ELMWOOD PARK, Ill. – A group of cars hit by a commuter train at a busy suburban Chicago crossing had 54 seconds from the time the gates were activated until the train came barreling through, an official with the National Transportation Safety Board said Thursday.
The crossing gates appeared to be working, but traffic was backed up during the evening rush Wednesday and several cars became trapped between the gates, acting NTSB chairman Mark Rosenker said.
"The cars were in a place they shouldn't have been at the time," Rosenker said. The train hit them because they had nowhere to go, he said.
Sixteen people were injured when the train slammed into the trapped cars and started a chain reaction in the heavy traffic. Three remained hospitalized Thursday, Rosenker said.
Investigators are now looking into whether the traffic signals at the long diagonal intersection gave vehicles enough time to clear the tracks. They also planned to interview the train's crew members on Friday, and were investigating human error and other possible reasons for the crash.
A spokesman for the Metra train service said the vehicles shouldn't have been in the train's path in the first place. A large sign above the tracks reads: "Long crossing. Do not stop on the tracks."
"It's right above the gate" said Metra spokesman Patrick Waldron. "If you followed that sign you wouldn't have been on the tracks."
Sixteen people complained of injuries after the crash in Elmwood Park, Metra spokeswoman Judy Pardonnet said. Rosenker said three people remained hospitalized in stable to serious condition Thursday.
Christina Rodriguez said she was stuck in traffic at the crossing when the gates came down, trapping her car and several others. She saw the lights of the train coming, jumped from her car and ran.
"I tried to move (my car), but I couldn't. Nobody moved," said Rodriguez, 29. "Too many tried to get in."
Chief Michael Marino of the Elmwood Park Fire Department said two people had to be extricated from their cars, including one woman whose car caught fire after she was pulled free. Civilians helped emergency workers rescue others from vehicles scattered near the accident site.