Family, Investigators Baffled Over Crash That Killed Longtime Friends

By Phil Rogers
|  Friday, Jul 22, 2011  |  Updated 9:32 PM CDT
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Donna Grace, 81, and her passenger, 97-year-old Gail Crabtree, had just dropped off a third woman after playing bingo.  Investigators say it appears Grace ran through the lowered gate, and struck the Metra train which was already in the crossing.

Donna Grace, 81, and her passenger, 97-year-old Gail Crabtree, had just dropped off a third woman after playing bingo. Investigators say it appears Grace ran through the lowered gate, and struck the Metra train which was already in the crossing.

Relatives of two women, longtime friends killed together in a violent Metra crash, say they are at a loss to explain how and why their loved ones ended up in an intersection with a speeding train.

Donna Grace, 81, and her passenger, 97-year-old Gail Crabtree, were returning Thursday from a day of playing dominoes at a Crestwood senior center when the car Grace was driving struck the train at a crossing in suburban Oak Forest.

Steve Grace, the woman’s 50-year-old son, remembered his mother as a religious, caring woman, who always "wanted to help people." Shelves in their Tinley Park home were crowded with family photos, and a bulletin board in the hallway featured postcards from missionaries with whom Mrs. Grace corresponded around the world.

Investigators said they, too, were baffled at what had happened. The car became lodged beneath the Metra train’s lead car and was carried for half a mile. The train’s event recorder was analyzed, as were crossing gates, and all railroad equipment appeared to have functioned normally.

"The car hit the train," said Metra spokesman Judy Pardonnet. "As the engineer was approaching the crossing, the crossing was clear, and the gates were down."

"The signals, the gates, the train itself, the crew, and personnel including the engineer, were all acting appropriately and effectively," Pardonnet said. "Everything was working exactly as it should."

Investigators say they have determined that after leaving the Crestwood senior center, the two dropped a third woman at her home. They were then headed home themselves when the accident occurred.

Red flags were briefly raised Thursday when officials found a troubling note in Grace’s Tinley Park home. On first reading, they said it appeared to be a note saying "goodbye" to her son. But late Friday, investigators said the two had a rocky relationship and that they did not believe the note had anything to do with the accident.

Crabtree’s granddaughter, Gayle Larsen, said Friday her grandmother was an active woman, even at 97. At a recent birthday party, she expressed optimism that she would match another relative’s age of 102.

The medical examiner’s office listed the cause of death for the two women as "undetermined," pending further investigation.

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