The anatomy of the Fox River Grove crash

 
By Ray Minor and Chris Fusco
Daily Herald staff writers
Posted10/24/2015 7:00 AM
Editor's Note: This article appeared in the Daily Herald in the fall of 1995 after the Fox River Grove train-bus crash that killed seven students.

At first after the crash, the inside of the darkened school bus echoed with an eerie silence.

No wails, no panic, no curses, no frenzied moves for escape.

 

Just a still pall that belied the deadly crushing force of the 600-ton commuter train that moments before ripped the shell of the bus from its chassis and slammed it spinning into a traffic light.

"There was dead silence when I got there," said Fox River Grove Police Chief Robert Polston, who witnessed the crash that fateful morning and was the first rescue worker to make it to the bus. "You couldn't hear anything."

Seven students were dead or dying. The bus driver and 27 others were injured.

Outside the bus, the scene in those first few seconds was orderly but whirling.

The steel train wheels squealed as the engineer brought the speeding express commuter to a stop far down the track. Polston - stunned by the crash and oblivious to the rush-hour traffic - raced across Route 14 toward the wreckage and radioed for help. Motorists jumped out of their cars pointing and shouting. "Oh, my God!" one said in a 911 call to police dispatchers.

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And the warning bells at the crossing continued to peal.

The force of the crash threw at least one student through a back window; some witnesses thought they saw as many as four.

But inside the bus, most of the students remarkably were still in their seats, some lying against or over others, but many still sitting.

They sat with their injuries in darkness - the crash had knocked out the lights in the bus - and in momentary quiet.

Eventually, as the daze wore off, some of the students became hysterical. The shaken driver, also near hysterics, shouted for students to get off the bus and radioed in to report the accident.

But for many of the survivors, the reality did not sink in until much later.

One student picked up his books and made his way off the bus as though it had just delivered him to school. Another walked to a nearby convenience store and ordered a cup of hot chocolate.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"Everyone was kind of in shock," Assistant Fire Chief Jim Kreher recalled. "Everyone was asking what happened."

What happened?

There is no simple explanation for what happened on the morning of Oct. 25.

The day began in Fox River Grove the way weekday mornings do nine months out of the year across the nation - students with full lives ahead of them getting on a bus to go to school.

It began in Crystal Lake the way weekday mornings do throughout the year in most metropolitan areas of the country - commuters with full days ahead of them getting on a train to go to work.

In Fox River Grove, 36 Cary-Grove High School teenagers, mostly freshmen and sophomores, rode a bus that was running about 20 minutes late with substitute driver Patricia Catencamp behind the wheel.

In Crystal Lake, about 20 to 25 passengers boarded Chicago-bound train No. 624, engineered by Dotson Ford Jr., that would make express time with only 15 stops and speeds as fast as 70 mph.

Fate brought the two together in Fox River Grove in a surreal moment at a lightly traveled crossing at Algonquin Road, 45 feet southwest of busy Route 14.

In the aftermath, the crash site would be designated as Seven Angels Crossing in memory of the students who died. Prior to the tragedy, it had been known only for the frequent complaints it produced about the timing of the traffic signals.

The atmosphere on the bus that morning was not overly boisterous, as some have speculated. Still, the bus radio was playing, which wasn't normally the case, and that made it difficult in the front of the bus to hear noise from the back.

Teenagers tend to be mischievous by nature, however, and one student tried several times to misdirect the substitute driver light-heartedly in a prankish voice.

But most of the teenagers were tired and cold from the long chilly wait for the bus, and their exchanges were limited, for the most part, to carefree bantering.

At about 7:09 a.m., two of them looked out the window at passing scenery and joked about the ducks in a frigid pond on the west side of Lexington Avenue.

Then the bus headed up Algonquin and stopped at the tracks. The driver opened the door as required by a stop-look-and-listen safety regulation, then drove over the tracks and edged down a short slope to stop for a red light just beyond the crossing. The back of the bus hung about 4 feet over the rail right of way.

The warning lights at the crossing started; the gates began dropping.

At first, when one of the teenagers yelled that a train was coming, several students laughed.

Then one of the gates hit the side of the bus.

It was 7:11. Tragedy approached with a screaming train whistle.

Catencamp apparently was not aware the bus had failed to clear the tracks. But many students were.

"You could see the terror in their eyes," said one witness, Colleen Bachinsky, who was waiting at the nearby depot. "They knew before the impact they were going to get hit."

What happened?

Many have suggested the answer is simple: The bus shouldn't have been on the tracks.

But the explanation is more complicated than that.

A Daily Herald examination of the tragedy suggests that while the driver made a human error in judgment, she was more a victim than a villain.

She was confused by a crossing and an intersection that had confused scores of other motorists.

The explanation for what happened carries national implications for rail and school bus safety.

There are 1,823 crossings in the Chicago area, 10,265 in Illinois and 280,000 in the country, and all are governed by an interwoven network of agencies that play multiple roles, but with virtually no oversight and little - if any - accountability.

Regulators and traffic engineers say they expect problems revealed in the Fox River Grove crash will lead to changes in standards for highway design and signal operation nationwide.

The accident "hopefully will form a catalyst," said Skokie traffic engineering consultant Willard Alroth.

What happened in Fox River Grove on Oct. 25 was a tragedy waiting to happen.

The keys to understanding it are the keys to avoiding similar tragedies in the future.

A late bus

On the last day she would wake, Stephanie Fulham got up at 5 a.m. and showered before rousing her father at 5:30 so he could catch the 6:25 Metra train to Chicago.

She styled her hair, recently lightened, dressed and considered, but then decided against, applying some new lipstick - an adventurous shade of green.

In her last hour inside her home, Stephanie watched MTV in the living room and chatted with her mother. At 6:30, she pulled the window shade to get a clear view of the bus stop across the street at the corner of Orchard Street and Opatrny Drive, the second of eight stops on a route through the east end of the small distant suburb.

With Coolio's "Gangster's Paradise" video as a backdrop, Stephanie discussed with her mother her role as a troll in Cary-Grove High School's production of "The Hobbit." They talked about buying a red shirt for an upcoming chorus concert.

Stephanie was 15, a sophomore who loved swimming, softball and soccer and worked part time at a local pizzeria.

"She was like any other teenager," said her mother, Debbie Fulham. "She would talk on the phone for hours and try to figure out what to wear. She was just a normal teen trying to grow up too soon."

The bus was due at the stop at 6:38. By 6:45, it still hadn't arrived. Stephanie got anxious, so she slipped on her mother's blue cardigan and joined the usual five classmates waiting at the corner.

Ten minutes later, the bus still hadn't shown up and Stephanie ran back across the street to ask her mother to give the group a ride in the family van.

"Of course I said I would take them," Debbie Fulham recalled. "I didn't want them to be late. I was irritated with the bus driver because she was supposed to be there."

She stepped onto her front porch, keys in hand, when the bus came into view. Stephanie called out that she wouldn't need a ride after all.

"I thought they would be late, but I let them go," Debbie Fulham said. "I had two other kids to send to school."

When Stephanie stepped aboard, the bus was still nearly empty. She took her regular seat near the back - a position traditionally reserved for the older riders. Sophomores Katie Baker, Colleen Kelly and Jim Winterton and freshman Erik Marshall got on at the same stop and also chose seats near the back.

The bus crept slowly through the north side of town, picking up students along School Street, Ski Hill Road and Oak Street.

Then it headed to Route 14 and Foxmoor Road, where it crossed the tracks into the Foxmoor neighborhood on the south side of town.

Sophomore Kim Coats and freshman Christopher Rose, carefully balancing his book bag and biology poster project, waited at Foxmoor and Asbury roads.

The bus was due at 6:44 a.m., and by 6:50 the two wondered aloud where it was. Christopher, though, wasn't worried, figuring even if the bus came as late as 7:10, he would get to school by the 7:25 bell.

The bus finally arrived at about 7:05.

Just a few blocks away, the largest group of students waited at Lexington Avenue and Hunter's Way, five blocks from the Algonquin Road crossing. More than 10 students waited at that stop, including Jon Anfinsen, Joseph Kalte, Brian and Michael Lucas, Justin Petrutis, Jason and Teresa Robertson, Lehn Shepherd and Natalie Wians.

Although it was light, the sun hadn't risen yet. Temperatures were in the low 40s, and the group quickly became chilled.

By 7 a.m., the teens were antsy. Natalie left to find another ride.

"She asked if anybody else wanted a ride," freshman Jon Anfinsen said. "Everyone decided to wait for the bus."

It finally arrived at about 7:08.

Jon took his customary seat in the third row behind the driver. The crowd was smaller than usual, he noticed - only 36 students instead of the usual 45 to 50.

Although the bus was behind schedule, the students were relaxed as it approached the crossing.

"Everybody's pretty quiet because everybody's tired," Christopher Rose explained, adding that many freshmen had yet to adjust to Cary-Grove's 7:25 a.m. starting time. At Fox River Grove Junior High, classes did not start until 7:55 a.m.

A substitute driver

At the transportation center at Crystal Lake South High School, the day started badly.

The bus system, a joint operation of Crystal Lake High School District 155 and Crystal Lake Elementary District 47, had been advertising for substitute drivers with little luck.

With about eight of some 100 regular drivers reporting in sick on Oct. 25, dispatchers first called on the six substitutes, most of them housewives or retirees.

With two routes left to fill, Transportation Director Richard Hansen was assigned to take one route.

For the other, Route 608, the dispatchers turned to Catencamp, the assistant director. Its regular driver, Lynn Thames, had called to say she could not drive because her son, who has cancer, was very ill.

Catencamp, 54, is a licensed bus driver who had been called upon fairly frequently to drive fill-in routes and had driven another route just the day before, but she had never driven Route 608.

At the transportation center, she had a reputation for being safety conscious. She regularly included safety tips in information packets she put together for the drivers.

By the time she headed southeast on Route 14 from Crystal Lake to Fox River Grove, the bus already was late.

Catencamp was unfamiliar with the bus route, so at the first stop, Opatrny Drive and Lincoln Avenue, she asked the first passenger who boarded if he would help provide directions.

He was freshman Zachary Davis, who was walking to his regular seat in the third row from the back when Catencamp asked him to sit up front directly behind her.

"I need someone to help with the route," she told him.

"Sure," he replied.

A troubled signal

At 7 a.m., Chief Polston usually was in his office sorting through the overnight police reports.

On this Wednesday, the early hour found him in the parking lot of Cafe Salsa, a new restaurant on Route 14.

With him was Robert McWilliams, a signal engineer with the Illinois Department of Transportation who had picked up Polston at the police station in an IDOT car so they could test the signals at Algonquin and Route 14.

Those signals had proved so troublesome that state highway contractors had checked them on Oct. 24, the day before the crash.

Dozens of times in three years, Polston, his nine full-time officers and motorists had complained to IDOT about the signals at the Algonquin Road and Lincoln Avenue crossings in town.

Drivers had complained they barely had enough green-light time to pull their cars over the tracks. Railroad and Illinois transportation officials received at least 45 complaints since 1993 about that crossing and 22 similar complaints about the nearby Lincoln Avenue crossing.

Problems with the signal timing at Algonquin Road accounted for at least 21 of those complaints.

Just a month before the bus-train crash, a train sheared off the bumper of a truck when the driver was blocked on those same tracks by a car waiting at a red light that did not change quickly enough.

Unsatisfied with the latest report that the traffic lights were working as they were supposed to, Polston had summoned McWilliams.

At 7:10 a.m., the two were staying warm inside the IDOT car, parked in the restaurant lot on the north side of Route 14 at the Algonquin Road intersection.

They were bent over a laptop computer as McWilliams explained how they would use it to check the signal synchronization at Algonquin Road and later at the Lincoln Avenue crossing farther west.

The mood on the bus

On the bus, Zach Davis was doing his best to give Catencamp directions, but his efforts were being complicated by a girl who was trying to have a little fun with the substitute driver.

"I was just giving her basic directions: Turn right here, turn left there," he recalled. "(Another student) kept contradicting me to confuse her. When I'd say left, she'd say right."

Although the regular driver preferred strict quiet, the students got Catencamp to play the radio.

"It gets kind of boring, and we end up falling asleep, so we asked her to turn on the radio," Zach recalled. "I guess it was kind of stupid."

As the bus headed up Lexington Avenue toward Algonquin Road and the short jaunt to the right to Route 14, it passed the pond.

Jon Anfinsen and Justin Petrutis, sitting on the west side of the bus, joked that the ducks looked like they were moving mechanically in a chain on the cold water.

"We were still half asleep," Jon said.

It was a normal autumn morning, with no hint of unusual danger. Despite the complaints, generally unpublicized about the Algonquin Road crossing, an average of 509 vehicles drove over it every day with rarely any incident.

As the bus approached the crossing, Zach Davis listened to music and thought about making up cardiovascular day in gym class he had missed.

There is no traffic light on the southwest side of the tracks, just the one set of signals on Route 14 about 45 feet past the crossing.

But as she approached the crossing, Catencamp stopped in front of the tracks as required by regulation.

"The radio was on," Zach Davis recalled. "Her window was cracked open. It was cold so she didn't want it open much.

"She opened the door to look down the tracks. I looked both ways, too. I always do; I don't know why. I didn't see anything."

The light facing Algonquin on Route 14 was red.

Lynn Thames, the regular driver on the route, said she normally didn't drive across the tracks until that traffic signal turned green. A sensor in the street triggered the light when a car or bus stopped before the tracks.

But Catencamp was unfamiliar with the intersection. She later told police that she assumed the sensor was buried only in the small sloping patch of street on the other side of the tracks and that in order to trigger the light, she'd have to cross the tracks.

So she pulled the bus up and stopped it at the white "stop" line in front of the intersection, then let it roll 2 or 3 feet past.

The white line was 30.5 feet from the edge of the crossing, 14.5 feet from the edge of Route 14.

The bus was about 38 feet long.

Thomas P. Scherschel, Catencamp's attorney, said she didn't edge farther toward Route 14 because she thought the bus had cleared the tracks. By law, investigators said, she could not pull past the white line.

Polston, from his vantage point, found the explanation plausible.

"I'm not making excuses for her, but the bus was facing down on an angle," he said. "She was looking backwards up through the mirror, and it's possible her perception is off. It may look to you that you have cleared a certain area when you really haven't."

As she waited for the light to turn green, the crossing signals behind her began flashing and sounding.

They were set by Union Pacific Railroad to go off a minimum of 20 seconds before the train arrived.

But in synchronizing the traffic signals on Route 14, IDOT followed a 4-year-old notice by the Chicago & North Western Ry., which was purchased by Union Pacific last spring, that the minimum time was 25 seconds.

IDOT's formula for the lights allowed for Route 14 traffic to continue on green for as long as 12 seconds after the warning signal sounded to enable pedestrians to proceed through the intersection; another 4.5 seconds for a yellow light; and another 1.5 seconds between the Route 14 light to turn red and the Algonquin Road light to turn green.

In other words, it allowed as many as 18 seconds to pass after the warning signal sounded, for the light on Algonquin to turn green.

With the minimum train arrival time of 25 seconds that IDOT assumed, that would allow for a seven-second cushion to clear the tracks. At 20 seconds, only two, barely enough time even to react.

"Obviously, we miscommunicated some way," Illinois Transportation Secretary Kirk Brown later acknowledged. "Obviously, we thought one thing and the railroad thought another."

Catencamp told authorities she never saw the light turn green. Other witnesses say it might have turned, but only moments before the crash.

As the seconds ticked away in the bus, Lane Gillis, a sophomore sitting in the back, looked west down the track and saw the express commuter's lights.

"Train!" he screamed.

Many of the students laughed, assuming the bus would pull up.

Then, the crossing gate hit the side of the bus between the metal panel and the metal under the window.

"I kind of heard a little clunk when it hit," Jon Anfinsen recalled. "I don't know how the driver couldn't hear it."

But Catencamp never heard Gillis' scream and never heard the gate, her attorney said.

Zach Davis, in his seat behind the driver, never did either.

"They might have been screaming," he said, "but I don't think anybody in front heard that because I didn't. It was real hard to hear anything at all."

Outside, bystanders and nearby motorists also screamed out futile warnings.

"Go! Go!" shouted Jim Homola, who was stopped on the other side of the tracks on the way to drop his children off at school.

In the train, engineer Dotson Ford Jr. hit the emergency brakes, but at 69 mph, there was no way to stop the express commuter in time.

In the IDOT car across Route 14, Polston looked up just in time to watch the horrifying scene.

"I saw it coming when the gate hit the bus," he said. "I looked to the right, and there was the light on the cab car."

Instinctively, Polston jumped out of the IDOT car and began running through the rush-hour traffic toward the bus.

"I don't know how I got across without being hit," he said. "Maybe everybody was as stunned as I was."

The violent crash

The horror took place in a matter of seconds.

In the final instant, several students at the back - Lane Gillis and Lehn Shepherd, among them - rushed to get toward the front, but they made little headway in the jammed narrow aisle.

Zach Davis, who did not hear the shouts of "Train!" and did not hear the gate hit the bus, heard the horn of the train.

The train was traveling 59 mph at the time of impact.

"The next thing I knew," sophomore Taben Johanson said, "the bus was spinning around."

The crash was like an explosion. Investigators theorize that there were four impacts, all taking place almost instantaneously:

m The train, slamming into the left rear of the bus, sent the passenger compartment spinning, ripping it off the chassis.

m The shell of the bus spun a little less than 180 degrees, then collided again with the second car of the speeding train.

m That propelled the bus into the air, bouncing into a third collision against a traffic light standard on the southeast corner of Algonquin and Route 14.

m And then it fell to the ground for a fourth crash.

Inside the bus, students bounced off each other, seats, walls and windows. By the time the bus came to rest, the walls were dented and virtually all the windows were shattered. The seats were intact, including the one that took the brunt of the train's force; it was bent but still anchored.

"Everybody was just thrown up against the walls," sophomore Teresa Robertson said.

Authorities believe four students were thrown from the bus - Jeffrey Clark, 16; Michael Hoffman, 14; Joseph Kalte, 16; and Shawn Robinson, 14. All had been sitting in the back of the bus. All died at the scene.

Authorities also said that the three others who died later at area hospitals - Susana Guzman, 18; Stephanie Fulham, 15; and Tiffany Schneider, 15 - also had been sitting in the back. They were found inside the bus's crumpled shell.

It is unclear whether Tiffany had been among those who tried to move toward the front to escape the impact.

Some students said she rode in the back. But after the crash, rescue workers found her seated in the middle of the bus.

Those students still conscious sat momentarily dazed.

"Even though the sun was shining, it was really dark inside the bus," Jon Anfinsen said. "You couldn't see much. It was almost like twilight."

Christopher Rose came to with an enormous headache. His head apparently had slammed against a window.

"My head hurt so badly, I thought I might have experienced some sort of memory loss," he said. "I just tried to remember my name, address and phone number."

Zach Davis hit his head on the seat and on the window beside him. There was an eerie quiet and then screaming, he recalled.

"People were screaming, but it was like there was no noise," he said. "Everybody was screaming and the bus driver stood up and said, 'Get off the bus!'

"And then, she radioed in. She said there had been a severe accident, and then I just got up and walked off the bus."

The scene

At the moment of the crash, Chief Polston had almost reached the curb on the southwest side of Route 14.

"I ran over to the east side to see what was there, and I saw the four kids," Polston said. "There was dead silence when I got there. It was eerie. I haven't seen anything like that since Vietnam."

He radioed an emergency call to dispatchers in Crystal Lake. Three onlookers called 911 within seconds of the crash. One described the accident as having "multiple, multiple injuries."

Assistant Fire Chief Kreher was sipping coffee at the Lincoln Avenue Eatery a few blocks north of the crash scene when the call came over the radio.

Traffic already had backed up on Route 14, so he drove his Ford pickup down the middle of the road to the scene.

As soon as he saw the four boys outside the bus, he called for extra ambulances.

Parents and onlookers were already gathering.

"There was a nice bubble around us that just let us work," Kreher said. "That was something that amazed me."

Most of the students were helped out the front door of the bus. Some had to be extricated.

The triage unit began tagging the injured, based on the urgency of their injuries.

Four were tagged black, unlikely to survive; 8 to 10 were tagged red, seriously injured but with a chance for survival if treated quickly; and the rest were tagged with yellow and green, injuries that were not life-threatening.

Among those receiving a red tag was Stephanie Fulham.

She was the first victim sent to Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge. She would never regain consciousness.

Back at her house on the other side of Route 14, Debbie Fulham was still seeing the rest of her children off for the day.

Friends of Stephanie's sister, Christina, started congregating at the house before making their way to school.

One of the girls had news.

Had they heard about the school bus accident?

A high school bus had been hit by a truck at Algonquin Road and Route 14, the girl told them.

Debbie Fulham sighed, pulled on a jacket and climbed into the van.

She didn't know that her life had been hit by tragedy.

"I thought I would go and pick up as many as I could to get them to school," she said. "They were so late already."

Only about 15 minutes had passed since Stephanie had left the house; there was no way to comprehend any sense of calamity.

"I had no idea," Debbie Fulham said.

Daily Herald Projects Editor Diane Dungey and staff writer Amy Carr also contributed to this report.

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