Train collision victim's relatives push for truth
March 19, 1999
BOURBONNAIS, Illinois (CNN) -- The son of a woman killed in an Amtrak rail crossing collision with a semitrailer appealed to the truck driver Friday to admit it if he "ran the gates and they were down."
Robert Munson, 31, whose mother, Marie Munson, 64, was a passenger on "The City of New Orleans" train that derailed Monday after slamming into the truck, said, "I don't know the truth. I don't know if anybody does. It might take a long time for us to find out.
"But if he did do it, he should have the common decency to admit it," Munson said.
Munson and his 21-year-old sister, Tiffany -- two of six grown children left by the victim -- held a sometimes emotional news conference, while a construction crane cleared away remnants of the wreckage, including what was left of the sleeper car in which all 11 dead were found.
Friday afternoon the National Transportation Safety Board said a "number of people have come forward who claim to have witnessed the accident."
Investigator in Charge J.S. Dunn said interviews were being taken but there was "no way that the NTSB can characterize the witness statements as agreeing with one crash scenario or another" until all the statements are analyzed.
After questioning an eyewitness to the crash, federal investigators returned to the scene to try to clear up reported discrepancies between his account and some of the physical evidence.
Investigators say some evidence suggests the driver was trying to zigzag around the lowered gates to beat the train, but the witness -- a Hispanic man who doesn't speak fluent English -- supported the driver's version that the crossing gates were up and the flashing lights off, according to the Chicago Tribune.
The trucker, John Stokes, 58, of Manteno, Illinois, was driving a tractor-trailer loaded with steel rods. The train slammed into the flatbed trailer, then derailed, careening into parked rail cars loaded with steel and furnace ash from the nearby steel plant.
Stokes had a probationary permit that permitted him to drive with a suspended license after getting three speeding tickets in a year. He would have completed probation in 10 days.
Marie Munson, of Mount Prospect, Illinois, was taking Amtrak to New Orleans because she was "scared to death" of flying, "loved to ride on trains," and "New Orleans was her favorite city in the world," her son said.
His sister said Mrs. Munson had initially bought a coach seat but upgraded it to the sleeper last week.
"I believe 100 percent that everything happens for a reason," Tiffany Munson said. "And I know that God wanted her for some reason. And I believe that heaven will be a better place now with my mom.
"She was the most wonderful woman in the world, the most caring, the most loving, generous, understanding, unbelievable, beautiful," Tiffany Munson said.
"I loved her so much. She was my best friend," she said, breaking into tears.
Asked about Stokes, Robert Munson said, "I don't even know what to say about that driver. If he ran the gates and they were down, I'd like for him to come out and admit it, if he did do that, in fact.
The NTSB was awaiting the results of tests on tire tracks in the mud near the crossing. If those tracks match the tractor-trailer rig, they would indicate that the driver did try to drive past the signals.
The testing did not turn up any evidence that the crossing guards failed. Investigators also believe Stokes should have been able to see the train approaching more than 644 feet away.
Stokes has hired an attorney, who has advised him not to comment any further.
The Munsons are awaiting positive identification of their mother, which will have to be made through dental records because the diesel fire ravaged the train car.
Meanwhile, the Kankakee County Coroner's office released the names of four other victims -- three children and an adult from Mississippi who had been on an outing to Chicago to visit a doll store.
They were June Bonnin, 46, of Nesbit, Mississippi; her granddaughter, Jessica Tickle, 11, also of Nesbit; and Jessica's friends, Rainey Lipscomb, 10, and her sister Lacey, 8, both of Lake Cormorant, Mississippi.
Correspondent Patty Davis and Reuters contributed to this report.
Language problems slow Amtrak crash probe
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