A Metra train slammed into a truck with so much force that wreckage wrapped around the train and tore through the side, hurling a passenger through a window to her death, a federal safety agency said Thursday.
A day after the horrific crash in Clarendon Hills, an official with the National Transportation Safety Board said investigators hope to answer two key questions: Why was Christina Lopez, a 72-year-old grandmother, ejected from the train — a rare occurrence in crossing accidents — and why was the box truck on the tracks when there was room for it to move.
“Why couldn’t the truck get off the tracks?” Landsberg said. “The truck could have moved. It didn’t.”
Landsberg said it is “unusual, very unusual” for someone to be thrown from a train like Lopez was, and added that the agency hopes to find ways to prevent that from happening. “That will be an area that will get a lot of attention,” he said. “We’re very interested in survival factors.”
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But Landsberg appeared to downplay concerns from Lopez’s family that the crossing is unsafe, with nearby construction causing traffic to back up onto the crossing. He said traffic appeared to investigators to be moving normally.
Lopez had boarded the train in Downers Grove around 8 a.m. to visit her sister in LaGrange, something her family said she often did. Her train was running express through Clarendon Hills because of mechanical problems on another train, Metra said.
The speed limit in that area is 70 mph, but Landsberg said investigators do not believe the train was traveling faster than that when it hit the truck at Prospect Road at 8:18 a.m. The lead cab car of the train hit the back of the truck, which “pivoted around to the right side of the train. The back end of the truck struck the right side of the cab car [with] tremendous amount of force.
“The force translated to propelling the victim through the window,” he continued. “We don’t know exactly where she was sitting. We think she may have been sitting on the right side of the train.”
The truck driver and two passengers got out before the truck was hit and exploded into flames from a ruptured diesel gas tank, Landsberg said. Besides Lopez, four other people on the train were hurt, none seriously.
The agency was yet to interview the truck driver and the two passengers, though they apparently gave statements to police. Investigators will also be reviewing video from cameras inside the train cab that show the engineer at the controls as well as what is in front of the train.
Investigators have already determined that the train engineer applied the brakes well in advance of the impact. But Landsberg noted that trains traveling at the posted speed limit need a mile to stop.
The NTSB hopes to have a preliminary report on the crash ready in two weeks, but it could take more than a year for its full report with recommendations.
At a news conference earlier in the day, Lopez’s family called the accident “preventable” and asked anyone who witnessed it or had problems at the crossing to come forward “so that no family has to go through this tragedy again.”
“It didn’t have to happen,” Lopez’s son-in-law Jeff Klonowski said. “If anyone has information, video footage or any information that could get answers, please, please reach out.”
Klonowski and the family’s lawyer said they have not heard from investigators but have gotten calls from people who have complained about construction backing up traffic and trapping cars and trucks on the crossing.
“People were in harm’s way quite frequently,” attorney Steven K. Jambois said. “This was something that was bound to happen and was very preventable.”
He added that “residents have come forward and said they made complaints to the city but as far as I know nothing was done about it.”
Landsberg said the crossing handles 150 trains daily, around a hundred of them Metra commuter trains. The last fatal accident at the Prospect Avenue crossing was in 2017, when a pedestrian was killed.
‘A lifetime loyal friend to many’
Lopez was the mother of three daughters and five grandchildren. After Lopez retired from a cleaning job at a television studio in Chicago years ago, she moved from the North Side to Downers Grove to be closer to family.
Many of her family were together for Mother’s Day. “Little did we know the blessing of that time we had with her,” Klonowski said.
Lopez was “the glue to our family,” he said. “You say some people are black and white. She was the gray: right down the middle. She communicated effectively with everybody, got along with everybody, and was the peacemaker in many cases.”
Lopez grew up in a large family and was one of 10 siblings. “You can imagine she had many nieces and nephews she was close to — just a lifetime loyal friend to many,” Klonowski said.
She was also a “fantastic cook” known within her family for her chicken tacos, salsa and fried chicken, he said.
When Lopez did not show up at her sister’s Wednesday morning, she reached out to Klonowski and his wife, who checked her apartment and found sheriff’s deputies. “It was very shocking,” he said. “We should all be thankful for the time that we have.”