Soldier’s recovery continues

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A Los Lunas solider injured in a train crash last month has been transported to a speciality hospital in Colorado in the hopes of recovering from a spinal cord injury.

Photo courtesy of Heather Sanchez: On their way to Craig Hospital in Colorado, Heather and U.S. Army Sgt. First Class Richard Sanchez are hopeful that intensive physical therapy at the facility can aid Richard in his recovery from a spinal cord injury. The Purple Heart recipient and his wife, both Los Lunas natives, were riding on a float in Midland, Texas, last month when it was struck by a train.

U.S. Army Sgt. First Class Richard Sanchez, 31, and his wife, Heather, were riding on a float in Midland, Texas, when it was struck by a train on Nov. 15. The train was reported to be traveling at more than 60 mph.

Richard and Heather were on the second of two floats that were transporting veterans and their spouses for a weekend event called the Show of Support Hunt for Heroes. They were the second couple from the front of the flat bed trailer, Heather said.

“We didn’t know anything, until we looked to the right,” she said. “We saw the train coming and the guards coming down hit Richard. He told me to jump and pushed me out of the way.”

Richard’s back was broken at the lumbar No. 5 vertebrae and he is still at risk for paralysis.

The crash killed four veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, and injured 16 other people, both veterans and their spouses.

After nearly two weeks in a Midland hospital, he was transported to the Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colo., on Nov. 28.

The hospital is a long-term acute care and rehabilitation hospital that exclusively specializes in the neurorehabilitation and research of patients with spinal cord injury and traumatic brain injury.

On the phone from the couple’s home in Colorado Springs, Heather said her husband has started physical therapy at Craig Hospital.

“Yesterday (Wednesday) they put him in a sling to attempt to get him to stand. He was able to stand for 23 minutes,” Heather said. “But the doctors have told us more than likely, he won’t walk out of the hospital. It’s too soon to know more.”

Richard is expected to undergo therapy at Craig for at least three months, Heather said. He has been stationed at Ft. Carson since 2006.

With the hospital nearly 65 miles away from their home, Heather and their three children stay in Colorado Springs during the week and visit Richard on weekends.

Heather said Richard’s father has moved to Colorado temporarily, and stays with Richard during the week.

“We want to keep things as normal as possible for the kids,” she said. “They have good days and days when they are upset and just want to see him.”

The train crash in Midland occurred six months to the day after Richard was shot in the arm while in Afghanistan on his third tour of duty overseas. The arm had to be rebuilt, and Richard was awarded a Purple Heart.

Heather said Richard’s broken back combined with his previous injury would most likely lead to his being medically retired from the Army.

“He wanted to stay in. Before he was shot, he had re-enlisted indefinitely,” she said. “He was going to stay in until retirement.”

In an odd twist of fate, Heather said there is another Los Lunas resident at Craig Hospital — a young man who fell into a pool earlier this year — who is on the same floor as Richard.

“It’s not good that he’s here, but it’s a little bit of home,” she said.

Heather said that while the future of Richard’s mobility is still unknown, she is confident in his treatment.

“This is an awesome hospital and they do amazing things for their patients,” she said.

And when Heather talks about the people from Richard’s hometown of Los Lunas, she uses words like “amazing” and “awesome.”

“We can’t thank everyone enough for what they are doing for us. We really appreciate it,” she said. “It is absolutely amazing what everybody back home is doing for us.”

Four former classmates of Richard’s have created a Facebook page, “Let’s help an LL soldier and classmate Richard Sanchez,” to give periodic updates on Richard’s condition and to let the public know about fundraising efforts.

A fundraiser for Richard and Heather will take place from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 15, at the Los Lunas Transportation Center (the Rail Runner station). There will be an arts and crafts fair, $10 fajita lunch, silent auction, raffle and giveaways. Tickets for the fajita lunch are for sale at Jake’s Barber Shop, 505 Main St., Los Lunas.

Crystal Romero-Carter, a classmate of Richard’s, is one of several locals organizing the fundraiser. She said the biggest thing they need to make the event a success is simply for people to come.

“We really encourage people to come. We have gotten a lot of local businesses who donated gift certificates and other great things for the silent auction and giveaways,” Romero-Carter said.

She said they have sold about 10 arts and crafts tables already and welcome more.

“This is for such a good cause, we really hope people support them,” she said.

Tickets can be bought at the door, and with each lunch ticket, attendees will get a raffle ticket.

Anyone interested in having an arts and crafts space or would like to donate an item for the silent auction and raffle should call 507-5752.

Friends have also set up a Wells Fargo Bank account for Richard and Heather, which can be donated to from any branch in the U.S. Those wishing to make a donation need to mention the account by name — the Valerie F. Sanchez for Richard Sanchez Recovery Account.

While friends work to help offset mounting costs, attorney Bob Pottroff has gotten his “marching orders” from the Sanchezes as well as other families involved in the crash.

Based in Manhattan, Kan., Pottroff has been involved in railroad suits in this part of the country before, including cases in Los Lunas in 1999 and 2005.

He confirmed that Heather and Richard, along with other families, have filed suit against the trucking company hauling the float, Smith Enterprises, and the Union Pacific Railroad.

The initial goal of the suit is to make sure all the evidence is preserved, Pottroff said.

“We certainly hope for an investigation involving all evidence that answers how something like this could happen,” Pottroff said. “Unfortunately (seeking monetary compensation) is the only remedy available. We can’t get anybody back or un-injure people. The families want to make sure something like this never happens again.”

And there is no doubt in his mind, Pottroff says, that the crash in Midland could have been prevented.

“There was an accident eerily similar in Fox River, Ill., in 1995,” he said.

In that incident, a school bus was crossing Union Pacific tracks and was struck in the rear end by a train.

“Over a decade-and-a-half ago, what we should have learned is that a 20 second warning time is not adequate for big vehicles. That’s why the standards for the industry increased to 30 seconds,” Pottroff said. “For some reason, on that day in Texas, the time had slid back to 20 seconds.”

That one issue, while central to the suit, isn’t the only one Pottroff wants the railroad industry to consider.

“There are a lot of bigger questions. Why, when you’re half a mile away and you see flashing police lights at a crossing, wouldn’t you get off full throttle. Is it an accident? An ambulance? You know nothing good is coming,” he said. “Why do we still have trains coming through our cities at 70 miles per hour? In this case, to a person, I have gotten the same instructions — make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

Since the crash, Pottroff said he and the agencies involved have been working cooperatively to get the evidence preserved. The attorney said it sounds like he is going to be able do an inspection of the truck, train and scene in the next week or two.

“It’s been at least positive to be able to get on the scene early enough to make sure evidence is not lost or destroyed before it’s evaluated,” he said.

And Pottroff said it was an honor to represent someone like Richard and Heather.

“Their behavior throughout has been exemplary. It’s incredible how well disciplined and put together these folks are,” he said. “Rich never once lost control of his environment, despite being paralyzed — he’s on his back with a broken back, concerned about making sure everyone else was OK.”


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.