20 years after Fox River Grove bus accident, difficult emotions linger

  • Seven students died when a Metra express train hit a school bus on Oct. 25, 1995, in Fox River Grove.

      Seven students died when a Metra express train hit a school bus on Oct. 25, 1995, in Fox River Grove. Paul valade | Staff Photographer, 1995

  • A train struck a school bus Oct. 25, 1995, in Fox River Grove, separating the bus from its chassis and killing seven teenage students.

      A train struck a school bus Oct. 25, 1995, in Fox River Grove, separating the bus from its chassis and killing seven teenage students. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer, 1995

  • A train struck a school bus Oct. 25, 1995, in Fox River Grove, separating the bus from its chassis and killing seven teenage students.

      A train struck a school bus Oct. 25, 1995, in Fox River Grove, separating the bus from its chassis and killing seven teenage students. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer, 1995

  • A school bus was spun around and came to rest near Algonquin Road and Northwest Highway in Fox River Grove after it was struck by a train on Oct. 25, 1995. A memorial to the seven who were killed marks the spot today.

    A school bus was spun around and came to rest near Algonquin Road and Northwest Highway in Fox River Grove after it was struck by a train on Oct. 25, 1995. A memorial to the seven who were killed marks the spot today. Daily Herald File Photo, 1995/Dave Tonge

  • Deputy Chief Jim Kreher of the Fox River Grove fire department was a first responder on the scene of the deadly 1995 school bus accident in Fox River Grove.

      Deputy Chief Jim Kreher of the Fox River Grove fire department was a first responder on the scene of the deadly 1995 school bus accident in Fox River Grove. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Fox River Grove Fire Capt. Jason Kedrok, who was a student on the bus struck by a train in 1995, drives an ambulance with a 7 and an angel wing in memory of the seven students who died.

      Fox River Grove Fire Capt. Jason Kedrok, who was a student on the bus struck by a train in 1995, drives an ambulance with a 7 and an angel wing in memory of the seven students who died. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Fox River Grove Fire Capt. Jason Kedrok, left, talks with Fire Chief Bob Kreher about the Oct. 25, 1995, school bus and train accident. Kreher was on the scene and Kedrok was a student on the bus.

      Fox River Grove Fire Capt. Jason Kedrok, left, talks with Fire Chief Bob Kreher about the Oct. 25, 1995, school bus and train accident. Kreher was on the scene and Kedrok was a student on the bus. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Fox River Grove Fire Capt. Jason Kedrok, right, talks with Fire Chief Bob Kreher about the Oct. 25, 1995, school bus and train accident. Kreher was on the scene and Kedrok was a student on the bus.

      Fox River Grove Fire Capt. Jason Kedrok, right, talks with Fire Chief Bob Kreher about the Oct. 25, 1995, school bus and train accident. Kreher was on the scene and Kedrok was a student on the bus. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Fox River Grove Fire Capt. Jason Kedrok, left, and Fire Chief Bob Kreher pause at the memorial at the site where a train struck a school bus in 1995, killing seven students. Kedrok was on the bus that day and Kreher was one of the emergency workers at the scene.

      Fox River Grove Fire Capt. Jason Kedrok, left, and Fire Chief Bob Kreher pause at the memorial at the site where a train struck a school bus in 1995, killing seven students. Kedrok was on the bus that day and Kreher was one of the emergency workers at the scene. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Fox River Grove Fire Capt. Jason Kedrok talks about being a student on the bus that was hit by a train in 1995, killing seven of his Cary-Grove High School classmates.

      Fox River Grove Fire Capt. Jason Kedrok talks about being a student on the bus that was hit by a train in 1995, killing seven of his Cary-Grove High School classmates. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 10/24/2015 5:17 PM

On Sunday morning, just as they've done every year on Oct. 25, a small group of families, firefighters and police officers will gather at the site of the deadly 1995 school bus accident in Fox River Grove.

They'll hug hello and talk for a while. Then they'll bow their heads and stand together in silence for a few minutes to remember the seven students who died there 20 years ago.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

They'll think of the teenagers who survived the violent crash, some with serious injuries. They're in their 30s now. Some have kids of their own.

"Time goes on and you have to live life. But is (the pain) there? Yeah, it's there. Every year, on the 25th, it's there. It doesn't go away," said Fox River Grove Police Chief Ron Lukasik, then a 28-year-old patrolman who ran to the scene to help. "It was the perfect storm of bad things that happened. And you just think about those kids. These were kids that were doing nothing wrong. Just going to school."

Time marched on, but the emotional wounds of that traumatic day still linger. So does the heartbreak over the loss of Jeffrey Clark, 16; Stephanie Fulham, 15; Susanna Guzman, 18; Michael Hoffman, 14; Joe Kalte, 16; Shawn Robinson, 14; and Tiffany Schneider, 15.

Jeffrey Clark, 16
Jeffrey Clark, 16
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Privately, those affected by the crash talk of struggles with deep sadness and anger. They mention one man who can't talk about it, even 20 years later, and another who cried thinking about the crash every day for years. It's not surprising, given the horror of what happened.

Stephanie Fulham, 15
Stephanie Fulham, 15

On Oct. 25, 1995, a school bus carrying 35 students was running late on its way to Cary-Grove High School. At about 7:10 a.m. the driver -- a substitute unfamiliar with the route -- drove over the train tracks on Algonquin Road and stopped for a red light at Northwest Highway. She didn't realize the rear 3 feet of the bus was hanging over the tracks.

A National Transportation Safety Board report described what happened next.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
Susanna Guzman, 18
Susanna Guzman, 18

The engineer of the Metra 624 express blared the horn repeatedly and braked but could not stop. Inside the bus, nervous laughter as the crossing gate hit the bus turned into panic as students saw the train approaching and those in the back tried to race forward.

Michael Hoffman, 14
Michael Hoffman, 14

Twenty-five seconds later, the 570-ton train going about 60 mph slammed into the bus.

Joe Kalte, 16
Joe Kalte, 16

The impact knocked the bus body off its chassis and spun it into the air.

All of the students killed were in the last four rows; five were in the last two. Ten others had serious injuries. All but four of the 35 students were hurt.

Tiffany Schneider, 15
Tiffany Schneider, 15

The accident scene, which some call Seven Angels Crossing, is marked by a small garden and stone memorial. Bouquets or balloons sometimes are left there.

Shawn Robinson, 14
Shawn Robinson, 14

It remains one of the worst grade crossing crashes in U.S. history.

Sweeping safety changes followed, not just in Fox River Grove but across the nation. More than $27 million in settlements were paid to the victims and their families, with most of it coming from Crystal Lake-based school districts 47 and 155, which jointly operated the bus service.

The NTSB found plenty of causes, from bus driver Patricia Catencamp not being aware the bus was on the tracks, to the Illinois Department of Transportation failing to recognize the dangers of the intersection's design and signals, to the school districts not telling substitutes about regular drivers' habits of waiting for a green light before crossing the tracks.

Catencamp has never spoken publicly. Her friends, interviewed after the accident, said she was devastated. So was the train's engineer, Ford Dotson Jr., who wept during the 1996 NTSB hearing while recalling his inability to stop the train in time.

We talked to some of the people connected to the tragedy who reflected on the accident, what it taught them, and why it's still hard to make sense of it all.

'Who would she be?'

Deborah Owens still gets angry about the accident that took away her 15-year-old daughter, Stephanie Fulham, and that nobody received an apology from the bus driver.

"Who would (Stephanie) be today? She'd be 35 years old. Would she have a family? Would she have a career? Gone to college? All of those things, I think about," she said.

Owens, who lives in Georgia, remains deeply grateful to the tight-knit Fox River Grove community for helping her through her darkest days.

"I'd have never survived otherwise," she said.

It took many difficult years of counseling to help her cope with her daughter's death. While she's "doing well most of the time" now, October is hard because it also contains Stephanie's birthday. Owens must force herself to do positive things that day, like visit her grandchildren.

"You go on. You have very dark days from time to time. Luckily, they're not daily any longer. You can see the goodness in life. At some point, that comes through. The pain is never easier; you just get used to it."

That goodness includes memories of Stephanie's infectious laugh, how much she loved children and art or funny moments, like when Owens came home to find her frying bacon ("which wasn't exactly allowed -- she was 8, 9 or 10!") and pouring maple syrup on it so it'd be maple-flavored. She puts Stephanie's ornaments on the Christmas tree each year and wears a piece of her daughter's jewelry, a coral charm her grandmother had given her.

Owens doesn't like to go to accident memorial services and tries to avoid the crossing when she's in Fox River Grove, though it's in the center of town.

"I'm astonished that it's been 20 years," she said. "My heart goes out to all of the people that didn't recover, kids that might not have had the help or support they needed."

'I remember waking up'

It had been an emotional week for Jason Kedrok. The 15-year-old freshman had lost his father to cancer 12 days earlier. On the way to school that morning, he was napping in a middle row of the bus with his head on his backpack and his feet propped up.

Fox River Grove Fire Capt. Jason Kedrok, who was a student on the bus struck by a train in 1995, drives an ambulance with a 7 and an angel wing in memory of the seven students who died.
  Fox River Grove Fire Capt. Jason Kedrok, who was a student on the bus struck by a train in 1995, drives an ambulance with a 7 and an angel wing in memory of the seven students who died. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

He awoke to the commotion of kids yelling and rushing up the aisle. He saw the train speeding toward the bus and heard the horn, but after that, his memory goes blank. He woke up in a hospital with a concussion and bruised ribs.

A full-time firefighter/paramedic in Arlington Heights who also works part time for the Fox River Grove Fire Protection District, Kedrok said he developed "an emotional callus" to deal with the trauma of that day. Counseling after the accident helped him deal with the torturous "what if?" questions and survivor's guilt.

"I grew up too quick," he said, adding that he and other Cary-Grove students had to deal with things no teen should face, like seven classmates' funerals and giving eyewitness accounts of the accident to a room full of lawyers and NTSB officials.

Yet, Kedrok says his struggles were nothing compared to the families who lost children.

"It's so much harder for their families than it is for me," he said. "I'm lucky."

Justin Petrutis was sitting at the front of the bus, because the 14-year-old freshman "wasn't one of the cool kids." It might have saved his life. His worst injury was a cut in his mouth, caused by his face slamming against the bus window.

"I remember waking up, still being in my seat, but looking at the ground and noticing that it was grass rather than the floor of the bus," he said. "In a word, it was surreal."

In shock, Petrutis walked off the bus and over to the curb, where a stranger offered him a jacket and a cellphone. He used it to call his mom and tell her he was OK.

It wasn't until later that day that he learned others on the bus -- people he'd gone to school with since kindergarten -- had died, and that two boys who had been sitting a few rows behind him had serious head trauma and internal injuries.

"I felt a little guilty that I was OK," he said.

After the accident, Petrutis said he became "an angry individual." Moody and unfriendly, he avoided school functions like dances or pep rallies.

Sgt. 1st Class Justin Petrutis was sitting at the front of the school bus, because the 14-year-old freshman "wasn't one of the cool kids," in Fox River Grove when the train slammed into it in 1995.
Sgt. 1st Class Justin Petrutis was sitting at the front of the school bus, because the 14-year-old freshman "wasn't one of the cool kids," in Fox River Grove when the train slammed into it in 1995. - Courtesy of Justin Petrutis

" My classmates would concur that I wasn't warm and cuddly back then," he said, laughing. "That's one of my regrets ... that I wasn't very empathetic to other people's issues at the time. I just couldn't wait until I joined the military and shipped out. I thought of it as putting it all behind me and starting fresh."

He left Fox River Grove four days after graduation and joined the Army. Now a married father of two living in Colorado, he is nearing retirement from a military career that includes tours of duty in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. A sergeant first class who does aviation maintenance, Petrutis worked for a time on medical evacuation helicopters in Afghanistan, helping get injured people to hospitals.

"(The accident) kind of toughened me up a little," he said. "I really wish I'd had the mentality I have now, so I could have checked on my classmates that day."

Justin Petrutis is near retirement in the military now. Here he is a UH-60 crew chief with an air ambulance unit while in Afghanistan in 2007.
Justin Petrutis is near retirement in the military now. Here he is a UH-60 crew chief with an air ambulance unit while in Afghanistan in 2007. - Courtesy of Justin Petrutis

Petrutis is coming home this weekend for the first time in three years. Besides seeing family, he feels compelled to visit the accident site on the 20th anniversary.

"Every year, there's a moment of pause. I thank God, and I remember those who were less fortunate and the families who were left behind. I consider myself extremely fortunate," he said. "As much as I've tried to forget about it, I can't forget it. It's still very much a part of anyone who grew up in that town."

'You just breathe'

For survivors and witnesses, some things trigger memories.

It happened to Kedrok recently, while he was on a field trip with his 6-year-old and the school bus drove across train tracks. Once in a while, the sound of a train horn will bother him.

"I'll just get that sinking feeling," he said. "Do I say 10 Hail Marys? No. You just say to yourself, 'Yeah, I still remember the sound of that train horn.' And you just breathe."

Fox River Grove Police Chief Ron Lukasik helped at the scene of the deadly 1995 bus accident when he was a young patrolman getting off the midnight shift. "Time goes on and you have to live life. But is (the pain) there? Yeah, it's there. Every year, on the 25th, it's there. It doesn't go away," he said.
Fox River Grove Police Chief Ron Lukasik helped at the scene of the deadly 1995 bus accident when he was a young patrolman getting off the midnight shift. "Time goes on and you have to live life. But is (the pain) there? Yeah, it's there. Every year, on the 25th, it's there. It doesn't go away," he said. - courtesy of Ron Lukasik

Police Chief Lukasik says the metallic smell from the nearby plating company, which permeated the air that morning, still triggers memories.

For a time, Petrutis would wake up in the middle of the night with his heart racing, thinking he was back on the bus.

What Fox River Grove Fire Chief Bob Kreher can't erase from his mind was seeing parents find out their child was among the dead that morning.

"I can still hear, to this day, the moms just dropping to their knees and screaming, and pleading and begging God for it not to be their kid," he said.

Kreher and his brother, Jim, the department's deputy fire chief and the first person to arrive at the accident scene, sometimes gave presentations to help other fire departments learn how their tiny crew handled such a major accident. But after a few years, they stopped doing it.

"It got to be too emotional," Jim Kreher said.

'I'm paying it forward'

No one wants to say that something good came out of the tragedy, but they recognize it was a catalyst for safety improvements at rail crossings around the world.

Kedrok said the accident taught him to appreciate life. He says "thank you" a lot and makes sure when he's home with his wife and four kids, he's "100 percent there."

"The one thing that still hasn't changed is that I still don't know when my ticket will be punched. When I will pass away," he said. "In the meantime, I'm going to do the best that I can to make somebody's day better."

Kedrok was interested in firefighting before the accident -- his older sister was a firefighter and he was in the department's cadet program. But he believes the accident led him to a career where he could teach people how to stay safe, and not just from fires. He also works with Pink Heals of Northern Illinois on women's cancer awareness with the help of a pink firetruck.

"Now I'm paying it forward," he said. "The older I get, the more I realize how precious things are. Especially kids."

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