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Plainfield family gets $1.8 million settlement from 2003 Metra derailment

Investigators inspect wreckage Metrcommuter trathderailed Chicago Sunday Oct. 12 2003. About 200 people were trawhen derailment occurred. (AP Photo/Brian Kersey)

Investigators inspect the wreckage of a Metra commuter train that derailed in Chicago, Sunday, Oct. 12, 2003. About 200 people were on the train when the derailment occurred. (AP Photo/Brian Kersey)

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Updated: October 20, 2012 6:16AM

A fiery train derailment scene has replayed in Steven Kuk’s head daily for the last nine years.

People and glass flying, smoke and chaos are vivid in his memory.

“It was very surreal, it was out of a movie with special effects, but we were in it,” Kuk said. “And it was real.”

The Kuk family — Steven, 55, his wife Kathryn, 54, and daughter Megan, 22, all of Plainfield — were passengers on a Metra train that derailed Oct. 12, 2003, when the train, barreling along at 68 mph, went over a 10 mph track crossover near 47th Street on Chicago’s south side.

Two locomotives and five passenger cars derailed, injuring 45 people.

“Ten minutes out of the station, all of a sudden it’s like all hell broke loose,” Kuk said. He and Megan were thrown hard back into their seats, while Kathryn, who was facing forward, was hurled on top of them, then back into her seat and down into the aisle, he said.

Steven and Megan sustained minor injuries, while Kathryn suffered severe lower back injuries and required multiple surgeries to minimize pain from a spinal condition that was aggravated by the crash.

Last month the Metra board approved a $1.8 million settlement with the family, reached after five days of a trial in Cook County Circuit Court. It was the final settlement from the 2003 crash.

Life isn’t the same for Kathryn, previously an athlete who enjoyed being active, Kuk said.

“The simplest things she can’t do anymore. We can’t go to the movie theater” because Kathryn can’t sit through a two-hour movie, Kuk said. “Our lives have really changed.”

In 2005, the National Transportation Safety Board issued a report blaming the engineer for being distracted when the train went over the crossover much faster than was allowed.

The lack of a “positive train control” — a computerized system that uses global positioning systems and satellites to track train locations and can override engineers and stop trains before they disobey signals — also contributed to the derailment, federal investigators said.

“The technology (for positive train control) has been there since 1990s,” said Tim Cavanagh, the attorney who represented the Kuk family. “Metra has budgeted some money, but they still haven’t done it. The money’s there, the technology’s there, but it hasn’t been done.”

A Metra train derailed in the same location in September 2005, a crash that killed two women and injured 117 other passengers.

A 2006 report on that crash from the National Transportation Safety Board also concluded the Metra engineer was distracted when the Rock Island Line train went through the 10 mph crossover at 47th Street traveling 69 mph, causing the five-car train to jump the tracks.

Metra Spokesman Michael Gillis said implementing positive train control is a priority for Metra CEO Alex Clifford.

“We are fully committed to implementing (the technology) by the federally-mandated deadline of 2015,” Gillis said. “It’s a very complex and costly system. We are proceeding with vigor to do it.”

He declined to comment on the settlement with the Kuks.

The court victory is bittersweet for the Kuk family.

“We’re happy (the settlement) will help change Kathy’s life and make it a little bit better,” Kuk said. “But we’re also sad, knowing that the train had the ability to have this (technology) in place and not have it happen.”

Metra “put (money) ahead of people’s welfare and safety,” Kuk said.

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