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No criminal charges for RTD driver accused of causing train crash that severed woman’s leg

Posted at 11:06 AM, Apr 12, 2019
and last updated 2019-04-12 20:32:56-04

AURORA, Colo. — The RTD operator accused of causing a train crash that severed a woman’s leg and injured numerous others during a snowstorm will not face any criminal charges.

Jeremiah Hartzel, the operator, faced charges of first-degree assault by extreme indifference, second-degree assault and multiple counts of third-degree assault. In a letter to the Aurora Police Department from Brian Sugioka, the Chief Deputy of the District Attorney for the 18th Judicial District, Sugioka said the investigation found that Hartzel’s actions and inactions caused the derailment, but no state criminal statue directly addressed the conduct.

“Therefore, no criminal charges ethically can be filed by our office against Mr. Hartzel in connection with this incident,” the letter concluded.

The crash occurred on Jan. 28, 2019. That morning, Hartzel was operating a RTD light rail train as it traveled southbound on the R line in Aurora. It was a snowy, icy and cold morning. The train left the Aurora Metro Center Station at 7:13 a.m. and headed for its next step at the Florida Station. To reach this next destination, the train needed to make a 90-degree turn to go eastbound for a short time.

Based on computer-generated graphics from the Aurora Police Department and RTD, Hartzel had applied moderate acceleration after leaving the metro station. He then applied full acceleration and the train reached 38.5 mph. The speed limit in this area is posted as 35 mph.

Less than a second after reaching 38.5 mph, Hartzel applied the full brakes, resulting in a rapid decrease in speed. He applied track brakes less than a second later. At this point, the train’s sensors detected that the wheels were sliding, and sand kept in its undercarriage was released to provide extra traction.

About two seconds later, Hartzel pulled the throttle past “full brake” position to “emergency brake” position. By this time, the train had arrived at the 90-degree turn and was still traveling at 30 mph. The speed limit here is posted as 10 mph.

One side of the train derailed and tilted slightly to the left. The train cab struck a pole, which knocked it back to center and avoided a complete derailment, according to the letter.

This partial derailment and the momentum of the train caused the cab to lift up, tilting one side upward and one side down toward the road. This motion forced part of the underside of the train to come into contact with the road, which deformed the doors and caused them to open.

A passenger, who was identified as K.M. in the letter from the district attorney's office, was standing in the train at the time of the crash. Video evidence showed she lost her footing and fell through the open door as the train continued moving close by.

The corner of the train’s brush catcher — which is a wedge-like guard that removes obstructions from the tracks — had hit the ground during the crash and as it continued moving, the brush catcher scraped across the ground. It struck K.M.’s leg below the knee, severing the lower leg and foot, according to the letter.

Aurora police arrived within two minutes and started tending to the injured passengers, including K.M. They found Hartzel still in train. He told them he had tried to apply the brakes, but the train didn’t slow and derailed as a result.

The emergency braking system he initiated does take a brief amount of time to start, so it’s possible that he thought the brakes were failing, according to the letter.

A mechanical inspection of the train found everything in working order. Hartzel was not found to be impaired in any way and had all of the qualifications needed to operate a RTD train.

On Friday, spokespeople with RTD said the company respects the decision made by the district attorney's office. RTD did its own internal investigation and found that speed was the primary factor in the crash. Because of that, Hartzel was fired. He had provided his two-week notice a few days prior.

RTD said this crash was cause to refresh and enhance its training for all operators, especially when discussing trains approaching curves.

This decision will not effect any related civil lawsuits.