On the right track: Married firefighter and train engineer work together to save stranded hiker

Kylah and Nick Breeden of Durango fell in love working on the railroad and Monday turned out to be a live-long day.

The newlyweds don’t always work the same shift, but on one of the final weeks of the summer season, Kylah, a locomotive firefighter, and Nick, a train engineer, were assigned to the second shift hauling 300 fall leaf-viewing passengers on the Durango Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. 

She watches the track, keeps the steam pressure and water level up and he drives.

“It’s a team effort to keep the engine moving,” said Nick.

That quick-thinking cohesiveness they bring to the job helped save a life Monday — about the last thing they expected. 

The day started out a routine, leaf-viewing October ride on the railroad. But the easy morning turned urgent when the Breedens got a radio call — a hiker needed rescuing. They were already 38 miles into their trip.

The couple didn’t realize the hiker was a woman who had been missing overnight.

“Nick was notified that there was an injured hiker somewhere north of Elk Park,” Kylah, 25, said.

The couple started prepping for a rescue by grabbing equipment, water and blankets.

Delton Henry, another rail crew member, had spotted the woman across the Animas River flagging the train down. Henry threw her a sweatshirt.

“We set the locomotive to sit and walked out to see her,” Kylah said. “I walked down to the edge of the water and hollered across the river to get her name. I looked at her, saw the state that she was in and I told Nick, ‘We can’t leave now.’”

The engineer and the firefighter jumped into the 42-degree river in their overalls and steel-toed boots and crossed. At times, the rushing water was chest-high.

Kylah, who just finished paramedic school in Pueblo, got to work covering the injured woman with blankets and the sweatshirt. She stayed behind on that sliver of rock beach while Nick — already wet and sodden — crossed the river a second time and drove the 300 awestruck passengers the last five miles to Silverton for help.

The woman explained to Kylah that she tumbled over a cliff while she was taking photos Sunday afternoon. The 20-year-old New Mexico woman, whose name has not been released by rescuers or police, had a severely broken leg and was banged up on her right side from her foot to her hip in what was likely a 100-foot fall. She was dressed only in a tank top and sweats and had no food or water.

For six hours, Kylah kept the woman warm with blankets, massaged her right side and listened to her talk about her family, her dog and her job.

Several interviews done by The Denver Gazette piece together the chronology of what happened Sunday-into-Monday morning.

The hiker’s father, Anthony Montoya, said once she was able to move, she dragged herself over the dark mountainside to where she thought the train would be coming. His traumatized daughter told him, “Dad, it took everything I had.” Montoya said his daughter will need surgery and he plans to move her to a New Mexico hospital.

The woman told Kylah that she heard animals during the night, but didn’t see any. She spent the near-freezing temps near the river underneath some rocks for cover. As the sun rose, she inched along to the shore hoping that someone would see her.

“She did everything when it comes to the thought processes to keep herself safe,” Kylah said. “She found the closest point where people could see her, she stayed put and she was so positive!”

The area was so remote, rescue teams could only be helicoptered in and left to cross the river.

To get the woman across, they devised a rope pulley system that transported her foot by foot, hanging in a cocoon just above the water, to safety. The helicopter waited in a field for the bruised and battered patient before it lifted off to Montrose Regional Hospital.

There were tears as Kylah and the hiker said goodbye.

“I told her I wish we didn’t have to meet this way.” 

It was Nick who, after dropping off his load of tourists, changed into dry clothes and engineered the emergency train back to the site where the rescue teams, and his bride of one year, waited for him to drive them to Silverton.  

Nick knew he wanted to drive a steam train when he was 14 years old. Just like he knew he had to meet the redhead the first time he saw Kylah on the job site five years ago.

It took three years to convince the Colorado Springs native to choo-choo-choose him.

On Nov. 5, Nick and Kylah were married in front of five people and a justice of the peace in Silverton’s 114-year-old courthouse. They don’t consider themselves heroes and they are not big on attention.

“Most passengers don’t know we’re married because we’re just there to do our jobs,” said Kylah. “I’m a big fan of our love story.”

Now the hiker and her family are big fans, too.