Don MacCorquodale will never forget the evening of Feb. 4, 1977.
“The sound was unbelievable,” he recalled. “It was a huge roar that echoed and reverberated up and down the canyons of downtown Chicago.”
What unfolded in front of MacCorquodale was like something from a Hollywood disaster movie—four cars of a loop elevated train jumping the tracks and crashing to the street at the corner of Lake and Wabash, at the height of the evening rush hour, killing 11 and injuring more than160. Forty years later, it remains the CTA’s worst elevated accident.
“I was dumbfounded,” he says. “I had this feeling this is not happening, this can’t be real!”
The tragedy occurred at 5:27 p.m. The northbound Lake-Dan Ryan train struck the rear car of a Ravenswood train which was stopped just short of the station at Clark and Lake streets. For a few seconds, the train rocked back and forth, before cascading over the edge of the loop elevated structure.
MacCorquodale watched it all happen, seemingly in slow motion, starting with the lead car which crashed into the intersection directly in front of him.
“The second car actually began to turn crosswise to the ‘L’ structure … so the back end of the second car actually swung out over open space, hanging over the edge and for a moment I thought it was going to stop there,” he said. “But then it overbalanced, and it too, fell into the street.”
When the disaster finally stopped, two cars had come to rest on their sides, with two others dangling precariously from the "L" above.
“After this huge uproar,” he said, “all of a sudden it was silent!”
Scores of rescuers worked to free passengers and pedestrians from the tangled wreckage. An NTSB investigation would later determine that seven of the fatalities were most likely passengers, but four others may have been pedestrians, trapped when the train came crashing down. At least three passengers were ejected from the cars.
The 360,000 pound train had fallen 21 feet to the street below. Injured passengers went to nine hospitals.
“I know I just flew out of the seat over against the door,” one injured woman told NBC5 in the emergency room of Henrotin Hospital. “And the lights went out and everybody started screaming.”
Chicago police said four marijuana cigarettes were found in motorman Stephen Martin’s bag, but toxicology did not indicate that he was under the influence when the crash occurred.
Investigators would later blame Martin for “failure to exercise due care … at a speed that was too fast to stop after the operator sighted the standing train.” An NTSB report found that Martin should have been able to stop the train before the collision, and that he was “obviously not fully alert to the conditions ahead.”
Martin stated that he thought the other train was gone. But investigators found that he failed to heed procedures for the flashing red signals he was seeing in the cab of his train. They further stated it was possible he had inadvertently applied power instead of the train’s brakes, as a collision seemed imminent.
The motorman had been on the job with the CTA for eight years. He had been cited in the past for operating past a stop signal twice, with at least one derailment in his record. He had previously been suspended.
If the CTA had examined his entire service record, investigators wrote, “it may have conveyed to the CTA that he needed help in some areas and that he may have been a potentially high-risk employee.”
In the aftermath of the crash, the CTA erected border walls on the corners of the loop elevated structure, and changed its rules related to signals, requiring motormen to contact the transit control center for permission to proceed any time a red signal is displayed.
“Safety is CTA’s number one priority, as evidence by the fact that we have one of the strongest safety records of any major transit agency in the nation,” the agency said in a statement. “We remain committed to further strengthening an already strong, long-standing safety structure and culture at CTA.”