Investigators rule UP 844 excursion death accidental; family agrees

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Steve and Kelly Yarish visit the Leadville, Colorado & Southern tourist railroad.
Yarish family photo
BRIGHTON, Colo. — Investigators say the death of a woman photographing Union Pacific steam locomotive No. 844 July 21 suggests the woman was more focused on her cellphone screen than the approaching train. In an interview, the woman’s husband agrees with that assessment, saying that he would not want the accident to deter steam excursions.

The 15-page report by the Adams County, Colo., Sheriff's Department, draws no conclusions on why Kelly Michelle Yarish chose to stand on the "tie section" of the tracks. The sheriff's office, lead agency in the investigation, released the report late Friday in response to a public-records request filed by Trains News Wire.

No. 844 was on its only excursion of the year leading the annual Cheyenne Frontier Days Special on the return trip to Denver when it entered the community of Henderson, Colo., shortly before 7:45 p.m. When it crossed East 124th Avenue at an estimated at or above 50 mph, a video shows two people "hanging out of the left side of the cab" apparently looking at something on the track ahead, a deputy writes in the report.

Investigators determined Yarish was photographing with her cellphone on the east side of the tracks when a couple and their 13-year-son on the west side saw her. "She looked to be focused on her phone, pointed at the train," according to the report.

Yarish, 56, died instantly from traumatic injuries. Videos of the moments before the collision, and one of the collision itself, were collected from witnesses on both sides of the track, a drone operator, and a security camera at a nearby business.

"After reviewing all of the video footage as well as speaking to the witnesses and train crew, it does not appear as if the incident was criminal in any way," an investigator writes. "There is also no evidence that would suggest Kelly Yarish was suicidal in any way.

"At this time all of the evidence is suggesting that this incident occurred as the result of an accident."

The woman’s husband, Steve Yarish, tells Trains News Wire his wife was familiar with the site because both had worked at a fertilizer company with on operations on each side of the railroad.

"We met there," Yarish, who was in sales, says. "She worked in the accounting office across the tracks as a summer job when she was going to college."

Kelly would tell friends she won him over with her chocolate chip cookies. They married on Christmas Eve 1986, and lived outside Brighton, a 10-mile drive from Henderson.

Steve rode the Cheyenne special several years ago, and together with Kelly took trips on several of Colorado's famous tourist trains: Durango & Silverton, Georgetown Loop, and Leadville, Colorado & Southern railroads. While Steve Yarish says neither would be considered a railfan, Kelly had taken a photography class and posted images every day or two on social media.

"She said, 'The train is cool. I'll try and go get a picture of that,'" Yarish continues. He recalls he decided not to go, having seen the 844 perhaps 100 times during his 36 years with the fertilizer company.

"I think she got camera dumb and didn’t realize how close she was standing," he says.

Yarish says Kelly will be remembered as a dedicated community volunteer serving on the board of a charter school, co-founding the Rocky Mountain Beagle Club and taking on various roles as a member of the Brighton Breakfast Lions Club. In addition to her husband, her son and daughter-in-law survive her

UP did not comment on the incident beyond saying the company is conducting an internal review typical of any pedestrian injury or fatality.

"It's not anything we do differently because the steam locomotive is involved," Kristen South, UP director of media relations for Colorado, says. Whether the review leads to changes in the steam program or how UP handles safety education along its routes remains to be seen, she adds.

"It's way too early to talk about that," South says. "Right now we're looking at 2019 and getting the Big Boy running."

The Big Boy would be No. 4014, the massive 4-8-8-4 being restored in the Cheyenne shops. In addition to the 844, a 4-8-4, UP also has 4-6-6-4 Challenger No. 3985 in its stable, although it is not operational now.

Yarish, the son of a career switchman with Colorado & Southern and successor Burlington Northern, says his father first exposed him to the cab of an operating steam locomotive in Denver's Rice Yard. He adds he hopes no one uses the death of his wife to argue against steam excursions.

"It’s a part of American life that people enjoy, and for this to be used to put a bad vibe on excursions trains, I definitely don't want that to happen," he adds. "People enjoy it.

"If legislation came out that no, we're going to stop excursion trains, that would make me unhappy."
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