Right People, Right Place, Right Time

JANUARY 2023 The right people were in the right place at the right time. 

That was the case for the key people involved in keeping Eric Kipp, chief mechanical officer for Watco’s Grand Elk Railroad (GDLK), alive after a heart attack.

Kevin Martin, locomotive supervisor, normally works at the GDLK’s main location in Kalamazoo, Michigan. But on September 20, he was in the right place, filling in for a team member in Grand Rapids, home of the larger of GDLK’s two locomotive repair shops. That morning, he and Kipp were together performing a locomotive inspection.

Also in the right place: Grand Rapids-based Locomotive Mechanic Nick Burnham. Burnham was working about 20 feet away on another locomotive, welding a lock on a cab, when he heard Martin yelling Kipp’s name. “I turn around,” Burnham recalled, “and Eric’s face-first on a pallet.”

Burnham raced from the locomotive to the shop floor. He told Kevin to call 911 and rolled Eric over to find him struggling to breathe. “I never got a pulse,” Burnham said. At the same time, “I was trying to tell Kevin to go clear the tracks, because a train was blocking the entrance to the yard.” He knew emergency vehicles wouldn’t be able to get to Kipp unless railcars were moved. 

Blocked entrances to the yard were exactly what Martin encountered as he ran outside to find a train crew, all the while giving the 911 dispatcher directions to the shop. “I was looking at a train that was stretched out. Whenever they’re stretched out switching, they’ll have all the entrances blocked. They needed to break the train up to get an ambulance in.” 

When Martin couldn’t find the train crew, he hurried back inside, and he and Burnham switched roles. That worked, due to a right-place, right-time event months before: a February CPR class for GDLK team members, including Burnham and Martin. So Martin started CPR as Burnham ran to find a conductor. “Nick ran out to catch the train crew and get rescue crews to come in. I got Eric flat on the ground and started compressions, with the 911 dispatcher on the phone.” 

Burnham emerged to find an ambulance passing the yard. He shouted at the engineer to blow the train’s horn to get the ambulance driver’s attention. The ambulance turned around, and “I guided them up to where Eric was lying, and they took over from there.”

All are grateful that if Kipp had to fall ill, he was on the shop floor and not in one of the many places he’s often by himself: his office, out for a walk in the woods, or in his garage or barn. 

Kipp doesn’t remember that day at all. He woke up in the hospital two days later, having received a stent to open an artery. He stayed four days in the hospital and is now back at work on light duty. 

“I feel great,” Kipp said. “Between Nick and Kevin, they knew what to do. I have a great team behind me.”

Because of Burnham and Martin’s quick actions, they were presented with Citizens Valor Awards in a ceremony conducted by Capt Matthew Keusch of the Grand Rapids Fire Department.

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