Health & Medicine

He was taking photos on the trestle in a Sacramento County preserve. Then the train came.

Sacramento State student Zamir Omaid was trying to capture the beauty of the Cosumnes River Preserve while standing on a train trestle over the water, according to his brother.

He had just made an Instagram post and was taking a picture with a friend when a train arrived.

Omaid plunged from the bridge, his brother Qadir Omaid said, setting off a harrowing sequence of events including traumatic injuries for Omaid, a helicopter airlift, emergency brain surgery and a fundraising effort to assist the young engineering graduate student.

Omaid, 28, is recovering at UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, where he was rushed about an hour after the June 16 incident, senior hospital spokesperson Charles Casey confirmed last Friday. His brother said Omaid fractured at least half a dozen bones, and shattered his skull.

Casey said in an email to The Bee that Omaid is conscious and his vital signs are stable. “Indicators are favorable,” Casey said.

But public safety officials say Omaid’s story is a grim reminder of the danger to people who venture too close to train tracks – especially in California, the No. 1 state for train-related injuries and fatalities, and in Sacramento County, where officials say casualties are particularly high.

In the wake of the incident, officials encourage all visitors to stay clear of train tracks, with or without warning postings, at all times.

The River Walk trail

Omaid had probably been to the preserve in southern Sacramento County before, his brother said. He had planned to go with his 10-year-old nephew and a friend on the day of the incident. He told his sister that the preserve would be a pleasant outing for her son, but that day his nephew didn’t tag along.

Omaid and his friend both loved hiking and walking in nature. They probably had been strolling along the preserve’s River Walk trail when they decided to climb a Union Pacific wooden train trestle on the west area of the trail that overlooked the Cosumnes River, according to site coordinator Alex Cabrera.

Spokesman Tim McMahan said Union Pacific usually does not post “no trespassing” signs or other forms of warning along the tracks, as they extend for thousands of miles. This trestle was no exception.

For a while, the two lay on the edge of the bridge. They possibly “assumed that (the tracks) were what we call ‘dead tracks,’“ Cosumnes Fire Station Battalion Chief Shawn Holden said in an interview. “Anytime you see a track you should assume that it’s live and the train could be traveling on that at some point in time. … They were trespassing.”

Safety officials say that while trains are loud when they pass by, they can be hard to hear as they approach – and it can take more than a mile for them to stop.

The bridge overlooking the northern Consumnes River where Sacramento State University graduate student Zadir Omaid, 28, was hit by a train while taking pictures of the scenery on train tracks on June 16, 2019. Omaid posted the picture to his Instagram Story minutes before he was airlifted to UC Davis hospital that day with at least half-a-dozen fractured bones and a shattered skull.

According to Waymark – a crowdsourcing tool that gathers information about unique, often rural locations – two trains pass on the Cosumnes trestle tracks every four hours. And as they go by, according to the website, the ground rumbles under their weight. But if Omaid and his friend noticed the rumble, it was too late.

They were taking pictures when the train approached, his brother said. He said Omaid’s friend was able to move to the side fast enough, but Omaid fainted or was struck, and he fell off the bridge.

“It’s unclear whether the train actually hit him or not. We can’t tell from the injuries,” said Dr. Orin Bloch, a professor of neurological surgery at UC Davis Medical Center who performed brain surgery on Omaid when he first arrived at the hospital.

Omaid dropped about 10 to 12 feet before hitting the surface of the water, and sinking for two or three feet more, according to his brother and the firefighters who spoke with Omaid’s friend after the incident.

The friend went down to the river, saw Omaid’s head and that he was covered in blood, and called 911, Qadir said. The incident occurred around 1:20 or 1:30 p.m..

Bridge overlooking northern Consumnes River where Sacramento State University graduate student Zadir Omaid, 28, was hit by a train while taking landscape pictures on train tracks on June 16. Omaid was air lifted to UC Davis hospital that day with at least half-a-dozen fractured bones and a shattered skull. Zamir Omaid // Instagram

The emergency response

Cosumnes District Fire Station 72 was the first responder. “We received a call for help and the engine that was responding added a boat to the assignment because we had a victim in the water,” said Holden. “It was reported that the victim was alive.”

Holden said the location was unknown, but Omaid’s friend had cried for help and gathered several bystanders to assist them. Holden said he coordinated with Omaid’s friend and the bystanders, and dispatched a helicopter and a cruise team to locate them.

The water team reached Omaid first, loaded him on a gurney and wheeled him along the trail to the visitor center, where an ambulance transported him about a quarter-mile to the helicopter that took him to UC Davis Medical Center, Holden said.

“We knew that time was of the essence,” said fire Capt. John Nguyen, who helped coordinate the efforts on the scene.

Bloch said that when Omaid arrived at the hospital, his scalp looked like it was cut wide open, at various angles, and he had a significant fracture over the top portion of his skull. Pieces of bone had penetrated his brain, the doctor said.

Omaid was rushed into an operating room for urgent brain surgery about an hour after the fall. “We didn’t even have time to really assess the severity of his injury,” Bloch said. “He was bleeding profusely from his scalp.”

The doctor said his condition was critical. They had to “remove all the fractured skull pieces, soften the bleeding in the brain, and then reconstruct his skull with a piece of titanium mesh … and repair the large laceration on his scalp.”

By the time Qadir and the rest of the family were notified around 3 p.m., Omaid was already in surgery. Omaid’s friend knew his sister’s address. Soon firefighters showed up at her door, Qadir said. They were holding a hazard bag with his clothes soaked in blood.

“(My sister) was crying, I told her to hurry up, to quiet the rest of the family, to drop the kids off,” Qadir said. “At that moment, during the first day or two days, we didn’t know if he was going to survive. All we knew was: train, helicopter, he got hit,” Qadir said.

Bloch met with the family after the surgery . “I reassured them that based on what we’d seen in the operating room, I didn’t think that he was going to have severe permanent brain injury,” he said, “and that certainly I expected him to survive, which I think they found to be a great relief.”

Signs of recovery

Omaid was monitored in a trauma surgery room at first, then moved into an intensive care unit for a couple of days, his brother and doctor said. Qadir said he looked like he was in a vegetative state. “He couldn’t breathe,” he said, “and there were all kinds of pipes, IVs and medicine connected to him … he was losing a lot of blood, and his head was fully wrapped like a mummy.”

He has since been moved to a trauma nursing room, and his status has been changed from “critical” to “fair,” according to Bloch. He said that’s a sign of recovery.

His brother said that Omaid has very limited mobility. “I use the word paralyzed,” his brother said, ”‘cause that’s kind of what it is.” He can lift his right arm and leg slightly and for just a few seconds, he said, but on the left side of his body he can mostly just move fingers and toes.

According to Bloch, Omaid’s left half is probably weaker as a result of his head trauma. After the fall, he experienced bleeding in the right frontal parietal region of the brain – the part that controls motor functions of the left side of the body. He most likely hit the surface headfirst, his brother said.

During the first few days of intensive care, the doctors suspected he had suffered damage to his spine, which could result in paralysis, his brother said. While the concern was soon dismissed, Omaid did suffer skull, neck, pelvis, rib and possibly back fractures, injured two vertebrae and sprained multiple limbs, according to his brother.

Qadir said he requires 24/7 care. His family is traumatized, he said, but they try to nurse him the best they can, feeding him, cleaning and massaging him, and moving him from time to time. His brother said Omaid is supposed to be able to move, but trying to do so gives him a lot of pain. He often panics, Qadir said, and the family tries to calm him down and tells him to pray.

Zadir Omaid (right), the man hit by a train in Consumnes River Preserve on June 16, with his three brothers, Basir (left), Nazir and Qadir. Qadir Omaid

Omaid has trouble breathing and communicating. He speaks very quietly in monosyllables and half-sentences, with his eyes shut. However, Bloch said that he doesn’t think Omaid is neurologically limited in his ability to speak or express emotions.

Doctors and family members have not been able to confirm any details of the incident with Omaid, his brother said.

When doctors ask Omaid about the incident, his brother said that he just keeps repeating the word “train.”

Train injuries and fatalities

California ranks first among American states in train-related injuries and fatalities, according to Nancy Sheehan-McCulloch, the California state coordinator of Operation Lifesaver, a national nonprofit that aims to increase rail safety across the United States.

“In California we have over 30 counties that have been impacted by trespass crossing, with one to 31 casualties and/or fatalities” per year, said Sheehan-McCulloch. “We run specific messaging in those counties.”

Sacramento County, where Cosumnes River Preserve is located, is receiving special attention due to the number of casualties recorded in the area, Sheehan-McCulloch said.

Operation Lifesaver also gives regular presentations to high schools in the Cosumnes area about the dangers of trespassing, specifically warning against photography on or near train tracks, Sheehan-McCulloch said. She said Operation Lifesaver targets individuals on smartphones, iPads or other mobile devices in the area with digital ad campaigns about train safety.

Although Fire Chief Holden said that to his knowledge, Omaid’s was the first train-related injury in the preserve, Sheehan-McCulloch said trestles in the area are still popular among high school students dressed up for prom and newlyweds who want to take scenery pictures.

“They think they will hear the train coming,” she said, “but the reality is that it takes 18 football fields, a mile or more, for a train to stop. And by the time the rail engineer realizes they are on the tracks … it’s too late.”

The Go Fund Me page

After the accident, friends and family called Omaid’s mother repeatedly. Qadir said that every time she told the gruesome details of the accident, she burst into tears.

That was partly why Qadir decided to set up a Go Fund Me page for Omaid on June 20, to give his mother a break and provide more information to those who wanted to help.

While Omaid’s initial medical expenses have already been taken care of, Qadir was hoping that his crowdfunding efforts could help cover future medical expenses and pay his brother’s tuition at Sacramento State. Omaid was attending summer school when the incident happened.

Omaid was clearly very loved in his community, his brother said. In just 17 hours, nearly 120 people made donations and over 400 shared the post. Donations reached over $8,000, nearly double the expected amount.

The number has since reached more than $16,000 with almost 1,000 shares.

Sacramento State University graduate student Zadir Omaid, 28, was hit by a train while taking landscape pictures on the train tracks of a bridge in the western river trail of Cosumnes River Preserve on June 16. Omaid was air lifted to UC Davis hospital that day with at least half-a-dozen fractured bones and a shattered skull. Zadir Omaid // Instagram

Qadir said he was grateful to all the contributors, but “money doesn’t really matter, it’s all that support… it’s crazy. We saw people from across the country, even the world, donating. They didn’t even know Zamir.” He said he hasn’t told Omaid about his crowdfunding efforts yet because he wouldn’t want his brother to have a panic attack. But he can’t wait to tell him.

Many local imams visited Omaid in the hospital, Qadir said. A few days after the accident, a friend gathered almost 500 people to pray for him. Omaid was a youth leader at several mosques, according to his brother.

“Zamir went out of his way to help people,” his brother said. “At one point he even put off school to help out at local mosques.” He had just began attending Sacramento State full time when the accident happened. He planned to become a computer engineer, according to his cousin and best friend Sofia Ismail.

“I’m still shaken over this whole thing … it’s very very hard to digest what’s going on,” Ismail said. “I don’t think he has a bad bone in his body. He’s just a sweet, positive person … even in the hospital he’s always trying to crack a smile because he doesn’t want people to feel sad.”

His injuries were severe and potentially life-threatening, according to Bloch, and the doctor believes Omaid has a long road ahead of him. But he expects him to eventually be able to walk independently, care for himself and go about his daily activities.

“He is certainly receiving all the good supportive care he needs and he’s got very good family support,” Bloch said, “that’s going to be important for his recovery as well.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated July 2, 2019, to correct the spelling of Dr. Orin Bloch’s last name.

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Caroline Ghisolfi, from Stanford University, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee, focusing on breaking news and health care. She grew up in Milan, Italy.