Why we blow whistles

A locomotive engineer's first-hand account of a highway-rail grade crossing collision

By Joseph D. "Tuch" Santucci
BLE Division 10, Chicago, Ill.

I was blowing the whistle almost constantly due to the close proximity of the crossings. As we started up the grade towards Route 173, we could see the "snitch lights" illuminating on the sides of the roundels, indicating the signals there were activated and working properly. I had just come over Ida Avenue and no sooner finished whistling it when I began my sequence of two longs, a short and a long for Route 173. By this point my speed was starting to increase and I hit 42 mph.

As we closed in on Route 173, an auto rapidly approached and Brian, my conductor, yelled "that son of a b---- is going!" He was across and gone in an instant.

The moment he came directly into my path, I was about 400 feet from the crossing and closing in at a little over 56 feet per second. I got enough of a look at the car to determine that it was a full sized GM product before it was gone.

Just then, I caught a flash of headlights in my peripheral vision to my left. It was just a brief flash of light. With the control stand to my left, the radio mounted above the automatic brake valve and the telemetry receiver mounted directly above the brake pipe gauges, my range of vision to the left is greatly diminished.

We continued towards the crossing with the whistle and bell sounding. Then Brian screamed out "Oh my God!"

At 2155 hours on the evening of Oct. 18, 1989, my life changed forever.

Before I could even react, there was a tremendous impact and horrible crashing sound and the screetch of grinding metal. The impact was so great that the engine leaned far over to my right, pushing me into the window. Brian was thrown out of his seat and onto the floor. I immediately reached over and put the train into emergency. Simultaneously, I jumped up and ran around to get behind the control stand. I remember thinking that we were about to go over onto our side and knew that I wanted more between me and mother earth than just a window. As I was moving to the backside of the control stand, I hit the Dispatcher call in button on the radio. This all happened within the course of maybe three seconds tops. It all seemed like it was in slow motion and took forever to occur. I honestly don't know how I managed to do so much in such a short time. I don't recall thinking about my actions at that moment, just doing them. It all happened far faster than it is taking you to read this.

A tremendous amount of activity was now taking place in an instant. As the engine came back down after leaning to the right, it bottomed out and began to bounce vertically. We bottomed out several times. And then the slack began to crash into us.

The emergency rate of brake pipe application was advancing through the train at a rate of 900 feet per second. This means that the entire train would not be into the emergency application for about seven seconds from the time I first dumped the air. An emergency application of the brakes starts a sequence of events that cannot be controlled. Two of them are slack action as the train is slowing down rapidly at different rates and a tremendous change in the dynamics of the train make-up occurring simultaneously. The tail end of the train is still moving at the speed it was when I first put it into emergency. The head end is trying to stop at the same time. The run in of slack was incredible. As it started to reach us, it slammed hard into the engines throwing both of us forward into the front bulkhead of the cab. It hit us again several more times. Now, we were slowing down rapidly.

By this point the Dispatcher has come onto the radio answering my call-in signal. I ran back over to it and yelled out that we just collided with a vehicle in Antioch. There are probably three things that a Train Dispatcher hopes to never ever hear. This is one of them. The Dispatcher was my friend and a well-seasoned veteran, John Busa. He immediately knew what to ask and what to do.

"Which crossing? Do we need an ambulance?"

(What crossing is this? Oh s---! What is the name of this crossing?)

"Uh, it's the second crossing west of the hotbox detector!"

By now, the train has come to a stop. The Engineer on 43 hears this and tells John it is Rt 173. He again asks with the phone in his ear already ringing up the Antioch Police if we need an ambulance. I remember telling him, "It was a tremendous impact; ya, you better get one going!"

I'm helping Brian up off the floor and making sure he is OK when John calls back and says emergency people are enroute. He then asks if we are OK and if we need any medical attention. Ironically, he is the only person from the railroad to ever ask that question that entire night until we talked to the claim agent much later.

As Brian is getting his coat on, we now start to wonder about the train and hazmat. With the incredible slack action that had just taken place, we realize that we could very likely be derailed. We had a block of 22 empty 89 foot pipe flats in the middle of the train with heavy loads of roofing granules and rolled paper behind them. A quick look at the paperwork shows no hazmat back there. Relief, if only for a moment.

Brian heads out the front door to discover the steps are all smashed in on the left front and heads out the back door instead to proceed back to the scene. By now, the ghouls are all coming out in force to take a look at what happened. I have people approaching the engines to see the carnage. I actually had to threaten one guy with two little kids with arrest. He was telling me it was "his right" to see this. I told him the police would take him to jail if he came any closer.

I proceeded to make a quick inspection of the motive power to check for any kind of fire or fuel leaks. I took a quick look at the damage and almost lost it. There was flesh and hair on the left front side of the Number 1 trucks and on the remains of the steps. I quickly climbed back into the cab to see if Brian had made it back there yet. Just as I entered the cab again, John called to see if we had any more information about injuries. That was just about the time Brian came upon a body of a now deceased, 16-year-old girl. The emergency response people had arrived just moments before Brian found her, but hadn't reached him or her yet. How he stayed in one piece is beyond me. He must have found that hidden strength we all have. I reported this information to the Dispatcher. This news totally devastated me. I can only imagine what this sight did to Brian.

During this period of time, I performed two tasks that I never once even thought about doing. I just did them. First, I sat down and pulled out a sheet of paper and wrote out every possible detail I could remember that occurred just prior to, and then after the point of impact. Then I went outside and did a thorough inspection of my motive power and made a full report of all damages. Upon inspecting the right rear of the 6522, I discovered the ballast in the rear of the locomotive has been pushed through the carbody just above the access door to right rear sander relays. This most likely happened either when the train started to slam into us or when we bottomed out all those times. Both of these documents were later subpoenaed as evidence.

Now the Paramedics are working feverishly to remove another person, another young girl from the car. I was told they used the "jaws of life" to assist in extracting her from the car. Brian informs me that another fatality is discovered; another 16-year-old girl. The girl trapped in the car is still alive though. By this point, two officers from the Antioch Police Department arrive and board the locomotive. Both of them realize the hell I am going through and do their best to calm me down. I quit smoking in 1982, but the first thing I asked the two officers for is a cigarette. They interviewed me and informed me that the coroner had been called and he, too, would have to interview me before we would be released. They stayed up there with me for quite some time to make sure I was going to be OK. They also kept asking me if I needed any medical attention.

What seemed like an eternity passed and Brian told me that the third girl, the driver of the car had also passed away. I relayed this information to John and informed him that both Brian and myself wished to be relieved. He relayed that information to the Chief. A little while later, he came back on to inform us that the Trainmaster at Schiller Park refused our request as he was planning to run a work train in the morning and didn't want to "waste this crew for us." How considerate and compassionate. There was no love lost between the Trainmaster and I prior to this, and this gave me all the reason to despise him yet even more. He never even left the office to head up to the scene. He told us later that he figured there was no reason for him to be there and also there was nothing he could do anyway.

After the Paramedics were finished, Brian was brought up to the head end by another one of Antioch's finest. We were told that the Coroner was out for the evening and was enroute to interview us and pronounce death, but it would be awhile. A WC track supervisor and a signal maintainer had arrived at the scene and had talked to Brian. The track supervisor was kind enough to inspect the train for us, and to our shock, inform us that everything was on the rail and nothing shifted or off center.

Finally, the Coroner arrived and interviewed us. He too, was very compassionate and did his best to make us feel at ease. With all of that finally taken care of, we were released at 2329 hours, one hour and 34 minutes after the collision occurred.

Neither Brian nor I felt we were in any condition to proceed, but our old pal, the Trainmaster at Schiller Park, thought otherwise. We then proceeded to take the train east to Schiller Park, never once exceeding 20 mph the rest of the trip. When we finally arrived at Schiller at 0120, the Trainmaster started to give us all kinds of instructions about our setout and pickup and taking the train through to the IC at Markham. We informed him we were all finished for the rest of the evening and to call a cab. I told him if he so worried about the train he could take it himself.

Upon our arrival in the office there, the Trainmaster told us we need to call the Antioch Police as they had a couple of more questions they needed answered and to call the claim agent. We did both. While talking to the claim agent, he asked if we were alright and if we needed medical attention. After getting all this taken care of, we finally got our cab to the hotel. I didn't sleep a wink the entire night (or morning as was the case). I kept going over time and time again, what had transpired. I was trying to think of what I should have done differently. Maybe I should have laid-off sick.

Something, anything. Ten years later, I still wonder. I did nothing wrong. I violated no rules and broke no laws. Yet I got all the guilt. I don't suppose it helped when the word "babykiller" was mentioned by someone close to one of the deceased in the media. Yeah, right, like I chased these three girls down the street, up their driveway and into the garage, then hit them when they weren't looking. Interestingly enough, the driver of the car didn't go to school that day as she was "too sick." Apparently she made a complete recovery in time to go out that evening and play cat and mouse with the car in front of them that made it across the tracks without getting hit.

This was all learned during the period of discovery.

The following legal proceedings only helped to make this situation worse. I spent over seven hours in deposition and have the transcripts to prove it. Lawyers! The families made sure I was served with a subpoena on Thanksgiving Day. Fortunately for me, I wasn't home to receive it. I guess this was their way of getting even. Screwed up their plans.

I never saw the car. It never made past the front of the engine. The front drawbar hit solidly right behind the right front wheel-well. The car was spun a little more than sideways and wound up completely off the road and onto the right of way just east of the crossing. The engine block was ripped completely out of the car. The dashboard was also torn out. The speedometer was stuck at 50 mph. The two passengers never had a chance. At least one of them was physically struck by the locomotive. I did see pictures of the car some time later. It once was a Chevy Caprice. It was completely destroyed. The salvage yard where it was taken eventually scrapped it as they said absolutely nothing was salvageable on it.

In the legal proceedings that followed, first I was accused of speeding. They had a witness who claimed I was going at least 70 mph. That was proven to be false. The final results were something like 42.1 mph. Then, I was accused of not whistling - again, disproven. Finally, they tried to say the crossing signals were not functioning. The kid who made it across in front of us, after first denying even being there or knowing these girls, claimed he was on the crossing and we were right there and the signals were not working. They also brought in a police dispatcher who claimed she too was almost hit by a train at that very crossing the day prior to the wreck. Unfortunately for her, the Dispatcher's sheet and hotbox detector tapes showed no train within 25 miles of that crossing at the time she swore it happened. A witness stopped at the crossing heading the other way stated they were working just fine as he saw them and was stopped awaiting our passage.

The legal proceedings were all settled in 1992 outside of court and fortunately for Brian and myself, we didn't have to testify. From what my lawyer told me, the families actually lost money by filing suit. Too bad, so sad.

Am I bitter about the legal proceedings? Damn right I am. My world was turned upside down by somebody else's negligence and I had to defend myself and my actions. Some lawyers approached these families telling them they could make millions over this. Don't accept responsibility, just sue somebody else. I feel terrible enough that these young girls died, but don't make me the scapegoat for something I didn't do. Maybe the mother of the girl who cut school that day for allegedly being sick should shoulder the responsibility. Did it ever occur to her that just maybe her daughter was too sick to drive? As a result, they all wound up dead.

I have been involved in several crossing collisions since then and a suicide. Ironically, the suicide occurred just nine days after the Antioch episode and just five miles from that scene. Maybe life truly is stranger than fiction.

****

Editor's Note: With the Federal Railroad Administration holding public hearings on whistle ban legislation, we felt it was important to publicize the locomotive engineer's perspective in fatal grade crossing collisions.

A locomotive engineer for Illinois Central, Brother Santucci joined the BLE on July 1, 1979.

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