On this Sunday night, Allied Universal officers recall, ‘He survived’

For Allied Universal’s transit security team, the night of Nov. 8 was routine until it wasn’t. Inside RTD’s commuter rail maintenance facility in Denver’s Globeville neighborhood, Lt. Jennifer Kassapakis geared down and got ready to clock out, leaving behind a particularly demanding day. Lt. Kayleen Ceja, who was relieving her, checked the details for the shift ahead, preparing to head out into the chilly fall air. 

The relative quiet was broken with the wide-eyed panic of a maintenance worker, whose palm pounded the glass wall of the briefing room to catch the attention of those inside. “The way he did it, I could tell something just wasn’t right,” Ceja said. She ran out of the room. He told her someone was unconscious in a break room upstairs.

Ceja opened a door to inform Kassapakis about the emergency. “She said, ‘Do you want me to go with you?’” Ceja recalled. “And I was like, yeah, let’s go.”

During the elevator ride to the mezzanine floor, the employee told the women that a co-worker seated in a recliner had mentioned he wasn’t feeling well. A maintenance colleague at a snack machine heard what he thought to be choking, then turned around to see his co-worker slumped over and purple in the chair. 

When Ceja and Kassapakis ran into the room, they saw two employees shaking the man, who appeared to be unconscious. Kassapakis radioed for help while Ceja ran into the hallway to grab the automated external defibrillator (AED) off the wall. Kassapakis and the two employees assisted the man to the floor and laid him out flat, and she tilted his head, lifting it to open his airway. She heard agonal breathing, gasping that often indicates a severe medical emergency. Talking to him and rubbing his sternum prompted no reaction. She began cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

About six compressions in, Ceja ran in with the AED. In a moment, the lieutenants recognized the need to switch places for better positioning, so Ceja continued with the compressions while Kassapakis began giving rescue breaths. “She did amazing,” Kassapakis said of Ceja. “Kayleen was awesome with that – she just jumped right in.”

“He wasn’t conscious. His eyes were rolled back,” Ceja said. “I just kept trying to talk to him, like, hey, stay with us, stay with us – trying to see if we could get him to respond, and he wasn’t.”

The man’s frightened co-workers had thrown water on him, so the women used his shirt to wipe up as much of it as they could before administering the AED, knowing that electricity from the device could travel outside the body if he was wet. Kassapakis hooked up the AED and applied the pads on the man’s chest. Ceja said they went through at least three complete cycles of shock, breaths and compressions by the time emergency medical services workers arrived to take over.

“I didn’t want him to die. I didn’t know who he was, but I know he worked here,” Kassapakis recalled thinking. Being that close to the texture of his face, she noticed that “he looked really young.”

Six days later, Ceja was dispatched to a call of a suspicious person standing outside the facility’s gates. As she approached, she saw a man dressed in black – and even behind his mask, she recognized his eyes. She called him by name and told him who she was.

“His eyes welled up with tears, and he’s like, can I shake your hand?” Ceja said. “So I shook his hand. And he’s like, actually, can I just give you a hug? He hugged me. He’s like, thank you for giving me a second chance at life.” 

The man, who cleans RTD’s commuter rail trains, now waves to Ceja when he walks in for his shift. “I’m glad I was able to talk to him after,” she said.

This incident is not the first of its kind these women had seen, whether in the close to five years each has been with Allied Universal or during their work before joining the company. Ceja previously worked for the Colorado Department of Corrections, in youth corrections, parole and probation, and for a sheriff’s office in Texas as an intake and transport officer. Kassapakis was a 911 dispatcher, then a deputy sheriff for El Paso County, working in the jail and on the road. Both have seen severe medical emergencies and deaths. 

They agree that what happened that Sunday night is an exceptional incident – not the type of call they usually encounter. When this happens, they said, you look to your training and those around you to work together as best you can. That they had known each other as long as they have was an advantage. Both like to be in charge, but each understood her role in the situation.

“It happened to work great,” Ceja said. “Neither of us really had to tell each other, hey, I need you to do this. It was, you take him over there, you do that, I’ll get the AED and then we’ll go from there.”

“He survived, thank God,” Kassapakis said. “We all tried our best.”

While this incident took place inside a gated facility, away from public view, people walking through Union Station last October may have seen another incident Ceja was key in handling. Standing on the commuter rail platform near tracks 7 and 8 that afternoon, she watched as a woman approached a window-washer cleaning the outside of an elevator shaft. When he lifted the 6-foot pole he was holding so she could pass by, the tool connected with the overhead catenary wire – electrocuting the man, sending a fireball into the air and shooting him onto track 8. Ceja dropped down immediately.

“By policy, you’re supposed to wait to make sure that trains are stopped,” she said. “I think honestly, I was in the tracks by the time I even called out what happened. It was just instinct to jump in there and see what we can do to help this guy.”

Ceja recalls that the man was conscious when she reached him, and he was trying to get up. She and another officer had to restrain him, trying to keep him calm while observing the extent of the injuries he had experienced. “I was able to coach him through the whole thing,” she said. “Just asking basic questions to keep him coherent and to get his mind off of everything that was going on.” 

In that instance, too, the man tracked down Ceja later and thanked her for helping him.

The lieutenants have been lauded for their actions this month by RTD, Denver Transit Partners and Allied Universal. They have been told that their quick thinking and coordinated response likely saved the employee’s life. 

RTD Transit Police Division Deputy Chief Steve Martingano noted that transit security officers and transit safety ambassadors are among the first faces that passengers see when riding in the agency’s vehicles. “The vast majority represent themselves in a customer-service-first attitude – that is the expectation of someone wearing the letters “RTD” on their sleeve,” he said. “They are given job duties and responsibilities that are designed to keep our system running in a safe and secure manner. 

“Then there are those that go beyond the call of duty and provide actions that cannot be taught,” Martingano said. “The immediate actions by both Lt. Kassapakis and Lt. Ceja to save human life and place others before themselves is an example of true everyday heroism. I am extremely proud and grateful to have both of them represent our security division.”

Allied Universal’s Reagan Peña, who oversees the contract and team of transit security officers (TSOs) working for RTD, said: “I am not surprised by the lifesaving efforts Jen and Kayleen made. Our team of TSOs comprises men and women from varied backgrounds but all have public service at their core. This is just one example of many that go unnoticed by the masses but are life-changing for those directly involved.” 

Allied Universal security team
Allied Universal Lts. Kayleen Ceja, left, and Jennifer Kassapakis stand outside RTD’s commuter rail maintenance facility in Denver.