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Critically injured Amtrak worker from Ronkonkoma battles to go home

Robert Zimmerman has had 10 surgeries, including the amputation of his hands, and remains in intensive care in Manhattan.

On Jan. 11, Amtrak employee Robert Zimmerman was severely shocked when he touched a catenary line carrying 12,000 volts while at work. Zimmerman, who served 10 years in the U.S. Navy and is a volunteer firefighter, has had multiple surgeries. On Friday, Feb. 2, 2018, Zimmerman's wife, Christine, spoke about the outpouring of support the family has received. (Credit: Ed Betz; Dan Lungen)

A Ronkonkoma volunteer firefighter and Navy veteran is fighting life-threatening injuries, including the amputation of his hands, after suffering an electrical shock while working as an Amtrak lineman last month in Penn Station, his family said.

Robert Zimmerman, 45, was working near tracks 12 and 13 at Penn on the morning of Jan. 11 when his left hand made contact with a live overhead catenary wire that provides power to some trains, according to his wife Christine Zimmerman. The father of three absorbed 12,000 volts of electricity, but survived, his wife said, in part because metal in his body from a spinal surgery helped keep the current away from his heart and other vital organs.

“My husband is a very, very strong man,” Christine Zimmerman, 44, said, speaking during her first day home after being at her husband’s bedside around the clock for three weeks. “He’s more concerned with me and the boys and making sure that we’re OK. He does not feel sorry for himself. He’s not that guy. He just wants to get better. And our goal is just to get him out of the hospital alive.”

In a statement, an Amtrak spokesman confirmed that “an engineering employee was injured Jan. 11 while working in New York Penn Station,” but said he was unable to comment further. “The cause of the injury is under investigation.”

Amtrak chief engineer Gery Williams has said the injury was unrelated to the ongoing infrastructure renewal project at Penn Station.

Zimmerman’s injury highlights the dangers of working on the railroad. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, there were 3,803 reported on-duty injuries or deaths to railroad workers in 2017 — down from 4,052 in 2016.

“The railroad atmosphere in general is a very unforgiving one. It requires you to be on your toes at all times. Everything moves fast. It’s heavy. It can be energized,” said Robert Halstead, a Syracuse-based railroad accident reconstruction expert and investigator. “But there also is a strong set of safety rules that are designed to ameliorate those risks, if they are properly followed.”

Since Zimmerman’s injury, he has undergone 10 surgeries at Weill Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan, and remains in intensive care there. As infection has spread, doctors removed most of his left arm up to near his shoulder, his right hand, and a toe, and he has battled back from cardiac arrest, kidney failure and other medical complications, his wife said.

Christine Zimmerman said she didn’t fully appreciate the risks of the job until her husband’s accident. Through tears, she recalled signing the paperwork to allow doctors to “cut his hands off.”

It was a difficult twist of fate for Zimmerman, who relied on his hands during his 12-year stint in the Navy, another dozen years working as a locomotive engineer for the Long Island Rail Road and as an emergency medical technician for the Lakeland Fire Department. He also was a football and baseball coach for his three sons, Andrew Grogan, 26— also an Amtrak lineman — Anthony, 19, and Joseph, 16.

“He said, ‘How am I going to hug you anymore? . . . How am I going to pitch to Joe? I can’t even catch a ball for him anymore,’ ” said Christine Zimmerman. “My husband gets up and goes to work. That’s his thing . . . He does everything with his hands.”

The National Transportation Safety Board in November issued a report criticizing the “weak safety culture” at Amtrak after its probe of an April 2016 crash in Pennsylvania that killed two Amtrak employees.

“These safety shortcomings occurred across several levels of the Amtrak organization — maintenance of way, dispatchers, management — and reveal Amtrak’s weak safety management,” the report read, in part.

With Zimmerman, a Brentwood native, still suffering “agonizing pain” and likely to undergo several more surgeries, including skin grafts, his wife said it’s too early to predict what the future may hold and whether he’ll be able to benefit one day from prosthetic hands.

She expects their home of 18 years will have to undergo major renovations, including to allow her husband to use his feet to control the bathroom sink and shower. A GoFundMe campaign to support the Zimmerman family has already raised more than $33,000 of its $100,000 goal.

Her goal, and what she prays for every day, “is just to get him home with whatever he has left,” Christine Zimmerman said. “And we’ll get through the rest.”

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