Reno teen hit by train trying to save dog will walk again
RENO, Nev. (AP) — It was at least a football field away when Annika Kerns saw the train.
The Union Pacific train horn blared as a warning to step back from the tracks as shipping crates barreled toward downtown Reno on March 3.
And then Annika remembers lying in the freshly fallen snow, feeling as if she couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t move her legs.
Nearly a month ago, Annika, 18, was hit by a train as she hiked past a no-trespassing sign with her boyfriend, a friend and her dog Buster.
They hiked up to train tracks in Verdi, just west of the Somersett Ridge Parkway in northwest Reno. They brought a camera and were taking pictures for her dog’s social media account.
Many people seek out railroad tracks for photos, but it’s something Union Pacific warns is illegal and deadly.
“Think you’ll hear or see an approaching train? Think again. Most of the train’s sound is behind it, so you might not hear it until it’s too late,” Union Pacific says on its website.
And looking for a great photo is what the three teens and Buster were doing that day.
“I wore lipstick,” Annika said. “I never wear makeup, but we were taking pictures.”
She remembers Buster, a rescue dog she named for San Francisco baseball player Buster Posey, being startled by the train’s horn. The dog darted back toward the tracks as the oncoming train came from behind.
That’s when Annika raced to save him, not thinking or calculating what was about to happen as the train darted forward. The sound of the horn and the train seemed far enough away.
The train hit Annika as it was traveling more than 30 mph, colliding with such force that the University of Nevada, Reno student was thrown several feet in the air as she flipped forward.
“I’m paralyzed,” Annika thought.
“Buster is dead,” she said over and over.
But Buster wasn’t dead. He’d run under the train, and it passed over him, leaving him cut and bruised but alive.
“Buster is OK,” her friend, Natalie Krieg, said as she held her friend’s hand. The image of her friend being hit by a train burned in her memory. She too thought Annika might be paralyzed.
Her boyfriend called 911.
“We need to call my mom right now,” Annika said as she lay in the snow.
Natalie dialed. She held the phone close to Annika’s face.
“Mom, don’t freak out,” Annika said. “I was just hit by a train.”
“Where are you?” Paula Kerns said when her daughter called. “I just didn’t understand. I thought their car was hit by the train.”
She grabbed her coat and ran out of the house.
Annika, the youngest of Paula and Tom Kerns’ five children, was still lying in the snow surrounded by paramedics when Paula Kerns arrived.
Six paramedics carried Annika over the tracks and between two stopped train cars.
When they arrived at the hospital, Annika was surrounded by at least 20 doctors and nurses.
Everyone it seemed was looking at her, the minor scratch across her forehead and her still-attached limbs.
According to Richard Gent, who runs Operation Lifesaver in Nevada, there have been two train vs. pedestrian accidents in Washoe County this year. Operation Lifesaver is a nonprofit public safety organization focused on reducing collisions, fatalities and injuries at highway-rail crossings and trespassing near railroad tracks.
Gent said people need to remember that trains are quiet and it takes one a mile or more to stop once the brakes are applied.
“The bottom line is just stay off the train tracks and you’ll stay alive,” Gent said.
The other accident in January killed 88-year old Richard Shute of Reno.
According to the Federal Railroad Administration, there are nearly 800 deaths at railroad crossings or by people trespassing near tracks in the United States each year.
More than 1,300 are seriously injured each year.
The railroad did its own investigation and said the train was going about 29 mph in a 35 mph zone, but would not provide additional information or a copy of the investigation.
“In the location where this incident occurred, the train had just rounded a curve, so the train crew saw the individuals and the dog only a few moments before the incident occurred,” said Justin Jacobs, director of media relations for Union Pacific Railroad.
Annika’s family say new snow may have saved her life.
They were told that snow and ice had built up on the plow attached to the front of the train that was coming over Donner Pass with cargo from Roseville, California.
Snow had hit the area that weekend closing schools on Friday and lingering through that night. Over Donner Summit more than 20 inches of new snow fell March 2 and 3.
“If it wasn’t for that snow, she might have been sliced in half,” Tom Kerns said.
“You could see the way the whole room kind of relaxed after they looked at her,” Tom Kerns said of the emergency room at Renown Regional Medical Center.
“She didn’t look like someone who had been hit by a train.”
But she was seriously hurt.
Annika’s stomach muscle had detached from the bone. She fractured her spine, had two punctured lungs.
Her pelvis, shattered into seven pieces, was put together using pins and a metal plate by Reno trauma surgeon Peter Althausen.
Althausen said 60 percent of the people who have a shattered pelvis hit a major artery.
“People literally bleed to death from this type of injury,” he said.
He said Annika’s case is a miracle.
Althausen said he sees about 10 cases a year of people seriously injured by trains. The injuries range from people with severe head and heart traumas to cases of children climbing under a train and losing a limb.
“Anything you can think of, like you see in the movies, is what we see in traumas involving trains.
“Most of the case are homeless, or people who have an alcohol problem or a suicide, or a gang situation where someone is pushed, but here you have this young girl who is trying to save her dog.”
While Annika is home from the hospital and expected to make a full recovery, the last month hasn’t been easy.
She had to drop out of UNR.
In the days after the accident, Annika would jolt awake in fear. She has anxiety and still cries over what has happened. Her parents cry with her.
Once a star volleyball player at McQueen High School, Annika still can’t walk and is dependent on her parents. She may be months away from walking on her own.
The family set up a hospital bed in their living room. Her mother sleeps on the couch.
But they are so thankful.
“She is going to make a full recovery,” Paula Kerns said.
Annika said she wants to talk to children or anyone who will listen about the dangers of going near train tracks.
“I’ll go to every school in Washoe County if they want me to,” she said. She hopes to one day apologize in person to the train crew driving that day.
She won’t ever go back to the spot where she was hit.
“It’s too painful to think about,” she said.
She focuses on the future.
“It’s hard to even say, ‘I was hit by a train.’”
She said recently she had to have an allergy shot and she called the office to ask if the nurse could come out to the car to give her the shot, as it was too painful to get out of the car.
“I didn’t want to say, ‘I was hit by a train,’” she said. “Who says that?”
She has set a goal to see the San Francisco Giants when they play the Dodgers on April 28.
“It may be aggressive, but I’m going,” she said.
She updated Buster’s Instagram account with a new photo days after the accident.
It wasn’t a photo from the train tracks day, but from the hospital when Buster was allowed a short visit.
She wrote it from Buster’s perspective.
“Hi friends, I just want to let everyone know that my mom and I were in a bad accident on Saturday. We were out exploring and taking pictures when a train came by and I got very scared and ran out in front of it and my mom tried to run out and save me and was hit. We’re both okay now. I laid under the train on the tracks as it passed over me and came out after it stopped, I only had a cut on my head and my back leg was very bruised. My mom’s pelvis was fractured into seven pieces, both of her lungs were punctured and her abdomen muscle was ripped off of the bone. We’re both doing okay but my mom is still in the hospital.”
She said guardian angels watched over her that day. Both her grandfathers were fire battalion chiefs for the city of Reno.
“I just feel like they were there with me that day,” she said. “There’s no other explanation for why I’m going to walk, one day, away from this.”
Information from: Reno Gazette-Journal, http://www.rgj.com