Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge diesel engine No. 461 surged north through a narrow canyon 5 miles south of Silverton on Monday morning when a passenger happened to look back and see a woman in distress waving frantically from the far bank of the Animas River.
The passenger notified the train crew who in turn contacted Delton Henry who was following behind the train in the inspection motor car. Henry stopped and called across to the woman and learned she had a broken leg and couldn’t move.
D&SNG Superintendent Darren Whitten instructed Henry to stay put while he called 911 and requested help from San Juan County Search and Rescue.
“The 911 operator very quickly asked me if we had the name of the individual,” Whitten told The Durango Herald. “She explained to me that there had been a hiker that was overdue and had been missing since Saturday, and that her parents had been frantically looking for her.”
The 20-something-year-old woman from Aztec had been missing for two days after going on a day hike on the Colorado Trail in the Deer Park area, according to a news release Tuesday from the San Juan County Office of Emergency Management.
“It’s an amazing feat that she survived two nights in the cold snap we are having,” said emergency management spokeswoman DeAnne Gallegos. “Ourteam thought that was pretty miraculous. And that she was aware the train was still running, and managed with a broken leg to crawl to the bank of the river to try and signal them.”
While Henry waited across the river from the injured woman, help was coming on the next train, engine No. 480, a steam locomotive on schedule just 45 minutes behind the first train.
The engineer and fireman aboard 480 were husband and wife, Nick and Kylah Breeden.
“And our fireman, Kylah, is also a trained paramedic with the Durango Fire department,” said Superintendent Whitten. “So once they arrived, she gathered emergency supplies from the train and proceeded across the river with the assistance of Nick.”
The pair crossed the fast-moving and icy river that sometimes plunged them chest-deep. Once across, Kylah went to work assessing the woman’s injuries, while Nick began ferrying blankets and a radio to maintain communication.
“They determined she was in pretty rough shape,” Whitten said. “She had spent two nights out dressed in a manner that wasn’t appropriate for spending a night up in the canyon there. She was dehydrated and she had taken a fall. And it was obvious she had a severe break in her leg. It was visibly offset.”
The woman was no longer on the Colorado Trail. She reported falling from a cliff-face nearby while taking pictures. She had a concussion and told Kylah she had lost consciousness for period of time, but wasn’t sure how long.
“She told Kylah that during the night she had crawled up next to a nearby cliff face and kind of tucked in to try and keep warm,” Whitten said. “And then during the day, she would crawl out to the side of the river to try and make contact with anyone coming along the train tracks.”
The young woman had no emergency gear with her. She had hiked down the Colorado Trail from Molas Lake, but then got disoriented when she made her way along the river. That’s when she tried to scramble up a cliff face and fell, tumbling first and then falling an estimated 30 meters.
The Silverton Medical Rescue Team originally thought to reach the area via the railway, but once Kylah reported the young woman’s condition and the difficulty of reaching the site, the SAR team called for a CareFlight helicopter.
Meanwhile, it was time to get engine 480, with its 327 passengers, on its way to Silverton to make room for the rescue operation. Another fireman was called in to assist engineer Breeden, while Kylah stayed with her patient.
The helicopter arrived in Silverton 45 minutes later. SAR called in additional team members from swiftwater rescue. In the meantime, Henry, the inspector, used his motorcar to shuttle people from the landing zone to the site of the injured woman.
Members of the SAR team determined the cliff face was too tall to drop a line from the helicopter so they rigged a rope “trolley” system across the river and brought the woman across on a backboard, where she was carried on a gurney to the helicopter at Oak Park.
The woman was then taken to Montrose Hospital.
“By that time it was getting close to 4:30 in the afternoon, and you know Kylah, she stayed out there for the duration, basically in her uniform, just soaked through,” Whitten said.
The railroad sent a backup engine from Silverton to bring Kylah and the rescue team back to Silverton.
“Those guys were the rock stars of this situation,” Gallegos said of the railroad crew. “She owes her recovery to them.”
Whitten also credited the single passenger who just happened to look back and spot the woman in a place that “was pretty gnarly” and could only be seen from a very limited and particular angle. The railroad comped the passenger and her husband for their eventful trip.