for the city of Northglenn, about 150 yards away. The crew continued its work. A train passed the group. Signal maintainer Josh Hunter looked toward the parking lot and saw what looked to be smoke rising from a vehicle – and flames. He called RTD dispatch, alerting them to a potential issue and the need to send emergency personnel from the city.
The group assumed at that point that anyone in the car had gotten out, Wineteer said. Their view of the vehicle was somewhat obscured by a green Toyota Tacoma. But he had a sense that he should go check it out anyway, so Wineteer picked up a railroad anchor – a tool that is affixed directly to the rail that keeps ties from moving – in the event he needed to break a window. As Wineteer crossed the street toward the parking lot, Hunter told him that it looked as if someone was in the car.
“At that point, I took off running,” Wineteer said.
When he reached the car, a black Lincoln MKZ, Wineteer saw that the driver’s side door was ajar and observed smoke rolling out underneath. The sedan had somehow high-centered itself on a parking lot median with the passenger door pinned against a small tree. An adult was sitting in the passenger seat and appeared unresponsive.
“I yelled, ‘Hey, you need to get out of your car. It's on fire.’ And the person didn't respond,” Wineteer said. “I yelled again.” The smoke beneath the driver door began turning to flames. The person said something unintelligible. Wineteer ran to the other side of the car and saw that the passenger door was partially obstructed. He was able to wedge the door open enough to help the person out of the car. As the individual moved, Wineteer heard a popping sound from beneath the hood.
“My mind went into movie mode, like this thing is about to blow up,” he said. “What I actually think was happening is the catalytic converter was hot, and was probably starting some of that mulch on fire. But in that moment, I thought, you need to get out of that car right now. We need to go, because this isn’t good.”
From the time the team heard Wineteer begin to yell, several of them stopped what they were doing and jumped a 6-foot fence to assist. Rafael Gutierrez, senior instructor and track supervisor, Hunter and fellow signal maintainer Jordon Salbato, and rail laborer Dominic Degrande arrived in seconds. By then, the person was responding – and it was clear from the phlegm and mucus Wineteer observed that the individual was having a hard time breathing. He propped his right arm underneath the person’s armpit, and they walked toward the opposite side of the parking lot to sit on a curb. Wineteer was aware that the flames from the vehicle were leaping higher.
“I said, ‘Take slow, deep breaths in and out. Cough it out.’ Coughing out whatever smoke had been inhaled seemed like an OK idea,” Wineteer said. “That’s what my parents always told me to do when I was little and had a cold.”
Within minutes, the Northglenn Police Department was on scene, and Wineteer told them an ambulance would be needed. A police officer pulled on gloves and knelt to offer some initial first aid. Northglenn employees ran from the city building with fire extinguishers and used them to hit the fire beneath the car doors. Firefighters, when they arrived, vented the hood of the car with a pickaxe and doused the car one final time.
Afterward, Wineteer approached the driver door of the car to pick up his railroad anchor. “One of the investigators standing there said, ‘I couldn't figure out what that was,’” Wineteer said. “I told him, ‘I was going to break a window if I needed to.’ And he said, ‘That’s really quick thinking.’” Wineteer had to drop the hot tool as soon as he picked it up.
Wineteer learned later that the individual was taken to a nearby hospital for treatment and was released. He has a lot of questions. How did the Lincoln end up there? Was there a driver? This is not the first time this fourth-generation railroader had rendered aid – 17 years ago, he helped an older gentleman and his wife out of their car after it flipped on an icy road – but the incident in Thornton was the first time he had been that close to an emergency as it happened.
Wineteer thinks about the easy morning the group anticipated and how they came to be in that place at that moment. “We needed to be there to help,” he said. “I have no doubt on that.” He praises the quick response of his colleagues, both those beside him and in dispatch.
There is peace of mind, Wineteer said, in knowing that he and his team members can rely on one another for help in high-stress situations like this one. It affirms that the group carries the right set of values.
“To see all of our guys respond in that circumstance to help this person, that’s special, and I appreciate that about the people that RTD has brought together to help bring the N Line to life,” Wineteer said. “I think that speaks volumes. Really, I do.”