4 hurt when 2 cars, freight train collide

February 14, 2011 7:19:17 PM PST
A preliminary investigation blames road salt buildup for disabling the gates and warning signals at a crossing where two cars crashed into a stalled train.

Four people were injured in the crash at 90th Street and Halsted. All were transported to Chicago-area hospitals. Their conditions Monday night ranged from fair to critical.

The crash happened at approximately 3 a.m. Monday when a freight train operated by Chicago Rail Link became stopped at the crossing. ABC7 is told the gates were malfunctioning and were not down. The train engineer reportedly dropped flares onto Halsted street as a warning, but it appears the drivers still did not see the stopped train in front of them.

A few minutes after the train stopped and flares were thrown, two vehicles slammed into the freight train, one from the northbound side and one from the southbound side. Surveillance video showed one of the cars crashing into the train.

"The gates were not working, as far as we can ascertain. The engineer of the train put out flares prior to them going across the street here," said the Chicago Fire Department's Arriel Gray. "I guess the approaching vehicles, due to the fact that the train cars are black, they were very difficult to see."

It was unclear why the crossing gates and warning lights were not operational. ABC7 Chicago attempted to contact Chicago Rail Link, but there was no response as of 4 p.m. Monday.

From a hospital emergency room gurney, crash victim Andrew Hunter says there were no warning lights or signals just moments before his car crashed into the freight train.

"There was no railings down. The sirens didn't go off, or anything. And I seen a big black something. I didn't realize that it was a train until I really got to it. I was like five feet from it, and once I looked up I slammed on the brakes, and the next thing the whole front hood of my train was under the train," said Hunter.

The 33-year-old says he and his girlfriend were on their way home from visiting relatives when the 1994 Buick LaSabre he just bought last week careened into the stationary black tanker car loaded with denatured alcohol.

After the crash, the train kept going but eventually stopped about a mile away after another train blocked its path.

Although a trainman reported throwing warning flares onto Halsted Street as the train approached the crossing, Hunter says he didn't see anything.

"The only reason how I realized it was a train because the black part of the train, it was with the white part of the train behind it. So when I looked at the black part of the train, I looked up and said, 'oh my God," said Hunter.

Horton sustained neck and other injuries, while his passenger was treated for a cut to her face and numbness in her legs.

The train crossing on Halsted reopened to traffic shortly before 7 a.m., but authorities said police would continue to guard it so no more accidents occur. Halsted had been blocked between 90th and 91st streets while crews worked to clear the wreckage.

The accident also disrupted Metra service Monday morning. Train service on the Rock Island Line eventually returned to normal, but earlier, no trains were operating between the 95th Longwood and the 103rd Washington Heights stations because of the blockage on the train tracks. Temporarily, Metra was asking passengers to go over to the Beverly branch stations at 95th and 103rd streets, which are just a few blocks west. Metra passengers were advised to check www.metrarail.com for updates.

Crews were able to remove the mangled northbound vehicle --which suffered damage on the front end-- from the train tracks shortly before 5 a.m., but it took them longer to remove the southbound vehicle, which was pinned underneath one of the tanker cars.

According to a fire chief, the tankers on the train were carrying denatured alcohol, and one of the cars just missed hitting that tanker. No alcohol leaked from the train.

A Level 1 hazmat was put into effect because of fuel leaking from one of the cars.

The investigation into the accident is ongoing.