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No flashing lights or gates before freight train crash, witness says

One moment Dahveed Morris was driving down a dark stretch of South Halsted with a friend in his 2003 Nissan Maxima. The next, he says, he was slamming into a “pitch black” freight train stopped dead across the street.

“There was no lights, no barrier, no flares, no nothing,” the 44-year-old mail carrier said Monday afternoon as he nursed a bloody gash to his forehead and recounted the railroad crossing accident in the early hours of Monday that left two other victims in critical condition. “I’m very lucky to be alive.”

Police and fire officials confirmed that barriers and lights maintained by Chicago Rail Link at the crossing were not working when vehicles crashed into the stopped freight train from both sides near 90th Street around 3 a.m. The lights and barriers had been deliberately disabled because “snow build-up” and “salt” had stopped them from working properly, said an official with the Federal Railroad Association, which is investigating the accident.

“They did the responsible thing, which is to take them out of service until they can be repaired,” said the official, who didn’t want his name used. The official didn’t know how long the crossing equipment had been out of service.

Under those circumstances, the train crew is typically supposed to flag down traffic and stay at the crossing until the train passes, the official said. But the official also said protocol varies depending on the layout of the crossing.

A member of the train crew has told investigators he left flares on either side of the crossing to warn drivers, a Chicago fire official said, but it was not clear if the flares were still burning at the time of the accident. The train then continued on for about three quarters of a mile before stopping again to wait for another train farther ahead on the tracks, the fire official said.

Morris said he didn’t see the train “until the last minute.”

“From the level I was at I could see straight under the tanker to the street ahead: where the tanker was it was pitch black,” he said.

Morris, whose shredded clothes bore testament to the severity of the crash, said he was traveling around 35mph when he stomped on the brakes but that he couldn’t stop in time.

His seat belt and airbag saved him and a companion who was riding with him, he said.

A passer-by dialed 911, but when a second car hit the train from the other side about a minute later, “I thought, uh-oh, this is bad,” he said.

A Chicago Rail Link spokesman Monday declined to say whether the train crew followed the proper protocol.

“We don’t know exactly what happened,” said spokesman Mike Ogborn. “So we need to figure that out first. ... It’s still under investigation. We hope to have more information in a day or two.”

Chicago Rail Link operates on about 70 miles of track in and around the city, carrying different types of freight, Ogborn said.

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