Chicago news outlets have reported that a popular teacher at the Joffrey Ballet School and Naperville’s School of Performing Arts was killed when an Amtrak train crashed into her vehicle at the Stuenkel Road railroad crossing in University Park, IL, near Chicago. Eye witnesses reported that the railroad crossing’s signal lights were not working and the crossing gate did not lower until the Amtrak train had almost passed the crossing. A Cook County, Illinois prosecutor confirmed that the lights and gate did not work.
From the Chicago Sun-Times:
Two witnesses who say they drove over the railroad tracks seconds before a train struck and killed a popular dance instructor say the crossing’s signal lights weren’t working and that the gate did not come down until the train had almost passed.
One witness — a Cook County prosecutor — said she herself barely dodged being hit.
“The lights and the gate did not work,” prosecutor Lauren Brown said Saturday. “It was horrible. . . . I did not know that train was there till it was up on me.”
[A] beloved dance teacher and performer, was killed when her vehicle was hit at 9:40 p.m. Friday by an Amtrak train at Stuenkel Road in south suburban University Park.
Hours before she was struck, work crews had been out at the crossing, but a spokesman for the Canadian National Railway would not comment on what the crews had been doing.
Many CN trucks and crews were at the scene again Saturday.
Brown was driving a vehicle carrying her two daughters and one of their friends. The darkness and the layout of the crossing made it difficult to see, she said.
“The gates did not go down, and there were no lights,” Brown said. “I couldn’t have gotten more than five feet beyond the tracks when the train came speeding by.”
The gates didn’t lower until the train was almost past, she said. “They came down as the second-to-the last car on the train was going past.” Then the gates popped up. “It was almost instantaneous.’’
Smith was in her own vehicle with her son. “There were no flashing lights,” Smith said. “The gates did not come down. They flipped down and flipped back up.”
After crossing the tracks, “I heard a thud,’’ Brown said, and she saw a cloud of brown dust and debris. At the time she assumed it was just the sheer, rushing force of the train, but she says she now knows it was the impact of the train hitting [the] vehicle.
After her shock wore off a few minutes later, Brown said she called 911 to report the gates weren’t working. “I didn’t realize [the dancer was struck] till one of the kids’ friends texted us.”
CN spokesman Patrick Waldron acknowledged “there were CN crews working at that crossing on Friday.” Asked if he could say what they were doing, he said, “No, that’s all a part of the investigation.”
He added: “The circumstances of the incident, including the grade crossing signal system, are still under investigation. This is a very unfortunate and tragic incident, and our condolences go out to the family of the young woman.”
Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family, friends and colleagues of this gifted young woman. I have not included her name out of respect for her family and friends, but she will be by many.
She was a gifted instructor with a sweet presence, [Altin] Naska said.
“She just loved to teach and loved kids,’’ said her father, Jerry. “That’s what her life was. . . . She told me, ‘I’m living my dream.’ ”
This tragedy is made even more heartbreaking because it did not have to happen. Railroad crossing crashes are a tragic, preventable problem across the country. Railroad companies need to do more to ensure that their railroad tracks and crossing protect approaching motorists. Railroads need to start putting safety first.
Illinois has been the deadliest state for railroad crossing and train crash deaths. Illinois had 26 train crash deaths in 2008. According to recent statistics, in the most recent 10 years that statistics are available, Illinois had more than 1800 railroad crossing incidents resulting in more than 300 deaths. Approximately 40% of Illinois’ railroad crossing collisions happened in the six county region of northeastern Illinois (DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry, Will and Cook County).
Railroad crossing deaths are not just a problem in Illinois or the Chicagoland area, but across the country as well.
In April, a young man was killed when a train struck his vehicle near Wichita, Kansas.
In March, a Baldwin City, Kansas woman was seriously injured when her vehicle was struck by a train near Wellsville, Kansas.
In February, a Casa Grande, Arizona dentist was killed and another person injured in a violent train crash near Florence, Arizona. The railroad crossing in that crash was not protected by any flashing lights or gates. It may have been difficult or even impossible for the driver to see that a train was coming.
In January, railroad crossing collision killed a woman in Gulfport, Mississippi. News reports indicated that railroad crossing was not properly designed suggested that the driver stopped at the railroad crossing, but could not see the oncoming train and began to cross as her vehicle was struck.
Railroad companies are responsible making sure their train crossings are safe. That means the crossings have proper sight lines and visibility that allow drivers to see approaching trains, that trees and vegetation are cut back, that railroads do not park trains near the crossing (that would confuse drivers), that signals and gates are working properly, and that train crews sound a warning with the train’s horn or whistle as the train is approaching.
These train-vehicle collisions are a tragic reminder of how dangerous railroad crossings can be. In the last 10 years, there have been more than 30,000 railroad crossing accidents and more than 3,600 train accident deaths.
These train accidents can have many causes, including:
Failure of the railroad company to install proper warnings, such as lights, alarms (crossing bells) or a functioning crossing gate
Defective warnings — inoperable lights, bells or gates
Improper sight lines that prevent a vehicle’s driver from seeing an oncoming train until it is too late
Failure to properly maintain the crossing — such as allowing overgrown trees, vegetation and other foliage to obstruct or hide an oncoming train
Improperly parking a train at or near a crossing — this not only hides an oncoming train from view, but gives motorists a false sense of safety in seeing a parked train at the crossing
Failure to sound the train’s horn or whistle at or near the crossing
Other negligence that may appear on the train’s data recorder or video recorder
It takes a skilled team of investigators and experts to identify critical information.
Railroad companies need to do more to prevent these tragic collisions that kill. Unfortunately, some railroad companies attempt to cover up their role in causing these tragedies rather than implement safety improvements to prevent them.
In October, Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad was hit with a $4 million penalty — on top of a $21.6 million jury verdict — because of its "staggering" pattern of misconduct that included destroying evidence in an attempted cover-up of its role in the deaths of four young people who were killed at one of its railroad crossings.
The Court found that BNSF destroyed some evidence, fabricated other evidence, interfered with the investigation and purposefully lied and advanced misleading facts in order to conceal the truth.
Railroad companies should be held accountable for dangerous railroad crossings that injure and kill. Is there a different set of rules for railroad companies than for everyone else? Railroad companies need to stop putting profits in front safety.
Brett Emison is currently a partner at Langdon & Emison, a firm dedicated to helping injured victims across the country from their primary office near Kansas City. Mainly focusing on catastrophic injury and death cases as well as complex mass tort and dangerous drug cases, Mr. Emison often deals with automotive defects, automobile crashes, railroad crossing accidents (train accidents), trucking accidents, dangerous and defective drugs, defective medical devices.