Witnesses: No gates, lights at train crossing where woman died

 

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Witnesses to a crash that killed a Naperville dance teacher Friday say there was no warning that a train was coming until it was too late.

Both the motorists directly in front of and behind 26-year-old Katie Lunn said the gates and lights at the crossing were not working at the time of the crash that killed her.

There were "no lights, no gates, no anything," said Lauren Brown of Skokie, a Cook County prosecutor. "There was no way for us to know there was a train coming, and at the point the conductor blew his horn when I was on the tracks it was too late for anyone to change course."

Brown was driving immediately ahead of Lunn, a Chicago resident and dance teacher and manager at the School of Performing Arts in Naperville. She was leaving a dance performance at Governors State University about 9:40 p.m. Friday when her SUV was struck by a northbound Amtrak train at the Stuenkel Road crossing in University Park, a southwest suburb of Chicago.

Brown said there are two sets of tracks at the crossing and a gate never went down until after the crash, when the second to last train car was passing through the intersection. The gate lowered, she said, then immediately popped back up.

Anna Fattore of Naperville was driving behind Lunn at the time of the crash. She saw the train narrowly miss Brown, then in a matter of seconds, strike the dance teacher's car, pushing it forward. There was an explosion, she said, and the gas tank flew into the air.

"It was very surreal," she said. "It was like watching a nightmare unfold in front of you."

She, too, said the train came without warning, other than the horn she heard within seconds of the crash.

A third witness, Lisa Smith of Naperville, was two cars ahead of Lunn's on Friday and also did not see any gates or lights alert drivers of an oncoming train. Her son spotted the train first and she thought he was mistaken until she looked left and saw the headlight coming at them as she drove over the tracks.

Smith has driven through the intersection in the past and said visibility is poor.

"There is a line of trees, no streetlights and two huge utility boxes," she said.

Smith also reported seeing workers on the tracks earlier in the day Friday.

Patrick Waldron, spokesman for Canadian National Railway Co., confirmed railroad workers were at the crossing on Friday afternoon but would not elaborate on the work they were doing, or whether the gates and signals malfunctioned at the time of the crash.

"The incident is a terrible tragedy and our condolences go out to the family and friends of the young woman," Waldron said. "CN is dedicated to a full investigation of this accident to determine exactly what happened and why. At this point the circumstances of the incident including the grade crossing signal system are part of that ongoing investigation."

Trains are continuing to go through the intersection. Waldron said Canadian National will "continue to do everything in our ability to make sure the crossing is safe for the public."

According to Federal Railroad Administration statistics, there have been five train versus auto crashes at the Stuenkel Road crossing since 1991, not including Friday's crash. The five accidents resulted in four injuries and no fatalities.

Two of the crashes were reported by Amtrak and three were reported by Illinois Central Railroad, which was also responsible for track maintenance. The crashes occurred before Canadian National merged with Illinois Central.

Reached at her Iowa home on Sunday, Lunn's mother, Julie, said the issue of gates and signals is "something we'll have to deal with later."

The family is still grieving the loss of a daughter she called the "joy of our life" and someone always willing to lend a hand.

"She was one of those people who always gave 110 percent to whatever she did," Julie Lunn said. "She loved life, she loved her family, she loved her friends. She had this infectious smile that never went away."

She talked to her daughter nightly and had just seen her over Easter when they had "the best week ever" going dress shopping for Katie's sister Jessica's wedding.

Lunn was a gymnast growing up. She didn't start dancing until senior year of high school but fell in love with it, her mother said.

She graduated from Oklahoma City University with a degree in dance management and danced for the American Spirit Dance Co. and Oklahoma City University Pep Dancers. She also danced professionally and did choreography work for the Oklahoma City Yard Dawgz Arena Football Dance Team.

She started working in Naperville about four or five years ago.

"She always told me 'Mom, I'm living my dream, I'm living what I want to do,'" Julie Lunn said.

Fattore, whose daughter took lessons from Lunn, said she was "one of a kind" and a "positive influence."

"She was so excited to teach these kids and she loved them," Fattore said. "She was bright and uplifting and had a great sense of spirit and she loved what she did."

By Sunday afternoon a Facebook page dedicated to Lunn had more than 800 members mourning the loss of their friend and teacher.

Close friend Shelley Mitchell said she was dedicating a Sunday afternoon performance to Lunn.

"She was the most positive and caring person I have ever met," Mitchell said via e-mail. "The only comfort is that we all know she is in heaven watching down on us."

Visitation for Lunn will be held from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday, April 23, at Corpus Christi Church in Fort Dodge, Iowa. A funeral will be held at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, April 24, at the church. Julie Lunn said she would like to have a memorial in the Chicago area as well but plans have not been finalized.

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