The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad lures people from all over the world to Southwest Colorado. Its rustic character complements its wild route through the San Juan Mountains. Its whistle echoes as the train meanders through the Animas Valley.
But it’s easy to forget what the D&SNG really is: A multi-ton steam engine that pulls heavy cars, including one filled with coal, and dozens of passengers. It crosses several busy intersections and parallels high-trafficked areas in Durango where pedestrians, bicyclists, river users and automobiles coexist.
If one’s not careful, it can be dangerous.
‘Grease on his bare chest’Collisions involving the train are rare, but not unheard of: Maybe someone parks too close to the tracks and the locomotive clips the car while passing; maybe a driver tries to beat the train through an intersection and gets hit; or maybe someone stands or loiters too close to the track and is hit as the train goes by.
That’s what happened last week when two men, both believed to be intoxicated, lay down next to the tracks.
Apparently, the rumbling locomotive and its piercing whistle were not enough to rouse the two men from their alcohol-induced slumber before the engineer had to pull the brakes.
One of the men, Max Benally, 46, didn’t move fast enough and was struck by the train about 5:30 p.m. June 24 near 30th and 31st streets.
Benally suffered serious injuries and was flown to St. Anthony Hospital in Denver, where he remained in “fair” condition in the intensive care unit Monday afternoon, according to hospital staff. The staff has had trouble reaching friends or family of Benally; anyone with ties is asked to call the hospital at (720) 321-7101.
A Durango Police Department report says Benally had cuts and abrasions on his head and appeared to have “a large smear of grease on his bare chest.”
“As I approached, I could detect the strong odor of an unknown alcoholic beverage coming from his breath,” the officer wrote in his report.
The officer who wrote the report also contacted Vicente Martinez, 57, laying in the grass about 7 feet from the westernmost train rail. Martinez smelled of alcohol and could not sit up, stand or walk, police wrote. He was taken to Detox.
D&SNG Manager John Harper told police he wanted to press charges against both men for trespassing, according to the report. Train tracks are private property, except at approved crossings.
In an interview with The Durango Herald, Harper said: “The railroad tracks and railroad right of way are private property, and anytime you’re on it, it’s trespassing. Anytime there’s an issue or incident on railroad property, trespassing will be charged.”
A preliminary breath test showed Martinez had what appeared to be a 0.28 blood-alcohol level, more than three times the legal driving limit, police wrote in the report.
No formal charges or arresting documents had been filed against Benally or Martinez as of late last week in La Plata County Combined Courts.
‘A mechanical beast’The D&SNG may seem quaint and harmless, but Benally’s injury, despite his apparent intoxication, is a reminder the train is “a mechanical beast that you’ve got to respect,” said Mike McCoy, state coordinator for Operation Life Saver Colorado, a state division of the national rail safety nonprofit.
“If you see tracks, think train,” McCoy said. “You wouldn’t run across an airplane that’s landing. It just can’t stop.”
A 15-car Union Pacific historic steam train en route from Cheyenne Frontier Days in Wyoming to Denver hit and killed Kelly Yarish, 56, about a year ago in Henderson. She’d gotten too close to the tracks while taking photos of the 1944-model engine near a rail crossing, The Associated Press reported.
Harper said D&SNG’s “biggest issue” is photographers shooting near or on the tracks. People sometimes walk onto train bridges, something Harper said “is illegal and very dangerous.” D&SNG’s chief of safety could not be reached for comment.
A D&SNG engine hit the rear-end of a Hyundai sedan in September when the driver tried to beat the train across the tracks at 32nd Street. The train was traveling about 12 mph at the time, but the impact was great enough to spin the car 180 degrees and rip the rear bumper off the frame. No injuries were reported.
Something similar happened in September 2012, when a man driving a silver Toyota Tacoma turned in front of the train at Eighth Street.
And earlier this year, three vehicles took a wrong turn and ended up on the tracks in downtown Durango. To be fair, the tracks (and roads) were buried in snow. The train didn’t hit any of the vehicles.
McCoy said the slow nature of D&SNG may make people sort of “numb” toward trains in general.
“If you are habitually going to try to outrun a train that’s going 25 (mph) then go out east of Denver where they’re going 78 (mph) with the same mindset. It’s a totally different story,” McCoy said
Some people walk dogs along train tracks. Some wear headphones or laugh with friends. Some students near McCoy’s house on the Front Range sit on the tracks at lunch, he said.
“(Trains) can’t stop on a dime like a car or a bicycle or anything,” McCoy said. “It’s the responsibility of the individual to be smart around the track; just being aware of the danger of it, because they’re not going to win.”