The children just joked, then screamed in horror. The bus has become a deadly trap

The weather at the bus stop in Fox River Grove, Illinois, was cold that fall morning of October 25, 1995. The school bus carrying the children to the local school was about twenty minutes late, which did not add to the good mood. When he finally arrived, a minor surprise awaited the children. The driver, who usually drove them, was not behind the wheel, but his deputy, Patricia Catencamp.

The woman immediately admitted that she was following this route for the first time and asked the children to help her navigate. Fourteen-year-old Katie Krebecková and several friends agreed that it would be the best and sat down as a driver.

The bus headed for the school. Today, 39-year-old Katie, married to Burriss, remembers what happened a few minutes later, with a chill in her back.

“The radio was playing Janet Jackson’s song Runaway when we stopped at Red on Algonquin Road. The children sitting in the back suddenly all ran forward,” Katie told The New York Times five years ago.

A few seconds later, a suburban train crashed into the back of the car at a ninety-kilometer speed, literally cutting off the bus body from the chassis and throwing it aside. Thirty-five children flew in all directions. There was no crash or impact sound in Katie Burriss’s memory. All she could remember was the dead silence that had fallen on the bus immediately after. “I thought I was dead for about a minute,” Burriss said. At that moment, she did not yet know that seven children did not really survive the collision…

Crossing next to the intersection

The bus and train collision at Fox River Grove remains one of the worst and deadliest accidents in American history. Five children were killed on the spot, two more died later. Twenty-one other children were injured, including Burriss, who suffered a severe concussion and tore cartilage in both knees. The most serious injuries to children included skull fractures and extensive traumatic damage to internal organs.

“We were all shocked. I didn’t understand what happened until the hospital when I heard the news,” Burriss said after twenty years.

Shortly after the accident, an investigation team was set up to answer the question of why the disaster occurred, whether it could have been prevented, and how to prevent something similar in the future. And the team members were soon taken aback by the fact that at one point several unfortunate factors came together, all of which contributed to the disaster.

“Everything that went wrong went wrong,” summed up later attorney Robert Bingle of Chicago, who represented many student families in litigation.

A railway crossing in the immediate vicinity of a road junction is always a tricky place, especially for large and long cars, but we often come across such road crossings in industrial centers. In order to prevent a collision, the signaling systems of the railway line and road traffic are interconnected so that trains and car traffic cross the neuralgic point in a coordinated way and do not collide.

However, the timing of traffic lights and train signals did not work one hundred percent at the intersection. As the investigation has shown, there have been several complaints in the past about the risk situation at the site, but the competent authorities have not been able to pay due attention to them and have not adjusted the operation.

Another factor was the bus delay. If he drove on time, he would miss the train safely. The driver’s inexperience with the route also played a role – she didn’t know the dangerous place at all, because no one had warned her about them in advance. When she stopped at the red light, she had no idea that the back of the car could catch a passing train. Subsequent investigations showed that only 76 millimeters of the bus body protruded above the track. However, the moving train exceeded the edge of the tracks by a whole meter.

Finally, the children ‘s unfortunate reaction tragically contributed to the disaster. When the bus stopped behind the crossing around seven in the morning, the children in the back first joked teasingly at the driver’s expense, but then they started shouting at her to drive forward. As they shouted, Catencamp didn’t understand them and turned to face them – overlooking the fact that the traffic light was flashing green and she could go. The children’s screams also drowned out the honk of the approaching train.

“Chaos broke out on the bus, so the driver overheard the train warning signal,” said John Goglia, a member of the US National Transportation Safety Board who took part in the investigation.

Fast train

Unfortunately, the train itself ran in such a way that in the end it worsened the situation. It was a regular two-story six-car commuter train that left Crystal Lake at seven o’clock in the morning and headed for Chicago. The collision at the crossing occurred at 7:10.

The first problem was that the locomotive did not pull the train, but pushed it, it was attached to its end, which could adversely affect the driver’s view. And the second is that this morning train was sometimes nicknamed “Flyer” by the locals, because most of the stations passed without stopping and were allowed to run at speeds of up to ninety kilometers.

According to Goglia, when the driver saw the bus entering the track at the level crossing, he already had too little time to react. Although he started honking and used the emergency emergency brake, he could not prevent the collision.

The tragic accident eventually led to legislative changes in the United States and the rebuilding of interconnected crossings across the state of Illinois. Information labels have been added to school buses, informing each driver of the exact length of his bus. The signaling system, which protects passing trains and motor vehicle traffic, has also undergone major changes.


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