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Chicago train line director apparently commits suicide

By Tom Watkins, CNN
Metra Executive Director Phil Pagano apparently committed suicide Friday by stepping in front of a train.
Metra Executive Director Phil Pagano apparently committed suicide Friday by stepping in front of a train.
  • Phil Pagano made Chicago's Metra commuter train line one of best in country, many say
  • Pagano apparently killed himself by stepping in front of a Metra train
  • Pagano, Metra's executive director, made no attempt to step off the tracks
  • "He's had a fabulous and unprecedented career," says Metra spokesperson
  • Chicago
  • Train Travel

(CNN) -- The man credited with making Chicago's Metra commuter train line one of the best in the country is an apparent suicide, killed Friday by the train he himself rode five days a week for more than two decades.

Shortly before 8 a.m., Phil Pagano drove to a parking lot about two miles from his home in unincorporated Crystal Lake in suburban Chicago, walked onto a track where someone had committed suicide three years ago and stepped in front of an oncoming Metra train, McHenry County Sheriff Keith Nygren told reporters.

The train's lone engineer "saw a man standing on the tracks turning and looking at the train," Nygren said. "There was eye contact, he felt, between himself and the victim."

Pagano, Metra's executive director, made no attempt to step off the tracks, and the train, which was traveling between 45 mph and 55 mph, could not stop in time, Nygren said.

None of the 27 people on the train was hurt. They included 24 passengers, two Metra employees, and the engineer, a Union Pacific employee.

The passengers completed their trips in taxis; no other trains were delayed as a result of this incident, Nygren said.

"We have secured evidence at the scene and at the victim's residence that would indicate that this was an intentional act on his part," he said.

A deputy on routine patrol came across the body within a minute of the incident, Nygren said. He described the scene as "very gruesome."

Pagano's death came a week after Metra announced it was investigating whether the 60-year-old married father of two daughters got an unauthorized vacation payout last year of $56,000, said Metra spokeswoman Judy Pardonnet.

It also came two hours before the Metra board was to have met to hear from an independent investigator about the allegation against Pagano, who was on paid administrative leave from his $269,000-per-year job.

The meeting was delayed, Pardonnet said.

She said the apparent suicide was out of character for a man who cared deeply for his job and his co-workers -- so much that he made sure train personnel received counseling after witnessing similar incidents.

She credited her former boss with having transformed the Chicago rail system from one that in the 1980s was "dilapidated and rundown" to one that is now "the top among commuter railroads."

"This is a man who had an absolutely impeccable record and, honestly, was viewed as probably the premiere leader of commuter rail in the country."

Metra, for which Pagano had worked since its formation in 1984, moves 300,000 passengers per day along 11 lines over 550 miles of track serving six suburban communities in an area the size of Connecticut, she said. Before that, he held several positions at the Regional Transportation Authority in Illinois.

On-time performance, according to Pardonnet, is routinely at or above 97 percent, the best of any major city in the country and a record that area residents have grown to count on. "We literally get e-mails from people who say, 'My train was four minutes late twice this week, and I find that unacceptable,' " Pardonnet said. "He's had a fabulous and unprecedented career and that makes it even more tragic."

"Phil served this agency with distinction for many years," Metra said in a written statement. "Today, we shall remember the good work he achieved with our board of directors and the men and women of Metra. He was dedicated to our passengers and he always considered the men and women of Metra his family and there is a tremendous sense of loss within the agency."

Deputy Executive Director Bill Tupper was named appointed acting executive director of Metra, which after New York is the nation's second-largest commuter rail system, said Meg Reile, another Metra spokeswoman.

The investigation was initiated after Metra officials received a tip from Greg Hinz, a reporter for Crain's Chicago Business, about the claim, Pardonnet said.

"Phil Pagano surely didn't go to work for Metra to grab money he wasn't entitled to," Hinz wrote Friday on his blog. "Nor do reporters get into the news business to provoke suicides."

He added, "I and others I've talked to who were involved in the matter are, frankly, rattled. Writing about this is part of my job, and the job needs to be done. But that doesn't mean you don't feel bad. I do. I am sorry it had to end this way."