UPDATED 02/14/11 10:59 a.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) – Two cars headed in opposite direction both hit the same freight train overnight, and now there are serious questions about whether the rail crossing safety systems were even working.
As CBS 2’s Susanna Song reports, four people were injured in the accident, and three of them were taken away in critical condition. The fourth was in serious, but stable, condition.
One car was headed north on Halsted Street, the other south, at the crossing near 90th Street just after 3 a.m.
One of the cars, a blue Nissan Maxima, hit the connection between the rail cars. Another, a beige Buick LeSabre, was wedged under the train.
Firefighters had to cut the cars open to pull the four accident victims out. Two were taken to Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn and two were taken to Stroger Hospital of Cook County, Fire Media Affairs Chief Joe Roccasalva said.
A Level 1 Hazardous Materials response was also called, since tanker cars were involved. The tanker cars were carrying denatured alcohol, so there was no serious threat to neighbors from fumes or toxicity.
Denatured alcohol is commonly used as a sanding aid, solvent or fuel for camp stoves.
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The train was not moving at the time of the accident. The crossing gates for the railroad were up, and the warning lights were not flashing.
Thus, the drivers apparently did not see the train. The tanker cars are painted black, but they have reflecting stripes.
Surveillance video from a nearby business shows the driver of the southbound car likely didn’t see the stopped train at all because he barely slows down before crashing into it. Moments later, a northbound car did the same thing.
“You can see it on the videos — there was no flarings or anything indicating that a train was there,” Rick Fernandez of Ben’s Auto Care said.
Authorities say the accident could have been prevented if the crossing gates had been working properly. Neighbors say it doesn’t surprise them that the gates didn’t come down.
“It was one day last week – I don’t know what day it was – but the lights were flashing and the arms were up, from what I saw, and the police rerouted the traffic around that,” said neighbor Dorothy Jones.
“It’s not the first time,” said neighbor Deborah Smith. “It has happened before where the arms were not working at that time.
Police and fire officials say the tracks belong to Chicago Rail Link.
Authorities say when train engineer noticed the gates weren’t working, he threw down flares.
Then, as the train was moving eastbound, it stopped to let another train pass. That is when police say the cars collided into the train.
Neighbors say the crossing can be dangerous.
“Every day we cross the track, and a lot of times you might not hear nothing until the horn blows,” Smith said.
“By the time the horning is blowing, the train is almost to the street,” Jones added.
The Illinois Commerce Commission is investigating this train collision, among other agencies. Meanwhile neighbors say the rail company needs to come up with a solution.
“It needs to be fixed; recheck the wires, or something like that, for safety,” Jones said.
Investigators say Chicago Rail Link is responsible for this crossing. A spokesperson for the company says they are not commenting on the accident until their investigation is completed.
The Sun-Times Media Wire contributed to this report.