Truck driver dead in train crash, derailment

May 14, 2011 4:54:12 AM PDT
Service was back to normal Saturday after a deadly truck-train accident occurred along Metra's Union Pacific Northwest Line.

The accident slowed Friday evening's commute.

Train 636 struck a dump truck at a rail crossing at Northwest Highway and Mt. Prospect Road in Mt. Prospect around 8:40 a.m. The train derailed and caught fire near the Cumberland stop.

The driver of the truck, Kazimierz Karasek, 59, of Prospect Heights, was killed. Police say Karasek has an extensive number of moving violations on the record.

No one on the train was seriously injured. About 30 people -- including the train's engineer -- were transported to local hospitals. Ten people from the train were treated at the scene. None of those injuries is life threatening.

The impact -- described as a major jolt by those in the front cars and a minor stop to those in the back -- shattered some train windows and touched off a fire, which charred parts of the train.

"The first thought was a bomb. Because of the sound of the impact, smoke went off, windows shattered. It was very scary," said Gene Griffin, a passenger in the first car by the engineer. "I had my phone out, I was answering some emails, had a folder out. It was just sudden. An unbelievable impact and jolt that my phone went flying. I immediately grabbed onto the bar of the upper level and put my head down. Because the whole train car was starting to tilt at that point. We were actually gliding and tilting. I thought we were going to flip."

"I grabbed the lady next to me, I grabbed my chair. Fortunately it stopped," said Cheyenne Parker, passenger.

The train stayed upright, but went off track.

"It was all happening so fast. As we glided along, my whole thought was please don't flip. I'm thinking the trailer is going to flip which is why I braced myself. Then when it came to rest on that angle, at that point it was smoky and I saw flames. It looked to be between the car area, and it was just immediately -- that's when the engineer said everybody out, get out, get out. People were screaming and upset. People were going out of windows. I was able to get out through the door," Griffin said.

ABC7 photojournalist Jeff Freeman was at the Cumberland platform waiting for the Union Pacific Northwest Line #636 inbound-train when he saw the collision.

"Saw a ridiculously large black plume of smoke. The train stopped moving and it looked like it was off the tracks," Freeman said.

Freeman and others went to the wreck to help passengers evacuate.

"There were elderly people. The car is pretty high up so they were going to need help off. You can see in people's faces that are panicked and might need help," said Alex Martinez, passenger.

Despite the flames, passengers describe an orderly evacuation. They were taken to the Lattof YMCA, which is near the scene. As many as 850 people may have been on board, according to Metra officials.

Officials said it appears the driver of the dump truck made an illegal left turn onto the tracks.

"He was in the left turn lane and he turned left and the gates were already down, inactivated. The lights were activated at that particular section. There is a no left turn sign that was also illuminated. As far as why it occurred, we don't know," John Wagner, Mt. Prospect Police Department, said.

Union Pacific officials said they will look at the railroad crossing where the dump truck went onto the tracks.

"We have done safety checks on this line as recently as March 24. I believe we are looking at these issues. We have done a lot of outreach with local communities on that. We try to make everybody aware they need to follow the signal design and the gates when the lights are flashing, there's no reason to go around them," Wes Lujan, Union Pacific, said.

The NTSB will not investigate as they do not normally get involved in grade crossing incidents.

Metra riders: 'Lucky to be alive'

Passengers closest to the impact say it felt like an explosion.

Griffin was seated in the upper level of the front car as it went off the rails.

"The whole car tilted, and I thought we were going to flip. We were gliding literally on our side, so I just kind of grabbed onto the upper rail and ducked," said Griffin.

Parker in car one says she was surrounded by fire.

"I'm surprised I didn't get burned because that's all I could see, flames everywhere. I didn't see smoke or anything, just flames. So I literally just thought, this is it," Parker said.

Passengers streamed out of the train, some breaking windows and crawling through broken glass.

Emergency medical service teams evaluated passengers at the scene and dozens were taken to hospitals, including Northwest Community where seven people were treated for bumps and bruises.

Metra service was halted near the crash site, forcing riders to board shuttle buses at the Arlington Heights and Des Plaines stops.

"Oh, it's been interesting. I heard about this on the news. They broke in on television this morning, and I figured it was going to be an adventure, and it has been," said Gloria Etes, Metra rider.

"I'm definitely lucky to be alive right now," Parker said.

"I'm very luck, even though it's Friday the 13th, very lucky," Griffin.

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