The stories that stick with us: We grieved the school bus tragedy; then we tried to stop any others from happening
As Daily Herald executive editor, I hadn't covered a story in a while.
But on the morning of Oct. 25, 1995, my instincts as a reporter kicked in when I heard the WGN radio bulletin.
A commuter train had smashed into a school bus in Fox River Grove. There were reports of injuries. The spot where it happened wasn't far from my house. I told my wife I was going there. A few minutes later I was at the scene at 8:30 a.m.
A helicopter was hovering as it prepared to transport injured students to a hospital trauma center. The crumpled bus was at rest up the tracks.
Families, who must have heard about the crash as did I, were soon to arrive. Frantic to find out more, they were told to gather just down the hill at the fire station.
My job that day was to chronicle all this, to write a color story describing what it was like at the scene. Others were assigned the hard news, in the end reporting that five students died in the crash. Later, two more succumbed to their injuries. Many more were injured.
I have covered and edited dozens of tragic stories over time -- from the crash at O'Hare of American Airlines Flight 191 with no survivors and the murders of the Corbett family in Barrington Hills by home invaders, to the Palatine Brown's Chicken restaurant execution-style slaying of the owners and staff in a robbery.
Most of these stories ended as they began, with tragedy and heartbreak.
But the Fox River Grove story didn't end there. Rather, it launched a Daily Herald investigation that we believe helped save lives.
Young editor Diane Dungey led a team of reporters in search of an answer: How could this crash have happened?
Yes there was human error. The rear of the bus hung over the railway grade crossing. The driver should have moved the bus forward.
But was there something wrong with the crossing signals and the adjacent traffic light? Did the bus driver have enough time to move the bus and clear the intersection when the traffic light turned green?
The Daily Herald team was determined to find out.
This was in the days before computer-assisted reporting. So it was old school -- stationing reporters up and down the Metra tracks at each crossing. They used stop watches, borrowed from high school track teams, to time the signals and the seconds needed for the drivers to make it through after the traffic light changed.
We also discovered that a local resident had complained to the Illinois Department of Transportation two months prior to the crash that he believed the rail signals were out of sync with the traffic lights.
Our study determined the timing was off. Doing an exhaustive investigation of its own, the National Transportation Safety Board agreed. In its report, the NTSB called for widespread changes in rail crossing signalization, among many additional bus and railway safety requirements.
Heartbreak for family, friends and the community. We too mourned. But we also moved forward with reporting that hopefully will prevent another tragedy. I am proud of the Daily Herald's role.
• Chairman, CEO and Publisher Doug Ray began working for the Daily Herald in 1970.