'This accident was preventable': Family of grandmother killed in Metra crash wants answers
National Transportation Safety Board officials said they are focusing on why a box truck froze on the BNSF tracks Wednesday in the path of an oncoming Metra train in Clarendon Hills.
The collision killed a 72-year-old woman who was ejected through the window of the lead train car, NTSB Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg said Thursday at a briefing.
"We do not know why the truck did not move," Landsberg noted. "That's probably one of the key questions we have."
The family of Christina Lopez, a Downers Grove grandmother of five, also is seeking answers and video of the crash that led to her death.
"This accident was preventable," Lopez's son-in-law Jeff Klonowski said. "We want to get the answers, but also importantly, we want to do our part to help so that no family has to do and go through this tragedy again. It didn't have to happen."
Two other passengers, plus the train's engineer and conductor, suffered minor injuries when the crash occurred at 8:18 a.m. at the Prospect Avenue crossing.
The truck driver and two passengers got out safely from their vehicle. Both the driver and the engineer have undergone toxicology tests.
"The truck was struck by the cab car and pivoted around to the right side of the train," Landsberg said. He noted the locomotive was at the rear of the train pushing it; the cab car was at the front.
"The back end of the truck struck the right side of the cab causing extensive damage. The passenger who was fatally injured was ejected through one of the windows on the left side."
The truck burst into flames immediately.
"We believe that in the course of the impact, one of the diesel tanks on the truck was punctured, in fact maybe both of them," Landsberg said.
The maximum train speed in that area is 70 mph; NTSB officials said they still are determining how fast the train was going as the engineer was applying the brakes.
A white pickup truck had pulled in front of the other truck and turned left on the tracks as the gates went down and warning bells went off.
Clarendon Hills police have interviewed the three people in the truck and the NTSB also will speak with them. "That's going to be key to understanding why the truck didn't move," Landsberg said. "The truck could have moved. It didn't."
Some residents have raised concerns about construction on either side of the tracks that might have affected the truck's movement.
"Obviously, there's some construction going on but vehicles seem to be moving back and forth across the tracks," Landsberg said, adding the agency would review that issue.
Lopez had three daughters and lived most of her life in Chicago. She moved to the suburbs to be closer to her family. Lopez would take Metra from the Main Street stop in Downers Grove to visit her sister in La Grange multiple times a week.
"She was going there to visit her sister that morning when she was caught in the accident," Klonowski said.
Attorney Steven Jambois, who is representing Lopez's family, said the construction has disrupted the normal flow of traffic through the intersection. He knows of "numerous residents" who have made complaints to the city.
"From everything I've heard, that was an accident waiting to happen, that the traffic because of the construction at that intersection was so slowed down, that people were in harm's way quite frequently," Jambois said. "And this was something that was bound to happen and was very preventable."
Lopez was a devoted sister to her siblings, a caring aunt to many nieces and nephews and a fantastic cook who passed on her recipes to her loved ones, her son-in-law said. She celebrated Mother's Day with most of her extended family last weekend.
"Little did we know the blessing of that time that we had with her," Klonowski said.
Lopez was retired. She had a cleaning job at the offices for Channel 7 for many years, he added.
It was first Metra's first passenger death since 2005.
BNSF trains will operate on a normal weekday schedule Friday. Trains will make scheduled stops at Clarendon Hills, Metra said, but the Prospect Avenue crossing will be closed until further notice.
Riders should check metra.com for schedule changes.