Forty people were on a westbound train, which was stopped at the Harlem station, when it was struck by an eastbound train that was traveling on the wrong track around 7:45 a.m. Dozens of people were transported to hospitals, but all injuries were minor.
ABC7 has learned a rail supervisor reports seeing "no one" on board when the train passed him at Forest Park. He was so concerned, he jumped down onto the tracks and ran after it, while radioing that a runaway train was heading toward Harlem.
On Monday night, investigators have removed the tarp covering the point of impact, a collision that knocked around more than 40-plus passengers on a train stopped at the Harlem station.
The runaway train was parked at the Forest Park yard awaiting repairs. A rail supervisor reports seeing no one on board the train when it passed him, going nearly 20 mph.
What no one can explain is how it started moving, and made its way past at least two switches and one station before colliding with an occupied train at Harlem.
"Either Casper the Ghost was driving the train, someone was operating it from possibly the third fourth or fifth cars or somebody with extensive knowledge sabotaged this train," said CTA Union President Robert Kelly.
How could it have happened? We put the question to Eric Dixon, who spent more than 20 years working on the CTA rail system.
"Somehow or another for that train to move we believe it had to be powered up somehow, we just don't know how," said Eric Dixon, vice president, CTA Union.
ABC7's Ben Bradley asks, "Can that happen on its own?"
"Normally, no," said Dixon.
Could someone have pushed the throttle forward, then jumped off?
"You would physically have to move the master control in order for the train to move."
Ben Bradley asks, "So if nobody is holding it, the train stops?"
"The train stops," said Dixon.
The standing train has "extensive damage," according to NTSB railroad accident investigator Tim DePaepe. The National Transportation Safety Board took over the investigation after arriving in Chicago. "We're gonna have an investigator in charge, a signals specialist, a mechanical specialist, and an operations specialist to do our investigation."
Earlier, the CTA and mayor of Forest Park said it appears no one was onboard or at the controls of the four-car train that struck the standing train. However, the NTSB backed off from answering questions about whether the eastbound train was empty.
"I'm collecting information, I can't give you an answer to that," DePaepe said. "We collect our data, then we analyze it, then we come up with probable cause. Right now, you're asking for step 500, and we're on step 2."
Earlier Monday, Forest Park Mayor Anthony T. Calderone and CTA officials said no one was on the train.
"To the best of our knowledge, from what we know right now, there was no driver, there was no human being on that eastbound train," Forest Park Mayor Anthony T. Calderone said. "Forest Park police are treating this as a crime scene."
"So the million dollar question is how did this happen? There were initial reports that this was possibly a sabotage or the train was taken out of the yard. Earlier reports were that they saw somebody operating the train. We have not confirmed this," ATU local 308 President Robert Kelly said.
He calls the situation "baffling," and said the eastbound train was in the yard, scheduled to go to Skokie for repairs. Kelly said CTA trains are supposed to have a trip mechanism to keep trains from moving without someone on board.
"In my 27 years here, I've never seen a train start by itself," Kelly said. Kelly said as far as he knows, none of the workers in the rail yard started the train, a process that takes two keys. Also baffling for Kelly, how the train managed to go uphill from the yard, and why none of the safety mechanisms seemed to work.
"This train never should have got to Forest Park station. It should have been tripped in the yard, going through the interlock. I don't know how that happened," Kelly said.
"There are two switches that ideally, and should have, stopped this train from moving. Why didn't they is part of the investigation," CTA spokesperson Brian Steele said. There's no indication at this point that this was criminal activity, Steele said. "There's no broken windows. There's no pried-open doors. There's no graffiti or vandalism inside the rail car."
It took the train two to three minutes to travel from the rail yard to the Harlem station, officials said.
33 transported, all minor injuries
"I was waiting for my train. Time to go to school. I heard screaming, 'Stop the train, stop the train, slow down,'" Taylor Pettigrew, witness, said. Then she heard the crash. "It seemed like the train going toward Forest Park bumped back a little bit."
Several ambulances were called to the scene of the crash and at least 33 people were injured. They were transported to 10 local hospitals. Many others were treated at the station. All of the injuries are believed to be minor- bumps, bruises and scratches, officials said.
"It shot forward. I was in the front seat, I don't know what happened," one woman said as she got into an ambulance at the scene. "It was very intense. It was real hard."
Eight people were taken to Rush-Oak Park Hospital, including 14-year-old Kayla Clemons.
"When the doors closed, and out of nowhere, I heard this big boom. And then everybody flew. I fell to the ground. I hurt my leg and my arm," Kayla Clemons said. "It was a big bomb, then smoke was everywhere."
Kayla's sister, Jayla, was getting off at the Harlem station when the crash occurred. She heard the operator try to stop the other train.
"I was actually getting off the train, and I heard the conductor, who was like, 'Stop, stop.' I guess nobody was on it. He jumped off it, and then the whole thing, it hit each other," Jayla Clemons said.
Loyola University Center in Maywood received the most seriously injured patients.
"We received four patients here at Loyola. They are noted to be: three of those are in stable condition, one is considered guarded at this point because we have not determined the extent of the injuries," Dr. Karen Spangle said.
Emergency crews from several neighboring suburbs responded to the scene, and local hospitals called in extra help to their ERs.
Harlem stop closed; Blue Line running with delays
Blue Line service was suspended between Austin and Des Plaines at the end of the line in Forest Park while officials cleared the scene. Train service was restored around 9:30 a.m., but were moving slowly on a single track around the accident site.
The CTA Blue Line Harlem station remains closed until at least through Tuesday morning, possibly even the afternoon commute, too. Shuttle buses are running between those stations, and trains that are moving through without stopping are using a single track.
Traffic on the Eisenhower Expressway backed up, which led to delays across many Chicago roadways during the morning rush. That delay continued as drivers slowed to stare at the crash, which led investigators to cover the wreckage with a tarp.