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Two bodies found under wreckage of train derailment, bridge collapse

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Updated: August 7, 2012 6:25AM

The morning started with a daunting task for cleanup crews — clear away the mass of train cars, coal, steel and concrete that had rained down onto Shermer Road in Northbrook after a derailment and bridge collapse the afternoon before.

Officials already knew the accident would have long-lasting aftereffects: A new bridge would have to be built, and it could take months, causing headaches for motorists and the railroad alike.

But around 10 a.m. Thursday, the cleanup crews’ work took a dark turn. Their efforts to clear the debris revealed a car that had been buried beneath the rubble.

Within a few hours authorities would learn that the mishap they thought had miraculously spared lives actually had claimed two.

Glenview Fire Chief Wayne Globerger said a man’s body was found in the car, which had been traveling south on Shermer and was underneath the bridge when it collapsed on Wednesday. Another body also was found in the car, a village spokeswoman said.

Neither person has been identified.

“At the time of the accident, given the derailed coal cars and amount of debris, it was not immediately clear if any cars had been trapped underneath the collapsed bridge or if there had been any injuries,” Globerger said in a statement.

Deputy Glenview Village Manager Don Owen said officials do not believe anyone else is underneath the wreckage. The area where the original wreckage fell in the bridge collapse had been cleared and they stopped looking for victims Thursday evening, Owen said.

Railroad officials said the train derailed before the viaduct collapsed.

“The engineers and car crew said the bridge was intact when the train went over. It all seemed fine to them,” Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis said.

Spokesman Thomas Lange said the bridge was designed to carry a certain number of coal cars weighing 75 tons to 85 tons each over the 86-foot expanse of the bridge, but it could not handle a pileup of 28, which was many times the number it was expected to hold, Lange said.

The intense heat Wednesday could have made the steel rails expand, causing the derailment and then the bridge to collapse, Lange said.

The investigation into what happened will take months, but preliminary information has determined that the bridge failure was not the cause of the derailment, he said.

Lange said Union Pacific inspectors checked the tracks yesterday for possible problems in accordance with state and federal law before the accident, but found nothing notable.

These inspections are done twice a day as a matter of routine during both extremely hot and cold temperatures, he added.

“The speed was lowered from 50 miles per hour to 40 miles per hours because of the heat, but the train was not even going that fast. A recorder registered it at 37 miles per hour when it derailed,” Lange said.

Ian Savage, transportation economist and railroad safety expert at Northwestern University, said the bridge would in no way be able to support the number of train cars that piled up on it after the derailment.

“If you have a bridge which is about 40 feet long ... there is a maximum load which you can have on top of the bridge, which is 40 feet worth of heavy train cars,” Savage said. “But you can’t have all these cars piled on top of each other on top of the bridge. Instead of having 40 feet worth of it you have 30 cars all lined up on top of each other, which far exceeds the limits for the bridge and the design specs of the bridge.”

The freight train of three locomotives and 138 cars, all loaded with coal, was on its way from Wyoming to a utility in Wisconsin when four cars derailed around 1:45 p.m. Wednesday on the bridge near Shermer and Willow roads, Davis said.

Union Pacific officials will conduct the investigation into the accident, Perlini said.

Davis said the bridge is inspected twice annually and that the bridge’s concrete abutments and rail ties were repaired last year.

“We’ll look at all the factors, including the heat’s impact on the bridge’s structure,” he said. Wednesday’s high temperature was 102 degrees.

The Federal Railroad Administration is investigating the accident as well. A spokesman declined comment on the status of the probe and said it would be months before results are made public.

Spokesman Mike England said railroads are responsible for inspecting their own bridges. They are required to maintain records of the inspections, but the federal agency doesn’t routinely examine those inspection records.

England said the agency’s investigation of Wednesday’s collapse will include a review of the inspections.

He called the collapse of a railroad bridge like Wednesday’s “rare, very rare indeed.”

Once the debris is cleared, Union Pacific will use stone fill to close the gap the bridge left when it collapsed and will install temporary tracks there so trains will get through the area, Lange said

But the new bridge will have to be designed, then built, which will take some time, he said.

The railroad overpass underwent repairs just last year. Work started June 27, 2011, and officials initially expected it to be closed for two months.

At that time, Jerry Burke, the director of the Glenview Public Works Department, described the work as general maintenance. Crews were installing new braces and repainting the sides of the viaduct, he said then.

In September 2011, officials announced the project was taking longer than expected. The bridge structure required more extensive repairs than originally anticipated, a Union Pacific spokesman said in September. The road reopened the first week of October.

David Valentine, of Northbrook, said he saw the accident happen Wednesday afternoon.

He said he was stopped at Shermer and Willow roads, facing the bridge, and was watching the train go over the viaduct. He saw two train cars go over the bridge and then roll off the tracks.

That then triggered the jam of train cars, Valentine said, and they fell down the bridge into a “huge mess.” He said he then called 911.

He described the accident as a “loud, nasty, metal, crunching noise.”

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