SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – It’s a headline we hear all too often – ‘A pedestrian or driver dies after colliding with a bus or train.’ Just three days ago, a driver died after his car collided with a FrontRunner train in Orem, bringing the fatality count in collisions involving Utah Transit Authority (UTA) operators to five so far this year.
Officials said operators encounter close calls almost daily. On average, UTA sees an average of seven fatalities each year from a collision involving a bus, TRAX train, or FrontRunner train.
“Most of the time, it’s really just a case of somebody who’s either on foot as a pedestrian or somebody who is a motorist in a vehicle being distracted and not obeying the rules and not obeying the warning signs,” said Carl Arky, spokesperson for Utah Transit Authority.
Undeniably, the loss leaves the victim’s loved ones with tremendous grief. But there’s another person that will likely suffer lifelong effects – the operator.
One could say it’s an inherent risk that comes with the job. But for Ryan Wagner, it’s a risk he tries not to think about.
“It was probably about 9 months before I got on a train again and to this day, I still seek help,” said Wagner.
Wagner recalled training with an instructor on a TRAX train on June 8, 2011. They were approaching the Jordan Valley crossing in West Jordan when his life changed forever.
“We had come up on 3200 West and when we were approaching that grade crossing, I had noticed that the gates were activated and we were watching our signals,” said Wagner. “The instructor was right behind me and as we got closer the crossing, we had noticed that two younger pedestrians had walked in front of the trains and the second they stepped out, it was already too late.”
The impact killed one of those pedestrians, 15-year-old Shariah Casper. Wagner became overwhelmed with guilt, after he had just welcomed a second child into the world with his wife.
“I was extremely panicked. I had so much going through my mind. I became emotional because it’s not something I expected or something I wanted,” he said. “I sat there and told myself, ‘Why did I deserve to have my kids when I just operated something that took somebody else’s away?’”
Shariah’s death remained in headlines for weeks as her father advocated for improved pedestrian safety in the area. But in the meantime, no one from the public knew how Wagner was suffering at home.
“It wasn’t just the view that affected me. It was the sound of the contact made that really affected me,” said Wagner. “You can’t sleep at night. You have so much going through your head that you need help to process everything.”
According to data provided by UTA, suicides made up 25 percent of the fatal collisions in the last five years; 40 percent of those fatalities were caused by someone trespassing.
“They can only stop so fast. They can’t stop on a dime. They can’t veer. They can’t change direction,” said Arky. “But it means a lot to them so when something tragic happens. They’re affected just like any other person – you or I would be.”
Officials said UTA provides mental health services for their operators with no required timeline for returning to work following a traumatic incident. Arky said some never return to work.
“But for those who do, some can’t get back into the cab. But by and large, I would say, most of them come back and they’re strong people, they care about what we do as an organization, what the mission is, and they love their jobs,” said Arky.
Wagner returned to work after only a few weeks following his traumatic incident, but it took him nine months before he could get back on a train.
“Everyday you could see something that can trigger you,” he said. “But I felt like I needed to get back on a train. I had a co-worker who encouraged and pushed me to do it.”
Now as a light rail controller supervisor, he looks after the employees who sit in the seat he once did.
“Everyone here at UTA is like family to me. They’re one of the biggest reasons I came back,” said Wagner.
Even though he doesn’t know if he’ll ever fully heal, he told ABC4 News that he’s sharing his story because he hopes it will save someone else’s life.
“My outlook is always to make sure everyone’s safe, to make sure they’re educated and understand why things are done the way they’re done,” he said.