No one at controls when Blue Line train crashed into occupied train
BY ROSALIND ROSSI, SANDRA GUY, CASEY TONER AND STEFANO ESPOSITO Staff Reporters September 30, 2013 8:15AM
CTA and emergency workers inspect the damage to a CTA Blue Line train . | Rich Hein/Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 2, 2013 6:08AM
A Chicago Transit Authority video shows no one at the helm of an out-of-service CTA train as it rammed into an occupied train at the Harlem station during morning rush hour, CTA officials said a preliminary review indicated Monday.
Thirty-three people were injured, none seriously, after the apparent runaway train somehow slipped out of a service yard, traveled past fail-safe protections and headed toward a train with 40 occupants — without anyone observed at the controls, rail union officials and others said.
During and after impact, passengers reported a hullabaloo inside the occupied eight-car Blue Line train.One woman said she was trampled in the race for the door after impact from the crash.
“People were yelling and screaming and trying to get off,’’ one passenger, Cathy Bowes, 49, of Matteson, said through tears Monday.
“It was a hard impact — hard,’’ she said.
In the crush of passengers headed for the exits, people were “tumbling over each other,’’ Bowes said from among those treated at Loyola University Medical Center.
Bowes said she fell to the floor in the tumult, and passengers “walked over me after I fell. . . . Everybody was scared and everybody was trying to run for their life.’’
Said Bowes: “I am never riding the train again.’’
The crash at 7:44 a.m. Monday occurred less than an hour before Mayor Rahm Emanuel, CTA Chairman Terry Peterson and CTA President Forrest Claypool addressed a massive gathering of transportation experts during the American Public Transportation Association national convention at the Hilton Chicago. The meeting at 720 S. Michigan runs through Wednesday.
Neither the mayor nor CTA officials mentioned the crash during their opening comments, emphasizing instead Chicago’s transportation accomplishments. However, as attendees left the convention hall, large-screen TVs in Hilton coffee shops and elsewhere trumpeted news of the Blue Line crash.
CTA spokesman Brian Steele said late Monday that “a preliminary review of CTA video shows no one in the front car” of the out-of-service train at the point of impact. The rest of the video was being reviewed to see if anyone was observable on the train at any point during its half-mile to three-quarter-mile journey, he said.
An investigative team from the National Transportation Safety Board flew to Chicago Monday from Washington D.C. to investigate the crash.
“I’ve heard five different scenarios on the drive down here,’’ said Tim Depaepe, among the first NTSB investigators at the scene. “I can’t believe all five are right.’’
Depaepe said federal officials were downloading videos from trains as well as stations to get a handle on the crash that caused what he called “extensive” damage to the out-of-service train.
It was still too early for the NTSB to say what might have caused the incident, Depaepe said, but signal, mechanical and operational experts will be brought in to help with the probe.
Somehow, during Monday’s morning rush hour, the out-of-service train left the Forest Park service yard and traveled the wrong way on eastbound tracks past the Forest Park station to the Harlem station, CTA officials said. They estimated the train’s speed at about 20 mph.
“We really don’t know if we can characterize it as a runaway train,’’ the CTA’s Steele said at midday. “Obviously, it was moving in the direction it shouldn’t have been, on tracks it shouldn’t have been on.’’
CTA officials said a westbound in-service Blue Line train was stopped at the Harlem station, picking up and delivering passengers, when it was struck by the eastbound out-of-service train.
The Forest Park train station manager and a motorman sitting in the Forest Park station saw no one on the train as it left the Forest Park service yard, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 308 President Robert Kelly said.
And, the motorman of the train that was hit saw no one at the helm of the out-of-service train as it approached, Forest Park Mayor Anthony Calderone said the first responder at the scene told him.
The motorman of the occupied train “saw the moving train coming at him with nobody in the front car,’’ Calderone said he was told.
“God knows what the cause may be,” Calderone said. “I want to hope that it’s a mechanical failure.”
Kelly noted that trains don’t turn on by themselves. Someone must turn a key to open the train door, and then use a different key to power on the train, Kelly said. Before the crash, someone “possibly” keyed up the train, Kelly said.
Kelly also noted that in order to move, every train must first get clearance from a supervisor and the control center.
“We don’t leave trains powered up and ready to go,’’ Kelly said.
The out-of-service train passed two switches and an internal device that should have stopped it — and traveled up an incline and downhill before heading into the Harlem station, Kelly said.
The out-of-service four-car train had been awaiting brake repairs on the last two cars since Sept. 23, Kelly said. The work was supposed to be done in Skokie — not Forest Park — but the train would not normally have been taken away for repairs during rush hour, rail union officials said.
“Right now, it’s looking like mechanical malfunction,’’ Kelly said. “In my 27 years, never have I seen a train just start up and start moving.’’
Kelly said there appears to be no sabotage, and CTA officials said preliminary reports indicated there was no evidence that “criminal activity’’ was involved.
“If some train got out, went through a series of two interlocking [switches] and downhill, we have a big problem,” Kelly said.
“I have no indication this was done,” he said. “I have no idea whether someone powered up the train.”
At Loyola University Medical Center, Gary Harrison, 48, of Matteson, recalled the crash as he recuperated in a wheelchair from an injured right leg.
“It was like an explosion, like a bang, a big boom,’’ Harrison said.
“All I know is I am looking at the train getting closer and closer. I grab the rail and — boom!
“It was scary. People were yelling and screaming. It was crazy. People were getting off the train and didn’t know what happened,’’ Harrison said.
Across the street from the crash site, Moni Wright, 42, said she heard “a loud boom” from inside her house at the time of impact.
”I thought it was thunder,” Wright said. “I heard this loud boom at about a quarter to 8. It smelled like smoke. ”
From her home, Wright could see that the out-of-service train “wasn’t going that fast.’’ Instead, “It just kind of pushed its way into [the stopped train] like an accordion.’’
CTA officials said rail service was temporarily shut down to preserve the accident scene, but supplemented with shuttle buses. Among other things, Steele said, CTA officials wanted to “make sure all signals are working correctly.’’ Service was restored by 9:10 a.m., he said.
Four people were taken with non-life threatening injuries to Loyola in Maywood; one person was taken in stable condition to West Suburban Medical Center in Oak Park; four people were taken with non-life threatening injuries to Gottlieb Hospital in Melrose Park, and one person was taken in very good condition to Rush University Medical Center, according to hospital officials.
Contributing: Allison Horton and Phil Rockrohr