Drivers who were almost hit by train say gates and lights didn’t work at University Park crossing before woman was hit and killed in SUV
Yellow-vested workers with orange flags were keeping a watchful eye Sunday evening on vehicles rolling through a University Park railroad crossing where two days earlier a still-unexplained crash killed a popular dance teacher.
Witnesses said Sunday that crossing gates on two tracks that traverse Stuenkel Road near Governors Highway did not come down and lights did not flash to warn drivers of an approaching train.
Meanwhile, University Park Trustee Vivian Covington said the south suburban village has repeatedly complained to the tracks’ owner, Canadian National Railway Co., about poor track conditions.
Drivers have been getting little information, as neither the village nor railroad officials will say where their investigation is headed or whether the cause of the crash has been found. Earlier Sunday, men sitting in Canadian National trucks near the tracks referred comment to a company spokesman. Other University Park trustees and Mayor Alvin McCowan did not return calls for comment.
Canadian National spokesman Patrick Waldron said CN is leading the investigation with the help of the Federal Railroad Administration. He said he could not comment further, citing an ongoing probe.
Katie Lunn, 26, of Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, died after the gray SUV she was driving was hit by an Amtrak train at 9:42 p.m. Friday. Her vehicle had been sandwiched between cars that had braked for a stop sign as the train headed through the intersection.
Two women who drove over the tracks just before the train hit Lunn’s SUV said the crossing gates did not go down and the lights did not flash.
Several people familiar with the railroad crossing say it’s difficult to navigate. Two sets of tracks are close to a four-way blinking stop sign. Drivers have one lane in each direction and a gravel shoulder. Traffic pours out from nearby Governors State University, with drivers often in a hurry.
Lauren E. Brown, a Cook County prosecutor, said she was driving directly in front of Lunn and just missed being hit herself. Brown said she was so startled, she looked around and saw the train had hit Lunn.
“When I went over the railroad tracks, the gate didn’t go down. The lights didn’t go on,” said Brown, who was at a dance contest at Governors State that Lunn also had attended.
Only when Brown approached the second set of tracks, on which the train was traveling, did she see the white light of the train, which honked. She saw a “puff of dirt” as Lunn’s vehicle was struck. Brown said the gate finally came down when the roughly second-to-last train car passed through the crossing.
“Even right after it happened, you could not even really tell the wreckage was a car,” she said. “It looked like a ball of metal.”
“Nobody was trying to beat a gate,” she added. “Nobody was trying to beat a train.”
Driving just ahead of Brown was Lisa Smith, who also was leaving the dance contest. She said she didn’t see the train until she was driving across the tracks.
There were no bells, no lights and no gate on its way down, said Smith, who was riding with her son, Tyler. The collision sounded to Smith like something hitting metal.
“And I was like, ‘Oh my God! Oh my God! I hope no one just got hit,'” Smith said. “You’re kind of in shock anyway because you’re thinking, ‘I could’ve just been killed.'”
On Saturday, Waldron, of Canadian National Railway, said investigators were looking into whether any of the signal systems were deployed. Crews were working at the crossing before the crash Friday, but Waldron would not say what work was being done. James McGee, assistant director for public safety at Governors State, said he saw crews installing new signal arms.
Lunn, the youngest of three children raised in Iowa, graduated from Oklahoma City University with a degree in dance management, said her father, Jerry Lunn. She taught children ages 3 to 18 who competed and performed throughout the Chicago area, including at the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago.