Operator error likely cause in CTA derailment

Cottage Grove branch closed for Thursday morning commute
CHICAGO The two lead cars ran off the track where the rail curves near 59th and Prairie around 10 a.m. No serious injuries were reported and CTA officials said there was no danger of the train falling off the elevated tracks.

The derailment sent the same southbound train in two directions at the 59th Street Junction, where the Green Line splits between the Jackson Park and Englewood branches.

"The train after the 55th stop just started to turn. There was a big jolt in the train. And the conductor ran out of the cockpit and ran out there with the passengers as the train was still moving. Once the train stopped, the conductor then ran back into the cockpit and then made an announcement to try to get everyone to calm down. But everyone on the train knew something happened, knew it was a crash because the train hit too hard once it stopped. So everybody was on the train screaming and yelling and crying," said Brandon Williams, passenger.

One passenger called her brother-in-law, Frank Davis, after the crash.

"She said the train is split in half, OK. She had hit her head and the left side of her body, OK? She was all hysterical when she called. We couldn't understand what she was saying," said Davis. "I calmed her down so I could understand what she was trying to tell us. Therefore we came back this way. Now we're getting ready to go to Jackson Park Hospital where they have taken her."

The Chicago Fire Department removed passengers from the elevated train with power ladders.

"First crews were here within two-and-a-half, three minutes," said Larry Langford, Chicago Fire Dept. "They were brought down very gently, just like an elevator... No problem getting people down."

There were only about two dozen people on the train, which was nearing the end of the line when it derailed, according to the fire department. Fourteen people were taken to the hospital. Three of the most seriously injured had back, neck or other possibly serious injuries, but are expected to be OK. Ten others refused treatment. Most passengers walked away from the four-car train without help from the fire officials.

"Most are bumps and bruises and going to the hospital to be checked out," said Langford. "Most people worry about something falling off, we tell them it's stable and they calm down and we're able to get them off."

One CTA worker was transported to the hospital. His condition is not available.

Power was off from 35th to 63rd Street while crews worked the area.

The Green Line trains were not running in that area Wednesday. Instead, shuttle buses moved train passengers from 55th to 63rd. Green Line service to Ashland and 63rd should be available by Thursday's morning commute. But service to and from 63rd and Cottage Grove will not be operational. that outage affects only two stations.

"We are glad to have everything up and running - all but two stations tomorrow morning. We are happy to have that. We are disappointed whenever we have a derailment. We are studying so we can determine exactly what happened," said CTA president Ron Huberman.

What Happened?

Once the train is cleared, an investigation into what caused the train derailment will begin. Huberman said a preliminary investigation reveals operator error was a likely contributor to the derailment. Huberman says the operator had a red signal to stop, but he did not. An automatic "trip" occurred that should have stopped train but the operator overrode that trip and continued on, Huberman said.

"We're going to be inspecting the train, the tracks, the switches and all other relevant materials," said Huberman.

Operators have the right to override signals with permission, but Huberman said this operator-- a 31-year CTA veteran - did not have permission at the time of the crash. The train operator has not had any violations in the last four years and is cooperating with the investigation, police said. He was not injured.

"He knew something was going to happen. He ran out of the cockpit. It was scary. I am still shook up," said rider Brandon Williams.

This is the second CTA derailment involving switching problems in less than two years.

In December of 2006, a northbound Orange Line train jumped the tracks just south of the Loop when the switch tripped underneath the train as it passed by.

The Victims

Ollie Milton, one of the five victims taken to the University of Chicago Hospital, was on her way home because she had earlier injured her right wrist on the job as a nursing assistant at a nursing home. She said when the derailment happened, people started panicking, yelling, screaming and crying. She said she called her sister and a friend thinking she might not make it.

"All of a sudden there was a loud noise and a jerk. And we saw a spark, the fire and the trains gathered together. It was horrible. It's like I saw my life flash across me. I didn't know if I was going to live to see, you know, this evening. But I thank God, you know, for what it was. I just have an injured knee, you know," she said. "I'm still pretty shaken up. I thought the train was going to turn over."

Irene Berry, who normally takes the Green Line but had the day off, was near the 59th Street junction when the train derailed.

"I just thank God. I didn't fall on the ground because those kids on the train," said Berry.

"There was one guy holding all of us together, like, the train had tilted. He was like, 'Everybody keep still. Stay on one side. Don't move.' I was just holding on to the pole for dear life," said Milton.

One University of Chicago doctor said the injuries were mostly bumps and bruises related to jostling inside the train during the accident.

Some victims were transported to other hospitals: South Shore Hospital, Mercy Hospital, Holy Cross Hospital, Providence Hospital and St. Bernard Hospital. All 14 of the injured were released by Wednesday night.

Alternate Routes

No Green Line trains are running south of the Garfield station. Commuters are encouraged to take the Red Line to the 63rd Street station and then transfer to the 63rd bus. Take the #3 or X3 bus to the King Drive station, or the number 4 or X4 bus to the Cottage Grove station. Or passengers can take the shuttle bus running from the Garfield station to Ashland and 63rd or Cottage Grove and East 63rd, making all of the El station stops.

CTA supervisors and managers donned the familiar neon vests to direct passengers exiting from the trains at 55th street's Garfield station while service was halted.

"Yeah, I was like, oh, what was going on? They were just like I got to take this. And no more trains coming this way," said commuter Angela Crockett.

Buses will carry passengers southeast to the Green Line's 63rd and Cottage Grove stops-- and southwest to the 63rd and Ashland stops.

"They're going to be discouraged. Something as little as this triggers some people off," said commuter Cheryl Cates. " Some people are going to have bad attitudes."

The mishap is putting extra pressure on the Red Line, which takes people south along the Dan Ryan Expressway. No extra trains have been deployed there, however.

Traffic on the expressway is also likely to be heavy.

"We feel like we're the best in the world. And we do this all the time," said Lee Robinson, CTA supervisor.

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