Amtrak crash victim a dance teacher who 'saw talent in every kid'
Scene of a collision between an Amtrak train and an SUV in University Park.
Katie Lunn had spent the past year helping prepare several young dancers for solo performances in a dance competition at Governors State University and was proud that they had done well.
Lunn, a dance instructor and manager at the School of Performing Arts in Naperville, was to return this morning for the second day of the grueling competition, the American Dance Awards. But on her way home to Chicago Friday evening, her SUV was struck by a northbound Amtrak train at a crossing in University Park in the Southwest suburb.
The crash was witnessed by a mother and teenage daughter--a student at the dance school-- who were driving behind her. They did not know at the time that the teacher was behind the wheel, said Joni Wiltz Berkley, managing director of the school.
Lunn, 26, was pronounced dead at 10:57 p.m.
The parent told school officials that the tracks were confusing and that Lunn's car got stuck between the tracks.
Canadian National Railway, which owns the tracks is investigating circumstances related to the crash, including whether any signal systems were deployed, said Spokesman Patrick Waldron. University Park police are also investigating.
The school pulled out of today's competition because of the accident, said Wiltz Berkley.
"They work all year to get to this point, so it's a time when she could be proud of her kids and cheer them on. She was the biggest cheerleader for kids,'' said Wiltz Berkley.
Lunn, who had worked at the school for about six years, was a dance teacher and manager of the dance ensemble. She taught about 50 children between the ages of three and 18 who competed and performed throughout the Chicago area, said Wiltz Berkley.
"She was unique in the fact that she saw talent in every kid that walked into her classroom and her gift was to make them love dance,'' said Wiltz Berkley.
She said that Lunn also found comfort in teaching and choreographing dance and that it helped last year when the teacher lost a close friend to cancer.
"She found it very uplifting and rejuvenating,'' said Wiltz Berkley. "She loved it because it was so rewarding to work with the kids."
The school and the students are mourning her loss and feel that they have lost a "member of their family," said Wiltz Berkley. On the school's website, officials said they have decided to continue teaching her classes.
"She liked performing and she liked teaching. She touched a lot of little girls' hearts, I know that,'' said her father, Jerry Lunn from his home in Iowa, where his daughter grew up. "She just liked kids."
For about three years Lunn danced with a Chicago dance ensemble, Hip Hop Connxion and was scheduled to perform Sunday afternoon with the group, said Shelley Mitchell, a close friend and fellow group member. (See video of Hip Hop Connxion HERE.)
Lunn had planned to go to a rehearsal on Friday evening but rearranged her schedule so she could watch her students perform at Governor's State.
"She had the type of personality where she could walk into a room and everyone's attitude would change because she was such a positive person,'' Mitchell said through her tears. "The greatest quality about Katie is that she just cared so much for everybody.''
Mitchell said she and Lunn worked closely with the anti-drug program D.A.R.E., performing for children. This past Christmas Lunn, a devout Christian, helped organized a fund raising effort to purchase presents for D.A.R.E. children on the West Side of Chicago.
Mitchell said she last spoke to Lunn about five hours before the accident to let her friend know that she had just signed a lease for a Lincoln Park apartment around the corner from Lunn's home.
"I was excited for us to be able to see each other more,'' said Mitchell, who has known Lunn for about four years.
Members of the hip hop group will decide whether to continue with their Sunday performance, said Mitchell.
The youngest of three children, Lunn graduated from Oklahoma City University with a degree in dance management, said her father. She moved to the area about six years ago, he said, teaching dance in the summer to children at the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago.
According to her biography on the school's website Lunn was a professional dancer and choreographer for the Oklahoma City Yard Dawgz Arena Football Dance Team. She also held management positions, "such as assistant stage manager and assistant children's director, for several Oklahoma City University's American Spirit Dance Company's performances."
Lunn said his daughter never married and did not have children, partly he believes because her main focus was her job and her love of dance.
"Her focus was work, she just loved doing what she did,'' Lunn said.
Will County Coroner's officials said an autopsy was expected to be performed at a "later date."
At about 9:40 p.m., the No. 392 Illini train hit the vehicle that was on the tracks at a crossing at Stuenkel Road in the University Park, Amtrak spokeswoman Vernae Graham said last night.
About 155 passengers were riding on the train, which was stopped while officials cleared the tracks.