Investigators restage events leading to Amtrak crash
March 18, 1999
BOURBONNAIS, Illinois (CNN) -- Federal investigators late Wednesday recreated the sequence of events surrounding the fiery Amtrak crash that killed 11 people, hoping to get a better idea as to what caused the accident.
The National Transportation Safety Board used a single locomotive to represent the train and a tractor-trailer truck similar to the one in the accident.
With the charred, twisted wreckage of the Amtrak train still lying near the tracks, the single engine crept toward the fateful intersection as the test truck sat behind the flashing crossing gates.
Loud whistles from the locomotive pierced the nighttime sky at 9:45 p.m. CST (10:45 EST) -- nearly the precise time of Monday's horrific accident. This time there was no collision.
At least a dozen investigators wearing hard hats and armed with walkie talkies lined both sides of the tracks. Officials did not make any comments after the on-site test.
Investigators were testing various possibilities that may have resulted in the accident, including whether the truck driver's vision was blocked by two idle cars on adjacent tracks.
Piecing together a timeline
They also were piecing together a timeline of events leading up to the accident that could help determine how fast the trucker was going just before the crash.
Officials have said if tire tracks in the mud near the tracks match the driver's flatbed truck it would indicate the driver, John Stokes, of Manteno, Illinois, zigzagged his rig around the crossing gates -- something the train engineer reportedly claims happened but the driver denies.
Stokes, who was not seriously injured, told investigators he did not see any flashing lights at the railroad crossing and that the crossing gate came down after he was already on the track. Records show there have been no such malfunctions at that crossing when a train has approached in the past year, NTSB member John Goglia said.
But Illinois officials have confirmed a number of complaints about malfunctioning signals at the site over the last 11 years, allegations that will be examined closely by the NTSB. Three people have been killed by passenger trains at the crossing since 1964.
Stokes, who was using a probationary driving permit since his license had been suspended because of speeding tickets, underwent blood and urine tests and also took a Breathalyzer test. "All I know is that it didn't show he was over the limit," Goglia said.
Eleven people -- all believed to passengers -- were killed when the Amtrak "City of New Orleans" train slammed into the truck late Monday shortly after leaving Chicago en route to New Orleans. There were 196 passengers, 17 Amtrak crew members and two Illinois Central Railroad employees on the train.
Names of the victims have yet to released.
But family members told CNN that June Bonnin, 48, of Nesbit, Mississippi, and her granddaughter, Jessica Tickle, 12, of Memphis, Tennessee, were killed in the crash. Tickle's friends, sisters Rainey and Lacey Lipscomb, 10 and 8, of Lake Cormorant, Mississippi, also were killed.
All four were in the sleeper car near the front of the train where all 11 remains were found. Bonnin and her best friend Cindy Lipscomb, the mother of the two girls killed, had taken their daughters to Chicago for a weekend trip and were returning home when the train struck the tractor trailer.
Family members at crash scene
Wednesday afternoon, about 60 family members of those believed killed and some survivors were taken by bus to the crash scene and laid flowers and wreaths near the twisted wreckage. One woman, with tears rolling down her face, held up a red rose and gently placed it near the tracks.
Survivor Jeanine Sharp Radl said her life has been shattered.
"I just sat on the pavement and people all around me were cut and bleeding and everybody was screaming and I said, 'My children, my children, my family. My mom's gone. My daughter's gone.'"
In addition to those killed, another 116 people were injured, including 49 who were hospitalized, some with amputated fingers or toes, at least one with a broken back and others suffering burns.
Amtrak, NTSB now agree
Earlier, Goglia lashed out at Amtrak, complaining that 36 hours after the crash there still was no accurate count of how many people were on the train.
He toned down his criticism in a written statement hours later.
"The confusion associated with the number of missing victims was a result of data provided to the Safety Board that had not been recently updated and it would be inappropriate to leave the impression that Amtrak was failing in its duties to its passengers," it said.
Amtrak spokesman R. Clifford Black said the two sides now "agree on our accounting methodology and also on the numbers as it relates to this accident."
The "black box" aboard the main engine has revealed that the accident happened at 9:47 p.m. CST (10:47 p.m. EST).
It also shows that the train was going 79 mph -- the maximum speed but within the track's legal limits -- and that the engineer blew the train's whistle to warn any vehicles that it was approaching.
The derailed passenger cars slammed into two idle rail cars -- one loaded with steel, and the other with residue from the furnaces of a steel mill -- on an adjacent track that added to the severity of the accident, officials said.
Investigators restage events leading to Amtrak wreck
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