Lilburn officer lauded for running toward burning train, leading conductors to safety

Lilburn police officer Almedin Ajanovic was lauded as a hero a for helping two conductors escape from a burning train after it derailed during Sunday's storms.
Lilburn police officer Almedin Ajanovic was lauded as a hero a for helping two conductors escape from a burning train after it derailed during Sunday's storms.

Credit: Channel 2 Action News

Credit: Channel 2 Action News

When a 170-car train slid from its track and burst into flames Sunday, a Lilburn police officer ran right toward the fire to help those on board, officials said.

City leaders called Officer Almedin “AJ" Ajanovic a hero for helping two conductors escape as the fire drew nearer to them. The police K-9 handler and father of two said he was just doing his duty.

“I would have done it for anybody, and I’ll do it again,” he told AJC.com on Tuesday. “Any day, any time, on duty, off duty. That’s who I am.”

Ajanovic was heading home from an off-duty job about 1:30 a.m. when he heard radio dispatches about the train derailment, Lilburn police spokesman Capt. Scott Bennett said Monday. Authorities said a washout caused by storms and flooding caused the CSX train to leave the tracks. Police later determined that 38 of the train’s cars derailed.

Heavy rain caused a 170-car CSX train to derail near Main Street and Camp Creek Road in Lilburn early Sunday, October 11, 2020. (Photo: Gwinnett County Fire and Emergency Services)
Heavy rain caused a 170-car CSX train to derail near Main Street and Camp Creek Road in Lilburn early Sunday, October 11, 2020. (Photo: Gwinnett County Fire and Emergency Services)

Credit: Gwinnett County Fire and Emergency Services

Credit: Gwinnett County Fire and Emergency Services

Ajanovic immediately changed his course and headed to Main Street and Camp Creek Road to help respond to the incident, according to Bennett.

Three other officers were already in the area trying to figure out where the derailed train was located, Ajanovic wrote in a police incident report.

Ajanovic walked next to the tracks in an attempt to find the train, he said. However, he quickly learned that the shifting gravel and steep climb would not permit him to go very far.

“And I knew I had to get down there,” he said.

With only his flashlight to guide him, Ajanovic began running on the tracks.

“I was told that the train tracks were like a bent rollercoaster," he said. "I didn’t really pay attention. I just knew I had to get there. And it’s not fun running on those railroad ties.”

As he ran, Ajanovic heard a loud explosion and saw huge flames leap into the air. A massive fireball had erupted in the sky, Bennett said. Radio dispatches noted that people were screaming in the area, he added.

A Lilburn officer was lauded for running toward a burning train, leading two conductors to safety.
A Lilburn officer was lauded for running toward a burning train, leading two conductors to safety.

Credit: NewsChopper 2

Credit: NewsChopper 2

About a half-mile down the track, Ajanovic saw the engine turned over on its side and resting in a body of water, the incident report said. Red liquid was flowing from the train, covering the creek underneath, Ajanovic said. Less than 200 feet away, a wall of fire blazed behind a train car.

“There was a train car sitting upright and right behind it is just a gulf of flames just going up in the air,” he said.

“Unknown what the liquid was or what dangers it posed, I knew I had to act quick,” he wrote in the incident report.

Ajanovic heard the voices of two distressed men and called out to them, officials said. He spotted a man standing on the train and climbed atop the engine with him.

The man, who was one of the conductors, indicated that he and another man were the only people in the overturned car.

“The train was partially in water and there was a high voltage sign, and these men were in distress,” Ajanovic said. “I was like ‘I have to get up there. There’s no going back because I have to save these guys.’”

“Ignoring the heat from the fire and a ‘danger high voltage’ sign on the side of the train, SPO Ajanovic climbed on the wrecked rail cars to help both men down,” Bennett said.

Cleanup continued Tuesday after heavy rain caused a 170-car CSX train to derail near Main Street and Camp Creek Road in Lilburn early Sunday, October 11, 2020. (JOHN SPINK / JOHN.SPINK@AJC.COM)
Cleanup continued Tuesday after heavy rain caused a 170-car CSX train to derail near Main Street and Camp Creek Road in Lilburn early Sunday, October 11, 2020. (JOHN SPINK / JOHN.SPINK@AJC.COM)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / JOHN.SPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: JOHN SPINK / JOHN.SPINK@AJC.COM

In his body camera footage, Ajanovic can be heard telling one of the conductors, “I got you. I got you, brother. Yeah, that was a huge explosion. So let’s get the hell out of here, man.”

Ajanovic led the conductors away from the train, then checked to make sure no one else on board had been left behind, the incident report said. Both conductors were taken to Northside Gwinnett Hospital and are expected to be OK.

One of them told Ajanovic there were hazardous materials on the train, the incident report said. He and other officers worked to evacuate neighbors who lived within a half-mile of the incident.

They were allowed to return to their homes about 5:30 a.m. after crews brought the fire and hazmat situation under control, Gwinnett County officials previously said.

Ajanovic said with so much at stake, he did not have time to fear the potential outcome of his actions on Sunday. But the day after the rescue, he became emotional.

“I thought about it after the fact, and honestly it didn’t hit me until yesterday,” he said. “What if I didn’t make it there in time and something had happened to those two men?”

Lilburn officials were quick to praise the officer. In an email, Lilburn Mayor Tim Dunn said he is proud of the police department and “individuals like AJ Ajanovic who run toward danger to assist those in trouble.”

Lilburn City Councilman Emil Powella said: “We can be so proud of our officers and the selfless attitude they bring to a most challenging job. Congrats to Officer AJ on his heroic actions. It’s great to live in Lilburn.”

The praise has not gone to his head. Ajanovic said the rescue was truly a team effort and he is grateful for the “overwhelming” outpouring of support.

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