'Emergency, emergency, emergency': Witnesses detail fatal Metra crash one year ago

By Marni Pyke

The time that elapsed between a truck freezing on a rail crossing in Clarendon Hills and its collision with a Metra BNSF Line train was under a minute.

In those seconds, the driver frantically tried to restart the engine and a train crew reacted instinctively to ward off a catastrophe, National Transportation Safety Board transcripts show.

"I said, 'Everybody hold on ... we're going to hit a truck,'" engineer Robert Berg told NTSB officials investigating the May 11, 2022, fatal crash.

On the tracks, "I tried to start it up," Del's Moving Inc. driver Sam Cubic testified. "I tried so many times, four, five times. I saw a train coming ... so I have to jump. If I didn't jump, I will be dead."

The truck exploded upon impact at 8:16 a.m.

"It was so loud. It was like a bomb," said BNSF general foreman Steven Wawryk, working nearby. "It was on fire. There was so much smoke ... and I was calling for emergency repeatedly."

NTSB transcripts show the morning offered no warnings of what was to come.

Before the collision, Cubic had conducted a pre-inspection of the truck and "everything was OK. Nothing unusual."

The movers drove through Clarendon Hills and onto the Prospect Avenue crossing where pavement improvements were occurring on either side.

"We hit a bump," a passenger testified. "The truck jerked back and it shut off."

As he tried to coax the engine back to life, Cubic saw the train. "It was so fast. And I had a choice. I didn't want to leave the truck but it did not run."

As he rounded a curve, Berg spotted the truck. He had experienced "hundreds" of close calls before. That day he knew, "this truck's not moving."

Berg started braking and sounding the train's horn repeatedly for as long as he could, drawing on decades of experience.

"I tried to time it. I didn't want to stay in the cab because I was concerned of debris coming through the windshield. It's a pretty big truck, and so I blew the whistle as long as I felt it was safe to do so."

Then he rushed out, gave a warning and directed conductor L.A. Thompkins to radio an emergency. "I've been laying on this horn. He's still not moving," Thompkins recalled Berg saying.

"You're going to (have to) hold on to something and you're going to (have to) brace yourself."

Thompkins looked out, saw men fleeing the truck and realized a crash was imminent.

"Flip the seats ... let's get down in between the seats," she ordered a frightened passenger.

"We went down in between the two seats, covered our heads, and it was impact. We were still going, it was bouncing, shaking, and all I smelled was fuel."

Berg clutched a stanchion and, when the train stopped, dashed back to the cab. "I grabbed my handset and said, 'emergency, emergency, emergency.'"

Thompkins and another rider hurried to a woman in shock after a train window fell on her.

"She's screaming, 'I almost died,'" Thompkins recalled. "So, I'm holding her hands and I'm like, 'Just look at me. Don't look out the window, just look at me. Breathe with me. Breathe with me.'"

Brakeman Brandy White weathered the crash in a railcar near the rear of the train and immediately began checking on riders. "Everyone wanted to exit the train, so I cut (manually pushed open) the door, each individual door out, and let the passengers off on my way toward the front."

Thompkins found a purse and shoes and thought they belonged to a rider she'd helped. The passenger, however, said they were not hers.

The items belonged to Christina Lopez, a Downers Grove grandmother of five, who died when she was ejected from the train.

"I'm like, 'Oh Lord,'" Thompkins said.

Berg recalled a previous collision near LaGrange when a truck's trailer straddled the tracks. "It was still scary, but it wasn't anything like this," he told investigators.

You should know

O'Hare International Airport kicked off service between Chicago and Belgrade, Serbia, last week with the first direct flight to the capital city since 1992. More than 350,000 Chicago-area residents are of Serbian origin, Aviation Commissioner Jamie Rhee noted. Air Serbia flights are twice a week now and will increase to three a week on June 12.

Gridlock alert

Veterans Memorial Tollway (I-355) drivers can expect some delays near Downers Grove this summer as crews repair the bridge over the BNSF Railway tracks. Traffic shifts, detours and weekend ramp closures will be occurring at interchanges with Maple and Ogden avenues.

A collision between a Metra train and a box truck caused a fire that destroyed the vehicle on May 11, 2022, in Clarendon Hills. Courtesy of Linda Finnegan
Christina Lopez was killed in a May 11, 2022, Metra train collision with a moving truck on the BNSF Line in Clarendon Hills. Courtesy of Lopez family
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