Grief counselors help UTA operators cope after accidents

Published: Friday, March 30 2012 6:29 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — The pain of losing a loved one in a traffic collision is enormous, but often unnoticed is the pain carried by those who are lucky enough to walk away.

It's pain UTA operators who have been involved in a fatal accident carry — a few moments that change their lives forever.

"There's not a day that goes by that you don't think about it," said Arden Howell, a UTA operator who was involved in an accident several years ago. "It's the most alone feeling you'll ever have."

UTA asked that no questions about the specifics of the incident be asked, but Howell said the accident was not his fault.

"I knew it wasn't my fault," Howell said. "I knew that I'd done all I could."

There have been eight incidents involving TRAX trains, four of which resulted in injuries, in 2012. That's more than half the 2011 total. Only fatal accidents are fewer than half of last year's totals. There were five fatal accidents involving a TRAX train in 2011, and one so far in 2012. It's a number Howell hopes will stay low.

Howell worked for UTA for more than 36 years. He began driving buses until 1999 when he started working in new light rail service. He said when he began training, he was told very bluntly that fatal accidents could happen.

"They made it very clear it could happen to us."

Still, Howell said, he hoped it would never happen to him.

When it did, however, UTA had counselors ready to help Howell navigate the complex and emotional grief process.

"They've got somebody available around the clock," said Shawn Morris, a therapist for Blomquist Hale, the consulting firm that provides for UTA.

Morris said the support UTA operators need after an incident depends on the severity of it.

"A lot of it is letting them talk," he said, "verbalizing what took place."

He said it's also important to help the operators understand the grief process and realize the feelings they have following an incident are normal.

Howell said some fellow operators had a harder time dealing with fatal accidents than others. One had a "nervous breakdown" and had to end his employment, he said.

"Some of these events people will remember for the rest of their lives," Howell said. "It'd be hard for any person to really deal with that."

Immediately after the accident, Howell turned his phone off, and a counselor suggested he do something to try and get his mind off of it. He went to the movies ("no offense to the family," he added) but it didn't seem too effective. He said he can't even remember what movie he saw.

What helped Howell the most was when a chaplain for UTA police told him he had been in contact with the family of the victim, and they considered the event a "tragic accident."

"They wanted me to know they held no animosity to me," he said. "It took a tremendous weight off my shoulders. It's not easy for them to deal with either."

Howell said he went back to work a week after the accident.

"It was darn tough," he said. "It's something that will consume you if you allow it to. I refuse to let it consume me."

Howell said he believes he's dealt with the tragedy as best as he could, but his sister has noted that the incident "took something out of him."

"It makes you a lot more serious person," he said. "I think I look at life as being more fragile as I did before. It makes me stop and think of things a little bit more."

UTA spent $200,000 in 2011 on a safety campaign to educate the public about TRAX safety. The campaign reminds pedestrians to look both ways for oncoming trains, stand behind the yellow lines at stations and be alert around trains by not texting and removing headphones. Motorists are reminded to stop at rail crossings when lights begin flashing, even if the gates aren't down yet.

UTA spokesman Gerry Carpenter said the agency believes "consistent messaging will help make motorists and pedestrians more aware of the importance of safe behavior around railroads," in a statement.

E-mail: hschwarz@desnews.com

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