By Jayme Ackemann, @JaymeAckemann
While Caltrain’s primary objective is to transport customers in a safe, reliable and efficient manner, the fact that it does so on trains that weigh a million pounds and pass through heavily-populated areas means that the trackway on the Peninsula can be a dangerous place. As a result, some employees affiliated with the train agency are forced to take decisive actions in life-and-death situations. That truth bore out on two separate occasions this month, when the quick-thinking and compassionate responses of safety and security personnel helped save lives. The first of these instances occurred on August 3 at the Mary Avenue grade crossing in Sunnyvale. San Mateo County Sheriff Deputies Lance Whitted and Erik Rueppel were conducting traffic stops near the rail tracks as part of their regular duties. Both deputies were assigned to the Transit Police Bureau—a contingent of the sheriff’s office dedicate to patrolling the Caltrain right-of-way.
At roughly 6:30 p.m. the deputies were directed to a car that had skidded through the intersection of West Evelyn Avenue and Mary Avenue and collided with a crossing arm tower in front of the Caltrain tracks. As a result of the collision, the vehicle was disabled and trapped on the railway, leaving the driver, Nelson Gomez, directly in the line of a northbound train approaching at 50 miles per hour. Upon arriving at the scene, Deputies Whitted and Rueppel immediately sprang into action. Deputy Rueppel started running south along the tracks toward the oncoming train, waving his arms in hopes of getting the engineer to notice and start slowing down. Whitted dashed toward the car, and made contact with Gomez, who was conscious, but incapacitated behind the wheel. Thinking quickly, Whitted grabbed Gomez’s arm and dragged him out of the vehicle. Just moments after Whitted had dragged Gomez to safety, the train collided with the car, sending pieces of the vehicle flying in all directions. Without the intervention of Whitted and Rueppel, Gomez—who was subsequently charged with driving under the influence following the event—would not have been able to free himself from the car before the train collided with it.
Both Rueppel and Whitted are quick to say that they don’t view themselves as heroes but they are extremely grateful that they had the opportunity, training and ability to save a man’s life. Just two days after that harrowing incident, personnel affiliated with Caltrain were again faced with a life-and-death situation, and again responded in admirable fashion. On August 5 near the Redwood City Caltrain Station, Dell Thompson—a security officer working with G4S Secure Solutions and contracted to patrol Caltrain properties—noticed a distraught woman step on the tracks in front of an incoming southbound train. Thompson approached the woman and calmly asked her to step away from the tracks and out of harm’s way. He didn’t endanger himself by walking on the tracks, but his composed demeanor convinced the woman to step off the railway and away from potential harm. His life-saving efforts were aided by the Caltrain engineer, who slowed down the train after noticing the woman on the tracks, giving Thompson enough time to sway the woman off the tracks. Thompson then stayed with the woman until transit police arrived, at which time she admitted having suicidal thoughts and ending her life using Caltrain. “When something like this happens, I really don’t think, my natural instincts kick in,” said Thompson. “The main thing was her safety and making sure she was OK. It feels good to be able to save somebody. It makes me feel good as a person just knowing that I helped someone. Hopefully she’s OK, doing better than she was that day and got the help she needed.” On Thursday, Caltrain’s Board of Directors took a moment from their meeting to recognize the actions of Whitted, Rueppel and Thompson. The courage they displayed under intense pressure moments exemplified the rail agency’s ongoing commitment to safety and security. Pressed into alarming situations, the trio proved themselves to be heroes. Deputies Whitted and Rueppel were also honored with proclamations signed by Assembly members Rich Gordon and Kevin Mullin, State Senator Jerry Hill and U.S. Representative Jackie Speier. The legislative representatives are also planning to recognize Thompson in a separate venue for his quick thinking.