It all began on the first Monday of 1999. A New Year's storm blanketed Chicago with many inches of snow. The day's temperatures were in the single digits. I caught the 6:04 a.m. express train from Aurora's Route 59 Metra station to my downtown office. The train was barreling eastbound at top speed in the center track as it approached Downers Grove. A prolonged whistle by the train's engineer raised my attention. Almost immediately, he engaged the emergency brakes, but we all should know that trains can't stop on a dime. As it slowed, I felt a slight lurch and, eventually, the train came to a stop at the Maple Avenue crossing in Downers Grove as I saw a white shape flash by my window.
As a news reporter early in my career, I would often cover breaking news stories including shootings, robberies, petty crimes, train accidents, and a variety of other feature and hard news topics. But none of those came close to the experience I encountered on January 4, 1999.
I exited my seat and went to the vestibule to see what had happened. I pulled the emergency release to open the doors and looked both ways to make sure no other trains were approaching on the southern-most track. The aforementioned "white shape" was a extended van emblazoned with the words "Kids Kab" that transports kids to day care centers. My first thought was that the van was carrying children and brought back memories of the 1995 Metra crash in Fox River Grove that hit a school bus filled with high school students.
I stepped off the train and sank into snow up to my knees. As the dawn's early light was just breaking, I noticed that most of the van's windows were blown out from the impact. I climbed partially in the windows to see if there were any kids under the seats, which had been mostly flattened. Fortunately there were none, but the van's only occupant was the driver and he was alive but I could see that he was severely injured. Many motorists near Maple Avenue stopped to help. I shouted to anyone for blankets to help keep the victim warm in the frigid temperatures, but none came in time. I and others were talking to him and encouraging him that help was on the way, but he passed away just before Downers Grove fire and paramedics arrived.
The week, which was already full of emotions, ended with the sudden death of my father 5 days later.
Footnote: Early news reports said the victim drove around crossing gates, but after a deposition with the victim's legal team years later, it was determined that the van lost traction on the snow-covered Maple Avenue crossing.
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