A Train Accident From The Perspective Of An Engineer

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This piece is reprinted here with the full permission of the author, JD “Tuch” Santucci ©1999 and 2013. I asked his permission to do this because I don’t think any of us really know about train dynamics and what it takes to be an engineer.

Its October 18th, the 24th anniversary of the most tragic in my life and the lives of many others. This piece has been posted previously on line at various discussion lists and and originally at my Hot Times on the High Iron column. And a tradition begun last year, I also now post it on my regular Facebook page to share it with all of you in my effort to educate everybody about the dangers of railroad crossings and the importance of heeding the signals and warning signs at these crossings. Also to understand that anytime can be train time. Please feel free to share and forward this to all of your friends.

The weight differential between a freight train and your typical automobile is approximately 4,000 to 1, akin to placing a twelve ounce soda can on the road and driving your car over it, smashing it flat. Keep this weight ratio in mind as this story unfolds.

Whenever there is a collision between a train and a motor vehicle at a road crossing, media coverage tends to dramatize the event making it seem the train was gunning for the vehicle at the crossing. They often dehumanize the railroad and railroaders operating the train making it seem as it the train was operating on its own and wanted the collision. Needless to say, but I must say it anyway, this is far from the truth. As we all know, sensationalism is what gets the ratings. You are about to read my firsthand account of a fatal crossing collision involving a train I was operating and an automobile. This collision occurred while I was employed with the Wisconsin Central.

While training to become a Locomotive Engineer, we are really not prepared by our instructors in school for the eventuality of our train colliding with a motor vehicle. While there were a few mentions about what might occur, there was never any formal instruction on what to do if and when such an episode should take place. Not once was there a mention of what we should do in the moments immediately following a train/motor vehicle collision. Every action I took in those moments after the train came to a stop immediately following the collision were simply the ability to maintain a cool demeanor under crisis and also my penchant for being logical and probably overly analytical.

For background purposes here is a summation of the trip prior to the collision. The date was October 18th, 1989. Conductor Brian Kruger and I were ordered for duty at 4:00pm at Shops Yard in North Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. We departed Shops Yard at 5:00pm with three engines and a train consisting of 41 loads, 74 empties for a total of 115 cars, and 6415 tons. Brian and I had been working together for quite some time. I thoroughly enjoyed working with him as he was an excellent railroader and an equally good person. We had a lot of fun while on the job together, which always makes for better trips and socialized away from the property as well.

After climbing Byron Hill affectionately referred to as “the mountain” and reaching the top, we stopped and set out one engine in the Byron house track. We needed this additional unit to make the climb up the hill, but it the powers that be decided that we could proceed on from this point on into Chicago without it. Once this chore was completed we then proceeded on to Waukesha, WI, where we met a westbound train out of Chicago and then back on the roll.

After stopping again at Burlington, WI to set out 9 cars; 5 loads, 4 empties, 721 tons, we were back on the move at 8:00pm. At Nestle, just south of Burlington, Wisconsin we met the Burlington Patrol, a local assignment that was waiting in the clear on the Nestle Lead just south of downtown Burlington for us to pass. Their Conductor spotted a car in our train with sparks coming out from around the wheels and immediately notified us. After bringing the train to a quick but safe stop the car in question was inspected and determined to have stuck brakes (brakes that would not release). There was serious problem known as brake shoe build-up on the wheels and we had to set the car out. With this type of defect both the wheels of the car and the brake shoes overheat as the result of the brakes not releasing. This, in turn, causes the materials in the brake shoe to melt. The superheated brake shoe material bonds to and builds up onto the tread of the wheels. If enough brake shoe material builds up, it can cause the car to “walk off” the track and derail. From this point we had to proceed at about 5 mph to Wheatland, Wisconsin to set out the car. At Wheatland, was a siding where we could set the car out of our train. With this defect I had to proceed at a very low rate of speed, less than 10 MPH at most times with Brian riding the car right ahead of it to observe that it was indeed staying on the rail. So getting there took quite a bit of time. Once this move was completed we departed Wheatland at 9:25 pm with 36 loads 69 empties, 5662 tons, and about 6600 feet of train.

Owing to the weight of the train, its length, the fact our two engines were not providing optimum pulling power and the hilly terrain of Wisconsin, it was difficult to make any kind of speed. Also, we encountered a rain/snow mixture for a good part of the trip between Wheatland and Silver Lake, WI, making for some slippery rail.

We were going to meet a westbound train out of Chicago at Silver Lake, Wisconsin. He had not arrived yet. I was in communication with him and learned he was getting close so we were operating less than track speed to avoid stopping and having crossings blocked while we waited for him to enter the siding and clear the main track for us. Once he cleared we received a clear (green) signal at Silver Lake East and departed. I attempted to get the train up to speed but continued to have difficulties accomplishing that task. There was still wet rail a little way east of Silver Lake. The precipitation mixture subsided near the Wisconsin-Illinois State Line and we were back on the dry rail again. Entering Illinois near far the northern community of Antioch, we dropped into a little valley known as a sag that gave us some momentum and the train finally started to gain some speed, reaching 40 mph but still 10 mph short of the 50 MPH speed limit for this track. I commented that we were finally starting to move along as we entered Antioch and proceeded through town and across its numerous, closely spaced crossings.

I was blowing the whistle almost constantly here due to the close proximity of the crossings to each other; as soon as one was crossed it was time to start whistling for the next one. As we started up the grade toward Illinois Route 173, we could see the “snitch lights” on the sides of the roundels of the flashers at this crossing illuminating, indicating the signals at this crossing were activated and working properly. The train had just come over Ida Avenue and I almost immediately began the required whistle sequence of two longs, a short, and a long for Route 173. By this point the speed of the train had increased to 42 mph.

As we closed in on Route 173, an automobile rapidly approached the crossing from our left and Brian yelled, “That son of a bitch is going!” He did and was across and gone in an instant. At the moment he came directly into my path, I was approximately 400 feet from the crossing and closing in rapidly at over 56 feet per second. This gave me just enough time for a brief glimpse to determine that it was a full sized GM product, possibly an Oldsmobile, and it was gone. Simultaneously, off to the left there was a flash of headlights in my peripheral vision. It was just a brief flash of light. With the control stand to my left, the radio and the end of train telemetry receiver mounted directly on top of it, my range of vision to the left was somewhat obstructed. We continued toward the crossing as I was continuing to sound the whistle and also had the bell ringing. Suddenly Brian screamed out, “OH MY GOD!” At 9:55 on the evening of October 18, 1989, both my life and Brian’s changed forever.

Before I could even react, there was a tremendous impact, a horrible crashing sound and the screech of grinding metal. The impact was so great that the engine leaned far over to my right, pushing me into the window. Brian was knocked out of his seat and onto the floor. I immediately reached over, grabbed the automatic brake valve handle and put the train into emergency. (An emergency application is the fastest, strongest application possible with the train’s air brake system.) Simultaneously, I jumped up and ran around to get behind the control stand. I remember thinking that we were about to go over onto our side and that I wanted more between me and Mother Earth than just a window. As I was moving to the back side of the control stand, I hit the Dispatcher call in button on the radio. This button, when depressed, sends a tone over the air that activates the dispatcher radio base and alerts the dispatcher that I am trying to contact them. All of this activity occurred within the course of maybe three seconds tops. Just like in a movie though, everything from this point on all suddenly seemed to be occurring in slow motion taking seemingly forever to transpire. I honestly don’t know how I managed to do so much in such a short time or how I even thought about doing what I did. Everything happened far faster than the time it is taking you to read this. But I can vividly recall every single detail including what I was thinking as this all transpired.

A tremendous amount of activity was now taking place in an instant. As the engine came back down after leaning to the right, it hit and bottomed out on the rail and began to bounce. The locomotive bounced and bottomed out several times before settling down. And then the slack from the train began to crash into us. Between the bouncing and then the slack ramming into us I was fully expecting the engine to derail.

The emergency air brake application was now advancing through the train’s brake pipe at a rate of 900 feet per second. This means that the entire train would not be into emergency for almost seven and a half seconds from the moment I first made the emergency application of the brakes. In a situation such as this, seven and a half seconds is like an eternity. Once placed into emergency a sequence of events begins that cannot be controlled and once initiated, stopped. A tremendous change in the dynamics of the train is also occurring as the train is slowing down rapidly at different rates simultaneously. The slack action within the train was incredible as the middle and then rear portions of the train which had not yet had the emergency application reach them, were slamming into the head portion which was already trying to stop. I have no control of this entire situation. The tail end of the train is still moving at the speed it was when I first put the train into emergency, while the head end is trying to stop. The run in of slack was incredible. As it began to reach us, the slack slammed hard into the engines, throwing both of us forward into the front bulkhead of the cab. It hit us again several more times. Finally the entire train was in emergency and beginning to slow down rapidly.

It was also at this point the Dispatcher came onto the radio answering my call-in signal. I ran back over to the radio and informed him that we just collided with a vehicle in Antioch. There are three things that a Train Dispatcher hopes to never hear. This is one of them. The other two are “We have a derailment” and “I have a man down.” The Dispatcher is well seasoned and highly competent veteran John Busa. Having been there and done that too many times in his career, John immediately knows what to ask and what to do. “Which crossing? Do we need an ambulance?” Quick, think! What crossing is this? What is the name of this crossing? “Uh, it’s the second crossing west of the hotbox detector!” was my response. By this point in time the train has come to a stop. The Engineer on the westbound train we met previously at Silver Lake hears this and tells John it is Rt. 173. He again asks, with the phone in his ear already ringing up the Antioch Police, if we need an ambulance. I remember telling him, “It was a tremendous impact; yeah, you better get one going!”

I’m helping Brian up off the floor and making sure he is OK when John calls back and says the emergency response people are en route. He then asks if we are OK and if we need any medical attention. Ironically, he is the only person from the railroad to ask that question most of that entire night, until we talk to the claim agent much later.

As Brian is getting his coat on, we now start to wonder about the train and hazardous materials. With the incredible slack action that has just taken place, we realize that we could very likely be derailed. We have a block of twenty-two empty 89-foot pipe flats in the middle of the train with heavy loads of roofing granules and rolled paper behind them. A quick look at the paperwork reminds us there are none of the deadly hazardous materials in the train: relief, if only for a moment. If the train has derailed back there, at least we will not compound the situation with a hazardous material release or spill.

Brian heads out the front door to discover the steps are all smashed in and handrails badly bent on the left front and proceeds out the back door instead to head back to the scene. By now, the ghouls are all coming out in force to take a look at what has happened. People are approaching the engines to see the carnage. I actually have to threaten one guy that had two little kids in tow with arrest. He is telling me it is “his right” to see this. I tell him the police will take him to jail if he comes any closer.

I proceed to make a quick inspection of the motive power to check for any kind of fire or fuel leaks. Taking a quick look at the damage I almost, but somehow don’t, lose it. I spotted human flesh and hair on the left front side of the lead set of trucks of the locomotive and on part of the left front steps. I quickly climb back into the cab to see if Brian has made it back there yet. Just as I enter the cab John Busa calls to see if we have any more information about injuries. It was just about the time Brian comes upon the body of a now deceased teenaged girl and I report the information to John. The emergency response people arrived just moments before Brian found her but haven’t reached him or the deceased girl yet. The news totally devastates me so I can only imagine what this sight does to Brian. How he stays in one piece is beyond me. He must have reached way down deep for some of that hidden strength we all find during moments of crisis.

During this period of time, I perform two tasks without thinking: I just do them. First, I sit down and pull out a sheet of paper and write out every possible detail I can remember that occurred just prior to, and then immediately after the point of impact. Then I go outside and do a thorough inspection of my motive power and write up a full report of all damages. Upon inspecting the right rear of my lead locomotive, I discover the ballast added for weight in the rear of the locomotive has been pushed through the car body just above the access door to right rear sander control valves. This most likely happened either when the train started to slam into us or when we bottomed out all those times. Both of these documents I wrote out will later be subpoenaed as evidence.

Meanwhile the Paramedics and firefighters are working feverishly to remove another person, another young girl, from the car. They use the “Jaws of Life” to assist in extricating her. Moments later Brian informs me of yet another fatality; another teenaged girl. At this moment the girl trapped in the car is still alive though. By this point in time, two officers from the Antioch Police Department arrive and board the locomotive. Both of them realize the hell I am going through and do their best to calm me down. While I wasn’t a raving lunatic I was pretty stressed. They interview me and make mention that the coroner has been summoned and he too, will have to interview both Brian and I before we will be released. They stay up here with me for quite some time to make sure I am going to be OK. They also keep asking me if I need any medical attention. They did seem somewhat surprised that I didn’t have any apparent physical injuries.

After what seems like an eternity passes, Brian tells me he believes that the third girl, the driver of the car, has also died. I relay this information to John and inform him that both Brian and I wish to be relieved. He relays that information to the Chief Dispatcher. A little while later, John comes back on to inform us that the trainmaster at Schiller Park has refused our request to be relieved. Much later that evening we learned he is planning to run a work train in the morning and (in his words) “doesn’t want to waste this crew for us.” How considerate and compassionate. He never even leaves the office to head up to the scene. He told us later that he figured there was no reason for him to be there and also there was nothing he could do anyway. Never mind the fact that he should be there to represent and protect the best interest of both the railroad and us.

In virtually every instance of a train/motor vehicle collision, the railroad will send a company officer to the scene. The crew involved will very likely be under duress, particularly in the event of a fatality. There was some serious bad blood between this trainmaster and Brian and myself. It was our belief he was “getting even” with us by not making an appearance. I guess this trainmaster believed that he would not represent us in this tragic event nor allow Brian and me to be relieved at the scene to show us or something. I don’t believe this guy had even momentarily considered the exposure he could be opening up the railroad to under the circumstances. His actions were negligent in representing the company in this situation by not responding to the scene and by not relieving us. Brian and I were not mentally fit to operate the train creating the potential of yet another episode occurring.

When the Paramedics are finished at the scene and the last of the three girls was transported away Brian is brought up to the head end by another one of Antioch’s finest. Now we have to wait for the Coroner to arrive. We were told earlier that the Coroner was out for the evening and had to be tracked down. He is now en route to interview us and pronounce death, but it will be awhile. Both a track supervisor and a signal maintainer arrived at the scene and prior to his return to the engines and speak with Brian. The track supervisor is kind enough to inspect the train for us, and to our shock, he informs us that everything is on the rail and nothing is shifted or off center.

Finally, the Coroner arrives and conducts his interviews. He too, is very compassionate and does his best to make us feel at ease. With all of that finally taken care of, we are released at 11:29pm, 1 hour and 34 minutes after the collision occurred. That stretch of time seemed like an eternity to me. It was almost as if the clock had actually started running backwards.

Neither Brian nor I feel we are in any condition to proceed, but our old trainmaster pal thinks otherwise. We I discuss this very issue at length and I admitted that I was in no mental state to be running a train. In light of what Brian witnessed, I know he too, is in no state of mind to perform his duties safely. We then proceed to take the train east to Schiller Park. I never once exceeded 20 mph the rest of the trip as I was way off my game and had no desire to gamble with my job, mine and Brian’s lives or the safety of the train. Finally arriving at Schiller Park at 1:20am, the trainmaster starts to give us all kinds of instructions about our set-out and pick-up and taking the train through to the Illinois Central at Markham. We inform him we are all finished for the rest of the evening and tell him to call a cab. I tell him if he is so worried about the train, he can take it himself.

Upon our arrival in the office at Schiller Park, the trainmaster tells us to call the Antioch Police, as they have a couple more questions they need answered, and also to call the claim agent. Not once does he ask us if we were alright though. We take care of both phone calls, and while talking to him on the phone, the claim agent asks if we are all right and if we need medical attention. We also received confirmation from the Antioch police that the third girl in the car, the driver, had also died. After concluding the business on the phone we finally get our cab to the hotel.

Once checked in I didn’t sleep a wink the entire night (or morning, actually). My brain was in high gear and refused to slow down and try to rest. Time and time again I kept going over what had transpired. The instant replay continued to play over and over again. I was trying to think of what I should have done differently. Maybe I should have laid-off sick that day and not gone to work; something, anything. All these years later I still wonder. I did nothing wrong. I violated no rules and broke no laws. Yet I got all the guilt. I was feeling guilty about something in which I was not at fault. I don’t suppose being referred to as a “baby killer” in the media by someone close to one of the deceased in the days after helped my mental state at that point in time either. Yeah right, like I chased these three girls down the street, up their driveway, and into the garage, then hit them when they weren’t looking. I can still vividly recall what thoughts raced through my mind, my emotions throughout that morning while lying in my hotel bed and how I never once fell into any kind of real sleep. I believe that one of the reasons I can so clearly recount everything that happened that evening as that I replayed the episode over and over again for hours while lying in my bed, constantly analyzing what had transpired including all of my actions and reactions.

Of course a lawsuit was filed against us and the railroad. In the period of discovery that preceded the the upcoming trial it was learned the driver of the car, a seventeen year old girl, hadn’t gone to school that day because she was “too sick.” Apparently she made a complete recovery in time to go out driving around that evening with two of her friends, both sixteen years of age, and were playing the old “cat and mouse” game with the guy in car in front of them. This was the same car that made it across the tracks in front of us without getting hit. After initially telling police he wasn’t there and didn’t know these girls, he later admitted that he was there and did indeed know them. Then he claimed he was almost hit by the train as the crossing signals weren’t working.

I never actually saw the car involved in this collision. It never made it past the front of the engine. The front drawbar (coupler) of the locomotive hit solidly just behind the right front wheel well of the automobile. Brian said there was a distinct impression of it on the front portion of the car. The car was spun a little more than sideways and wound up completely off the road and onto the right-of-way just east of the crossing. The engine block was ripped completely out of the car. The dashboard was also torn out. The speedometer was stuck at 50 mph. The two passengers never had a chance. At least one of them made physical contact with the locomotive. I did see pictures of the car sometime later. It had once been a Chevy Caprice. The damage was so significant that this auto was completely destroyed. The salvage yard it was taken to eventually scrapped the car. Employees at this facility told the claim agent there was absolutely nothing salvageable on it; the car was completely totaled; certainly a graphic and tragic manner in which to prove the weight ratio theory.

Of course shortly thereafter the lawyers approached the families of the decedents telling them they could sue the railroad and get lots of money. And so the legal action began. When all was said and done, they didn’t get the millions they were seeking. They did get a settlement initiated by them on the courthouse steps as there was a pretrial motion ruled in our favor that stood to really hurt their case. Personally, I don’t believe they should have received anything.

Somebody else acts irresponsibly, scars me for life and I am made out to be the bad guy. Sue me as you cannot accept responsibility of your daughter’s own lack of good judgment. And oddly enough, the way the law works in Illinois (or doesn’t work); I could not counter sue the families of the victims for mental anguish. I received no physical injuries so in theory the result is that I did not suffer at all. I guess all the guilt I was saddled with for years that affected me mentally is not considered suffering. Had I cut my finger in the collision, I could have not only sued, but added the mental anguish onto that suit claiming it was the result of the physical injury I received in the collision.

Am I bitter about the legal proceedings? You’re damn right I am. My world was turned upside down by the negligence of somebody else and as a result I had to defend myself and my actions. I felt like I was treated like a criminal in both the media and in the legal proceedings. Some lawyers approached these families, telling them they could make millions over this catastrophe. Don’t accept responsibility, just sue somebody else. I feel terrible enough that these young girls died; don’t make me the scapegoat. Perhaps the mother of the girl driving should shoulder all the responsibility. The young girl that was driving the car stayed home from school that day because she was allegedly too sick to attend. Did it ever occur to her that just maybe her daughter might have still been too sick to drive? Perhaps her judgment was impaired. Too sick for school, but a miraculous recovery in time to go out and play that evening. As a result, three teenaged girls wound up dead.

JD “Tuch” Santucci ©1999 and 2013.

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