October 27, 1995
Web posted at: 11:50 a.m. EDT
FOX RIVER GROVE, Illinois (CNN) -- As federal investigators focus on a traffic signal where a train hit a bus killing seven students, the bus driver in Wednesday's accident said the signal was red and that she never heard the train before impact.
John Goglia of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said the problem may have been in the timing of the signal system and its engineering. "The timing doesn't appear to be proper," he said.
He said the approaching train was supposed to trigger a signal that turned the light green to allow vehicles trapped on the track to pass. Tests revealed the lights would change 20 to 25 seconds after the train activated a sensor, however, it took the train only 18 seconds to cover the distance from the sensor to the intersection. (793K QuickTime animation)
Goglia said the NTSB has interviewed the driver of the bus. "She states that she stopped prior to entering the crossing, opened the door, looked and listened for traffic, and then proceeded across the tracks to the stop line at the traffic signal," said Goglia. "She stated that she never saw or heard the train until the impact. Her statement is that the light did not, that is DID NOT, turn green allowing her to proceed onto route 14."
The Illinois Secretary of State's office said the driver, Patricia Catencamp, 54, had been licensed since 1987 and had no accidents on her driving record.
Transportation Department spokesman Dick Adorjan said the signal was working properly just before the crash, when Fox River Grove Police Chief Robert Polston and a Transportation Department official met at the intersection. Two people had come forward with complaints about the crossing.
"At the time that they were there, two trains had passed through and the signals had operated properly," Adorjan said.
Five students died in the crash Wednesday and two more were pronounced dead Thursday after being taken off life support at 11:50 a.m. Stephanie Fulham, 15, of Fox River Grove had suffered massive head and facial injuries. Susana Guzman, 15, also of Fox River Grove died after suffering head trauma and a cervical fracture in the crash. Eight students remain hospitalized -- one in critical condition.
Goglia said measurements are being studied, but it appeared the bus was too long to fit in the space between the tracks and the intersection.
"There was a great deal of interest in the distance between the vehicle stop line painted on the pavement and the traffic light and the rail. That distance is some 30 feet, 6 inches, and that is less than the overall length of the bus," Goglia said, adding that the bus was at least 35 feet long.
Witnesses to the crash said the bus was waiting to make a right turn with the back of the bus extended across the tracks when the accident occurred.
Officials said the train was traveling at 50 miles per hour, well within its 70 mph speed limit, and that the engineer sounded the train's horn and slammed on breaks as he approached the crossing but could not stop in time.
Witness Coreen Bachinsky said the children who were sitting in the back of the bus saw the train coming and were out of their seats, moving toward the front of the bus when the accident occurred.
She said there was a car in front and one behind the bus with the light red as the bus waited at the intersection. But Chris Knapton, a spokesman for METRA, the commuter train agency, said there were conflicting reports about whether there was a car in the front of the bus or not.
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