Car-train crashes becoming familiar

Grandparents, granddaughter killed, two grandchildren injured



July 15, 2009

By STEVE LORD slord@scn1.com

For Somonauk resident Michelle Skibitsky, accidents like Monday's fatal car-train crash are all too common.

"We definitely get a lot," said Skibitsky, a waitress at the Country Kitchen in downtown Somonauk, which draws a lot of people from the Somonauk and Leland area. "It's no longer, 'Oh, there was a train accident.' It's 'Oh, there was another train accident.'"

The latest train accident occurred about 3 p.m. Monday at a crossing on East 23rd Road just north of Route 34, about a mile west of Somonauk.

Benjamin Rasmusen, 82, and his wife, Marilyn Rasmusen, 81, as well as one of their grandchildren, Elizabeth Rasmusen, 9, of Indiana, were killed when their car crossed the tracks traveling south on East 23rd Road and was hit by the lead engine of the Amtrak California Zephyr, which was traveling west out of Chicago.

Two other of the Rasmusens' grandchildren, Amelia Rasmusen, 10, and Benjamin Rasmusen, 7, also of Indiana, were injured in the accident.

They were taken to the trauma center at Rockford Memorial Hospital, where they were listed as stable Tuesday evening.

According to LaSalle County Sheriff Tom Templeton, evidence at the scene indicates the car did not stop as it entered the rail crossing. The sheriff's office said Tuesday afternoon the accident investigation is continuing.

East 23rd Road is a frequently used crossing, although because it is in a rural area, it has no gate, no lights and no warning bells.

Skibitsky said she has friend whose mother died at the same crossing. She said that as a runner, she always takes off her headphones and looks carefully both ways when she crosses the tracks on foot. She also said nearby residents are used to the horns and the bells on the trains which sound as they approach the crossing.

"In the middle of the night, we even hear them," she said. "It's very intense, and it makes you mad sometimes, but this shows why they do it."

Marc Magliari, Amtrak spokesman from the Chicago office, said those horns and bells were working on the Zephyr.

"This is a very tragic incident for the friends and family of those who were in the car, and for our train crew, who are unable to prevent these types of crashes," Magliari said.

For Sandra Wendel of Waterloo, Neb., the accident seemed like hail in a tornado. Wendel was a passenger on the Zephyr, and her first indication that something had happened was a noise, followed by the sound of debris hitting the sides of the train cars.

"Pieces started pelting the cars, like hail," she said Tuesday. "It looked like a tornado, with stuff swirling by."

The tragic situation was made even stranger for Wendel because she had been on the same California Zephyr last week as it traveled to Chicago from the west, and hit a car on the tracks in downtown Sandwich. In that case, the crossing had gates and lights, and the driver and passenger in the car were able to get out before the collision.

"On Monday, we were slowing down coming through Sandwich, and I remember commenting to my husband that this is where the accident was," she said. "Then it happened again."