The aftermath of the calamitous train crash at a grade crossing south of Chicago was eased because Amtrak immediately put into motion a well-thought-out disaster plan.
The crash between the City of New Orleans on its way from Chicago to New Orleans and a flatbed trailer truck loaded with steel bars in Bourbonnais, Ill., 50 miles south of Chicago killed 11 train passengers and injured 125.
The truck driver and the engineer survived. The train's locomotives and all but the last three of 14 passenger cars derailed in the March 15 crash.
"The major difference in our new disaster plan is that we sent large numbers of high-level management people directly to the scene to deal face-to-face with the injured, their families and the uninjured also," said Clifford Black, Amtrak director of public affairs.
Previously, more middle-level Amtrak people had been sent in such situations, said Black, who spent four days at the crash site.
"The Amtrak people are sent to provide care and comfort to victims, including our own employees, who had psychological needs as well."
Seventy-five Amtrak management and customer-service employees from all over the country were dispatched to Bourbonnais.
"It's helpful to have top management at the scene," Black said, "because they can make spot decisions about spending money." (Some were to remain as long as passengers remained in local hospitals.)
Amtrak's new disaster plan was developed in the wake of the TWA Flight 800 crash off Long Island in 1997 after President Clinton asked transportation providers to develop new standards for handling customer service. Black said Amtrak met with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) 18 months ago to develop a quick-response plan. It's first use was in Bourbonnais.
"What we've learned from all this is that our plan works well," Black said. "It's also psychologically good for us. It gives us a sense of hope for the future. It buoyed me. It gives us a sense of optimism." He noted that the media treated Amtrak "with respect and consideration."
Black said the train suffered $15 million in damage; the cost for the rest of the operation was "significant."
The train carried 196 passengers, a crew of 18 and two off-duty Amtrak employees. It was traveling at 79 mph, top allowable speed.
The train struck the truck's trailer, which was on the tracks. The truck's cab was not on the tracks. It is unclear at press time if the truck tried to go around the rail gates. The NTSB is still investigating.
Four hundred eighty-eight persons were killed and 1,540 were injured in 3,865 accidents at the nation's 270,000 grade crossings in 1997. Fatalities, injuries and incidents at grade crossings have been declining over the last two decades.
"I implore any and all motorists in this country-you must do your part," said Amtrak President and CEO George Warrington at the crash site the day after. "Please stop at all rail crossings, and never, ever attempt to cross a railroad track while a train is approaching."
For more coverage of the crash and Amtrak's response see the May 1999 issue of METRO Magazine, available in the first week of May.