CHICAGO (CBS) — Canadian National Railway has agreed to pay more than $36 million to the family of a 44-year-old woman who was killed in a train derailment and explosion in Rockford two years ago.
Zoila Tellez, 44, died trying to escape from a derailing train that set off a fiery explosion in Rockford in June 2009. She, her husband and their daughter abandoned their car after the train derailed. Tellez made it about 20 feet on foot before she fell and died. Her husband, Jose, and daughter, Adriana were both badly burned. Adriana was pregnant at the time and lost her baby in the accident.
On Tuesday, Tellez family attorneys announced that the railroad has agreed to pay $22.5 million to Jose Tellez to settle claims over Zoila’s death and Jose’s injuries. The railroad also agreed to pay $13.75 million to Adriana to settle claims over her injuries and the death of her baby.
Tellez family attorney Robert Bingle said the train carrying ethanol derailed after a washout caused by heavy rains.
“Over the few hours before, there was some significant rainfall and some flooding from the Harrison Park subdivision and had caused what is known in the railroad language as a washout. It’s an area of the track that has lost its balance and the two rails are just hanging there suspended,” said Bingle.
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Witnesses said Zoila Tellez was on fire as she ran from the car. Her body was found face down on the ground. She died from severe burns.
Eighteen rail cars, all loaded with thousands of gallons of highly flammable ethanol, left the tracks in the derailment, exploding into flames.
Officials evacuated about 600 homes within a half-mile of the derailment amid concerns about air quality.
Bingle said that, during the course of their investigation and the resulting civil trial, they found out that Canadian National Railway lacked proper and immediate communication about the washout.
“The dispatcher in Montreal, Canada, was notified of the washout by the local sheriff’s department – who said they had heavy rains and your trains are washed out,” Adriana’s attorney, Christopher Norem, said. “He claimed he didn’t understand what was being described to him so he waited seven minutes, then he started calling the train traffic control center in Homewood, Illinois, which was the only way that the train could be contacted to be stopped. Unfortunately, when he got through, it was 8:40 p.m. That was four minutes after the train derailed.”
Norem said that dispatcher ultimately conceded on the witness stand that he misunderstood what the sheriff told him and, as a result, failed to get out the warning about the washout in time.
According to Norem, the railroad had 20 minutes notice of the washout, but couldn’t relay that information to the train in time due to shortcomings in their communication system.
Witnesses say that cars on the Chicago-bound train began hydroplaning in standing water as it approached the crossing. Some of them left the tracks moments before two of them exploded.
The complaint filed against the railroad alleged that it was negligent in the operation, maintenance and supervision of the train and negligent in the maintenance and inspection of the track.
Illinois Central Railroad Company and Chicago, Central, & Pacific Railroad Company – both subsidiaries of Canadian National Railway – were also named in the suit as operators of the train and track where the derailment occurred.
The National Transportation Safety Board has not released its report as to the cause of the derailment.
The case of Zoila Tellez settled for $15.5M, Jose Tellez for $7M, for Adrianna Tellez the case was settled for $11M and for her unborn child, $2.75M.