A Windsor man who was aboard the Amtrak train that crashed near Chicago on Sunday, killing a truck driver and derailing five passenger cars, described the sights and sounds as indelible.
“We had been on the train just short of an hour,” said Scott Mayer, 59, of Windsor. “They were up to 70 mph and there was a loud bang. There was metal scraping. You could see metal parts flying by our window – a truck hood, tires and things like that.”
Mayer said he and his wife, Kelly Mayer, 60, were headed home on the train from Chicago’s United Center after enjoying a Jeff Lynne and The Electric Light Orchestra concert.
Authorities said the driver of a box truck died after the vehicle was struck by the train in University Park, about 30 miles south of Chicago. The Will County Coroner's Office identified the truck driver as 77-year-old Richard E. Millette of Frankfort, Illinois. Although only two people on the train reported minor injuries, many passengers were shaken by the abrupt stop to their trip, according to the Associated Press. The cars remained upright but leaned a bit on the gravel and rails.
The train was headed south from Chicago to Carbondale with stops planned in Effingham and Mattoon.
Mayer said the train went from 70 mph to zero in about 20 seconds. A number of first responders were quickly on scene, prepared for what could have been a catastrophe.
The couple were in the business class car, seated about 10 feet behind the engine.
"The cafe car looked like a tornado went through there," said Mayer. "Everything in the cafe car was on the floor. People who were standing in the cafe car ended up on the floor on impact."
Passengers and crew made up about 300 people on Train 393 that was traveling along the Canadian National railroad line.
“The (train’s) cars started going into the rocks and we stopped pretty fast,” said Mayer. “The gates were down. I don’t know what happened, but (the driver of the box truck) pulled out in front of the train just before it got there at that crossing. There was nothing the engineer could do. He set the brakes and that was all he could do.”
Amtrak officials had all passengers exit the train swiftly and suggested they leave their belongings behind.
Mayer said most people handled the incident well. While others were panicked and upset.
“A lot of people came together and helped one another,” said Mayer.
The couple travels between 2,000 and 5,000 miles a year by Amtrak.
“We travel quite a bit on their long hauls and several times a year up to Chicago. We’ve had a lot of experiences on Amtrak before, but nothing like this,” Mayer said.
“We love taking Amtrak. But, it might be hard to get back in the saddle,” he said.
Jim Myers and Tara Moseley of St. Elmo had also gone up for the ELO concert and said their view upon impact was similar.
“We heard like a thud. It was a big thud. We saw gravel flying by – and dirt and tires and an axle from the vehicle that was hit,” said Myers, 43.
Myers said it was difficult to put the right words to the experience.
“It’s hard to explain, but we could feel the train derailing,” said Myers. “You could feel every tie that we ran across. The car rocked back and forth a little bit. I never wanted something to stop so fast in my life. If felt like an eternity, but it was like only a minute.”
When the train came to an abrupt stop, he said he could smell diesel and see lots of dust floating around the air.
“There was terror in people’s eyes,” said Myers. “People were panicked, but at the same time, they were calm. It was two emotions mixed into one. It was like something you only see in the movies.”
Myers and Moseley were seated in the third car behind the engine. He said a cellphone belonging to someone else three seat rows back, ended up in his seat.
“We were told to get off the train fast,” said Myers. “They said to leave your things, but we just had one bag so we grabbed it fast. We weren’t planning on going back.”
Passengers were instructed to move swiftly and walk to a nearby gas station.
Passengers said they walked an estimated half-mile to a nearby gas station and waited for buses to take them to Governor’s State University for other buses to take them to their destinations. The wait took hours.
“Survival mode kicked in,” said Myers. “We made sure all the kids and women got off first.”
Myers said that was his first train ride in at least 10 years. Their destination to Effingham was expected around 7 p.m. They arrived home at 2 a.m. Monday.
“I used to ride the train a lot,” said Myers. “But I’m not planning to ride anytime soon.”
Megan Sherman, 24, a Neoga native and current Bourbonnais resident, was on her way home after a weekend trip to Chicago with her husband, Austin, 24. The couple was celebrating their second wedding anniversary.
Sherman said she and her husband were to depart the train at 5:15 p.m. at the Kankakee station then make the 15-minute drive back to their Bourbonnais home. She said an Amtrak crew member had just stopped by their seats before the train collided with the box truck around 5 p.m.
"It felt like a lot longer, but it was probably just minutes before this all went down that one crew member ... came up to Austin and I and was like, 'Do you guys know what's next?' and we said 'Kankakee' because we know. We've taken that train a ton of times," Sherman said.
Sherman said she and her husband felt their train car shudder and saw plywood fly past their window. The couple was three cars back from the engine. She then felt a second shudder as she realized her train car was coming off the tracks and traveling into the gravel.
The scene was not chaotic, according to Sherman, and the passengers exited the tilted train cars calmly and in an orderly fashion. She said some passengers were crying but were checking on the well-being of other passengers. Sherman said she and her husband helped an elderly woman seated in front of them with her bags and helped her get off the train.
At first, Sherman said she, her husband and several other passengers exited the train on the side the cars were tilting toward. Amtrak crew members then instructed the passengers to cross back through the train, get off on the other side and begin walking away from the train.
The couple walked with the other passengers to a Speedway gas station near the tracks where they awaited charter buses to take them to their original destinations. Sherman said rather than getting home around 5:30 p.m., she and her husband finally made it to Bourbonnais at 11:15 p.m.
Sunday was not the first time Sherman had experienced an incident on a train. Years ago, she was on a train traveling from Seattle, Washington, to Sacramento, California, when it hit a vehicle and stopped for four hours.
Despite her second train incident, Sherman said she is willing to ride on an Amtrak train again.
"We'll probably get back on, but not for a little while," Sherman said.
Dawn Schabbing can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 217-347-7151, ext. 138
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Amtrak issues safety tips
Amtrak Public Relations Manager Marc Magliari said the derailment Sunday is an opportunity for the public to be reminded of exercising caution around railroad tracks and crossings.
"Each year, about 2,000 people are killed or injured in grade crossing and trespassing incidents nationwide," Magliari said. "Approximately every three hours in the U.S., a train is delayed after making contact with a person or vehicle on the tracks."
Magliari said a train traveling at 55 mph can take approximately one mile, or the length of about 18 football fields, to stop. The train involved in Sunday's incident was reported to have been going 70 mph. He added that at most railroad crossings, it takes about 20 seconds for a train to be at a crossing once warning lights start flashing.
Magliari recommended the following safety tips:
• Always obey all warning signs, signals and sounds at railroad crossings. Trains can come from any direction, on any track, at any time and might not be heard.
• Report an emergency or warning system problem using the toll-free number on the blue and white sign posted at every railroad crossing.
• Use of ear buds, headsets or cellphones around tracks can prevent a person from hearing an approaching train.
• Trains are wider than the tracks. If a person gets too close, they can be hit by or dragged under the train.
• Never drive around lowered gates — it's illegal and deadly. In addition, there are legal penalties for going around lowered crossing gates.
• Unless you are at a designated public crossing, do not walk, jog, bike or operate a snowmobile on or across railroad tracks or railroad property.
• Report suspicious items, persons, or activity immediately to the Amtrak Police Department by approaching a uniformed officer, calling 800-331-0008, sending a text to APD11 (27311), or by calling 911.