Beloved Dance Teacher Killed at Crossing

Sunday, Apr 18, 2010  |  Updated 11:32 AM CDT
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A 26-year-old woman is killed when an <a title=Amtrak train hits her car. And now, witnesses tell the Sun-Times the warning signals were not working properly." />

A 26-year-old woman is killed when an Amtrak train hits her car. And now, witnesses tell the Sun-Times the warning signals were not working properly.

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Two witnesses who say they drove over the railroad tracks seconds before a train struck and killed a popular dance instructor say the crossing’s signal lights weren’t working and that the gate did not come down until the train had almost passed, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

One witness — a Cook County prosecutor — said she herself barely dodged being hit.

"The lights and the gate did not work,” prosecutor Lauren Brown said Saturday. "It was horrible. . . . I did not know that train was there till it was up on me."

Katie Lunn, 26, of Chicago, a beloved dance teacher and performer, was killed when her vehicle was hit at 9:40 p.m. Friday by an Amtrak train at Stuenkel Road in south suburban University Park.

Hours before she was struck, work crews had been out at the crossing, but a spokesman for the Canadian National Railway would not comment on what the crews had been doing.

Many CN trucks and crews were at the scene again Saturday.

Brown, her friend Lisa Smith and Lunn crossed the tracks in three separate vehicles, Brown and Smith said. Lunn was the last to cross. All were leaving the American Dance Awards contest at Governors State University.

Brown was driving a vehicle carrying her two daughters and one of their friends. The darkness and the layout of the crossing made it difficult to see, she said.

"The gates did not go down, and there were no lights,” Brown said. “I couldn’t have gotten more than five feet beyond the tracks when the train came speeding by.”

The gates didn’t lower until the train was almost past, she said. “They came down as the second-to-the last car on the train was going past.” Then the gates popped up. “It was almost instantaneous.’’

Smith was in her own vehicle with her son. “There were no flashing lights,” Smith said. “The gates did not come down. They flipped down and flipped back up.”

After crossing the tracks, “I heard a thud,’’ Brown said, and she saw a cloud of brown dust and debris. At the time she assumed it was just the sheer, rushing force of the train, but she says she now knows it was the impact of the train hitting Lunn’s vehicle.

After her shock wore off a few minutes later, Brown said she called 911 to report the gates weren’t working. “I didn’t realize [Lunn was struck] till one of the kids’ friends texted us.”

CN spokesman Patrick Waldron acknowledged “there were CN crews working at that crossing on Friday.” Asked if he could say what they were doing, he said, “No, that’s all a part of the investigation.”

He added: “The circumstances of the incident, including the grade crossing signal system, are still under investigation. This is a very unfortunate and tragic incident, and our condolences go out to the family of the young woman.”

Lunn studied dance at Oklahoma City University and was a teacher at the Joffrey Ballet school and at Naperville’s School of Performing Arts, where she also managed its Dance Ensemble Company. She performed with Chicago Dance Theatre and the Hip Hop ConnXion, said Altin Naska, a ballet master at the Naperville school.

She was a gifted instructor with a sweet presence, Naska said.

“She just loved to teach and loved kids,’’ said her father, Jerry Lunn. “That’s what her life was. . . . She told me, ‘I’m living my dream.’ ”

Amtrak spokeswoman Vernae Graham referred questions about the accident to CN. “CN operates those tracks,” said Graham. “We lease those tracks from them.”

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