It was every train conductor’s worst nightmare.
On a sunny morning in July 2012, a Tacoma Rail train hauling 10 cars filled with cargo approached a tunnel in downtown Olympia.
As the train entered the darkened 1,000-foot-long tunnel, conductor Max Chabo 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 a man lying in the train’s path.
“I saw his face,” Chabo, 57, said this week. “He was sleeping.”
Chabo pulled the emergency brake, but no train (not even one traveling 10 miles per hour) can stop quickly.
“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 knew the man on the tracks would be run over if the conductor didn’t do something. So he climbed down the steps of the slow moving train, jumped off and ran ahead as fast as he could to where the man lay.
“I was pumped,” he said.
Chabo grabbed the man by his jacket with both hands and pulled him with all his strength. The man’s backpack might have cushioned him as Chabo dragged him down the track.
The tunnel did not have room on the sides to allow Chabo to pull the man to the left or right to safety – the train still would have hit him.
Chabo estimated he dragged the man 20 feet down the tracks. When he finally stopped, exhausted, the train had stopped, too.
The man’s legs ended up positioned underneath the front of the train, but he was safe.
“I dragged him until the engine stopped,” Chabo said.
On Sept. 26, Chabo was honored for his bravery when 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, who has worked as a conductor for Tacoma Rail for 26 years, said there’s no training for railroad employees to save people who are 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.
People sleeping or traveling through the railroad tunnel is an ongoing problem for police, spokeswoman Laura Wohl said. In November 2010, a 22-year-old man lost both arms in the tunnel when a Tacoma Rail train ran him over as he slept on the tracks.
Chabo said he understands why homeless people would want to enter the tunnel if they have nowhere else to go. It’s dry and offers some protection from the elements. But he said being stuck in a railroad tunnel could easily kill someone.
“Being around railroad tracks or being in railroad tunnels is no place to be,” he said. “It’s an easy way to get hurt.”
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.
That presents the possibility of life-threatening episodes such as the one Chabo risked his own life to prevent.
“It was terrifying,” he said. “I know if I don’t make the move, this guy’s dead.”
Jeremy Pawloski: 360-754-5445