10 years after bus-train crash killed 7, Fox River Grove tries to move on

 
 
Posted10/24/2015 7:00 AM

After the noise, cries and chaos that came when a high-speed commuter train slammed into a loaded school bus 10 years ago today, a silence fell over Fox River Grove.

It was the silence of a community in shock, disbelief and mourning.

 

It was the silence of parents wondering, if their children were not safe on the school bus, then where?

It was the silence of seven young lives ended far too soon.

As Fox River Grove marks the 10th anniversary of the tragedy today, a different kind of silence hangs over the community, one created not by the horror of what happened a decade ago but with the calm that comes with the passage of time and the will to move on.

Fox River Grove, while forever saddened by the events of Oct. 25, 1995, is no longer defined by them.

"You don't forget about it, but you always have to move on," the town's police chief, Robert Polston, said. "You learn from the good stuff that happens, and you learn from the bad, but you always have to move on."

Polston was an eyewitness to the crash, standing that morning near the intersection of Route 14 and Algonquin Road with state engineers showing them the dangers of the rail crossing there.

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They and commuters nearby watched helplessly as Polston's worst nightmare became real. A bus filled with students on their way to classes at Cary-Grove High School stopped at the confusing crossing with its rear hanging over the tracks.

A Metra train traveling almost 70 mph slammed into the bus, knocking it off its frame and spinning it through the air.

The impact killed students Jeffrey Clark, 16; Stephanie Fulham, 15; Susana Guzman, 18; Michael Hoffman, 14; Joseph Kalte, 16; Shawn Robinson, 14; and Tiffany Schneider, 15.

Another 26 students suffered injuries ranging from minor bumps and bruises to life-altering wounds.

For those teens and their loved ones, the pain of Oct. 25, 1995, may never fade.

"It's been 10 years now, but for those of us who knew these kids, it will be something we always remember," said Stephen Tasch, who was elected village president a year after the crash.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

But for a community wounded, and some believe forever marked, by that day, there is a sense from some that it is also time to move forward.

Signs of that willingness were evident over the last week.

Fox River Grove leaders observed the anniversary last week with a moment of silence before a village board meeting. They otherwise had no plans to recognize the day.

"I think everybody cares most about the families that lost (members) in this and we spent a lot of time trying to decide how to do this and be sensitive about it," Village President Kay Laube said. "That's why we decided to do this quietly."

At the Seven Angels memorial plaza outside the village's library, which five years ago opened with a dedication to the teens killed, the date will be marked with only the placing of new planters donated by the village.

"It's something this community will always remember, but it doesn't always have to be at the forefront or a public event," library Director Merle Gunderman said.

When the Rev. Steve St. Jules of Ss. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Cary brought up the idea of a memorial Mass, the idea was shot down quickly.

"People thought it would cause more pain, reopen old wounds," he said. "I'm sure the individuals who lost someone still very much feel the grief, but for others who remember this as a terrible event, it recedes and they go on with life."

Cary-Grove High School is one of the few places where there will be a public marking of the anniversary. Today's issue of the student newspaper will feature a story about the school's Friendship Circle, which memorializes the students killed in the crash. Principal Sue Popp will discuss the crash over the building's public address system.

"The main themes are the fragility of life and how every day we have to be conscious of our actions and understand the importance of family, friends and our relationships," she said.

Dennis Clark, who attended the five-year ceremonies to honor his son, Jeffrey, said he prefers to see his community moving past the tragedy.

"I don't think there's any need for a public gathering or a memorial," Clark said. "Each person will remember it in their own way, whether it's visiting a cemetery or just saying a prayer.

"Everybody will decide how this impacted them and what's best for them," he said. "People in this community have dealt with this for 10 years, and now they're ready to return to some normal life."

Oct. 25, 1995, in their own words

Editor's note: Staff Writer Charles Keeshan, who has written extensively on the crash over the years, asked a variety of people who were directly involved in the aftermath of the tragedy to tell us their thoughts on this 10th anniversary. In some cases, we edited for length. Here is what they had to say:

A father

Dennis Clark's son, Jeffrey, was among the seven Cary-Grove High School students killed Oct, 25, 1995. In the months and years after the tragedy, Clark was among the leaders of an ultimately successful effort to slow train speeds through Fox River Grove.

After the accident it seemed like there was a groundswell of feeling that we had to do something. The goal was to make the express trains go slower through the community, but there was initially some resistance to that.

Ultimately, through some legislation, it was put through a three-year test. After that, and some more meetings, Metra decided to go with the slower speeds, and we still have those today.

One thing that we've learned, our family and other families, is that we can't change the past. All we can do is deal with the present and try to affect the future in the most positive way we can.

I told someone the other day that it's easy to become complacent and trusting in the systems and agencies that are in place to protect us. When something like this accident happens, it shows that there are gaps.

The point is that we all need to be vigilant. People saw these trains going through at 70 miles per hour, and because nothing happened everyone assumed it was OK. Then we saw that it wasn't OK, and we have to do something to change it.

Hopefully what we accomplished as a group will benefit the community in the future.

A police chief

Fox River Grove Police Chief Robert Polston was directly across from the rail crossing at Algonquin Road on Oct. 25, 1995, discussing with a state engineer the timing of traffic signals at the intersection. A decade later he remains reluctant to share his memories of that day, but briefly spoke about how the tragedy continues to affect his community.

It's something you can't help but think about. It's always there. You have to use that crossing. It's always going to be there for the families who lost somebody that day. It's always going to be there for this town.

I don't think the town has changed much since then. It's always been a close community where you know the names of the people living here.

You don't forget about it, but you always have to move on. You learn from the good stuff that happens, and you learn from the bad, but you always have to move on.

An officer on duty

Retired McHenry County Sheriff's Deputy Tom Majercik was on duty the morning of Oct. 25, 1995, and among the first wave of police and rescue workers on the scene. He later was honored by Gov. Jim Edgar for his work that day.

I recall that day vividly. I was on patrol on Pingree Road in Crystal Lake when Cary called out for help at the site of a train accident on Route 14.

It was kind of a controlled chaos. We train for an accident like this, but no one ever wants to be a part of it.

When I was out there I couldn't comprehend how a bus that was facing north was knocked off its frame and spun around so that it was facing south. It must have been a violent, tremendous collision.

(The students) were definitely in shock. It hits you hard. Some of them were OK, but we knew some of them were not.

It was tough because as a parent these kids were doing what you want them to do. They weren't skipping school or hanging around behind a store smoking. They were good kids just going to school.

I was a substitute bus driver like the lady driving the bus that day. My heart goes out to her because I know what it's like to have that job. I had to drive a bus the next day and, I'll never forget it, I drive up to a crossing, stopped like I was supposed to and then continued. When I crossed, all the kids were silent, and I let out a big sigh.

A clergyman

The Rev. Timothy Frick, formerly of Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Cary, was among the first clergy on the scene Oct. 25, 1995, and continued to counsel families affected by the crash long after the physical wreckage was removed. Frick, now pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Genoa, also oversaw the Cary-Grove Disaster Fund, which raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for victims.

I've told people many times it seems like it was unreal, like a disaster movie, that day in Fox River Grove when seven young lives were taken.

I remember trying to console a family who had just heard the news their son had died. I remember seeing the stunned faces of the volunteers who were working, helping, trying to do something in the midst of a helpless day.

After things had calmed down in the firehouse, I walked as if in slow motion toward the tracks, saw the bus off its chassis, and prayed for two things: That something good would come out of this, and that God would find a way for me to help, too.

I served on the Cary-Grove High School Disaster Committee, where we administered funds given from all over the country. Through that committee I met some wonderful people with whom I am still in touch today. I hope the families have experienced some peace through their loss. I know that every time I come upon a railroad crossing, see the increased warnings and know that other communities are more vigilant, I remember Seven Angels' Crossing.

I also remember that it was that very day, Oct. 25, 1995, that a friend of mine received a heart transplant. The gift of life he received is not related to the crash, but in my mind and heart, it is.

A village president

Bill Yocuis was Fox River Grove's village president on Oct. 25, 1995. In the hours and days after the crash, he helped lead community efforts to support the families whose loved ones were lost or injured.

I remember how well the community came together around the families. I spent many hours at village hall after the event with a lot of people who came in asking how they could help. It was impressive to see.

It showed what a great town we live in. People showed a lot of compassion for their neighbors.

I remember being at a memorial service with hundreds of other residents. Everyone was sad about the event, but more than that they wanted to be there to support the families who were involved.

It was a difficult time (to be village president) but my problems were minor compared to what the families who lost somebody were going through.

A school counselor

Judy Warner was a counselor at Cary-Grove High School in October 1995 and served as the school's crisis coordinator in the weeks and months after the fatal collision. In that role, she helped students involved in the crash, as well as friends and family members of those lost in the tragedy.

Ten years later, as I reflect on the traumatic experiences following the bus-train accident, I see it as a story of working through grief and healing.

The school and community worked together to grieve the tragedy. The incredible support of so many people provided amazing strength to do what needed to be done.

The services provided by Cary-Grove High School to students, staff and families affected by the event included: crisis intervention, traumatic recovery groups, grief and loss groups, grief counseling and stress management, as well as educational materials related to traumatic loss, death and symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

The trauma and recovery services were extensive and continued throughout the first year.

I believe the key to healing is being able to work through grief and loss. Because we were able to provide outstanding support and resources to all of those impacted by this tragedy, we have been able to remember our loved ones and move on with our lives.

A medical worker

Judith Irwin was marketing manager at Northern Illinois Medical Center in McHenry on Oct. 25, 1995, where 11 students involved in the crash received treatment. Among her duties that day and in the ensuing weeks was serving as a go-between for hospital staff, parents and the news media.

We had worked many types of disasters before, but we were all so shaken and upset when we heard it was a school bus crash. We had to put that aside and keep working.

Our first job was to protect the patients and then help the families. Then we dealt with the media. Everybody wanted to get the story, but some didn't understand people were in shock. Most of them (reporters) were really good about it, but they were kind of obnoxious, and we had to keep them at bay.

I remember the tension was tremendous that day. The emergency department's work was fantastic, but everyone was so stricken by the horror of the whole scenario.

It was a very heartening time in the sense that you really saw people in their finest hour, but at the other end we were heartsick like everyone else in the county. It was so incredibly sad and I think it took people a long, long time to shake it off.

A village trustee

Attorney Robert Hanaford was a Fox River Grove village trustee on Oct. 25, 1995, and later represented in court four families whose children died or were injured in the crash. His work, along with that of other attorneys representing students' families, led to a record $27 million settlement in 2004.

As a resident of Fox River Grove, I knew friends and neighbors who had children on the bus. I offered my sympathies and help, but could only imagine the suffering and grief they must have been experiencing. As a village official, I was shocked and could only concentrate on how this tragedy could have happened. As an attorney, I was privileged to have the trust of my clients - people who were entitled to have their rights protected and enforced.

Had you been at the intersection of Algonquin Road and Route 14 after 7:11 a.m. Oct. 25, 1995, you would have seen the passenger compartment of the District 155 school bus lying on the northeast corner of the intersection and the chassis still on Algonquin Road. The Metra commuter train had come to a stop about a half-mile east of the crash. It was not long before news and rescue helicopters arrived, along with paramedics and firefighters from towns near and far.

The school bus driver was sitting in shock on the step of a rescue vehicle while parents of children who were on the bus were desperately trying to find out whether their child was safe. Eventually, all the parents were asked to congregate inside the Fox River Grove Fire Department building south of the railroad tracks. It was there they were told the fate of their children.

I often think about the children who were killed in the train crash and I try to reconcile my personal and professional life. I became friends with some of my clients. Even though the case was stressful on me as the attorney, I chose to represent my clients, and I would do it again. There was also an attorney fee for my efforts. The people I represented, however, did not choose to be clients in personal injury and wrongful death cases.

Railroad crossings around the world are safer today than they were 10 years ago as a direct result of the Fox River Grove train/bus crash.

The children are ultimately what the tragedy of Oct. 25, 1995, is about. Courage and strength was shown by many of the children on the bus at the time of the crash and in the years since. Time has not been so kind to others. I have seen the lives of some of the children and their families forever affected; I hope and pray they will someday move on without the physical and emotional scars that occurred 10 years ago.

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