Rail crossing tragedy triggers memories of another

Posted Friday, October 27, 2006

Many mothers hugged their kids Thursday in Fox River Grove, relieved that they could.

Many also prayed for the parents who couldn’t.

“It’s just a very sad community,” said Kathy Zumach, who lost another young neighbor Wednesday, when 15-year-old Justin Glassmyer was hit by a commuter train.

Zumach first lost a young neighbor 11 years ago, to the day. Jeffrey Clark was one of the seven students killed in 1995 when a train hit a school bus — at the very same rail crossing, now called the Seven Angels Crossing.

Wednesday night, she stood behind a police barrier with her family near the intersection at Route 14 and Algonquin Road where Glassmyer, a sophomore at Cary-Grove High School, earlier was killed.

Zumach accompanied the Clark family Thursday to visit Jeffrey’s grave.

“We went and paid our respects to the bus accident,” Zumach said. “There are lots of moms hugging their kids and glad it wasn’t their kids, because it could have been anyone of them.”

Ray Zukowski knows the feeling too well.

The Lombard man lost his 14-year-old daughter Kristen Bowen in February, when she was hit by a train as she tried to cross the tracks between Lombard and Villa Park.

Thursday, Zukowski met with Glassmyer’s mother and three sisters at their home. Zukowski is trying to set up a fund to help the Glassmyers.

“Financially, they’re not prepared for the costs that are going to be on top of them,” Zukowski said. “I know because I went through it.

“You can’t think straight at a time like this,” Zukowski said, “and all of a sudden you’ve got this catastrophe plus a financial catastrophe.”

Teens camped out at the Glassmyer house most of the night, and neighbors dropped in to lend their support, Zukowski said.

At the permanent memorial to the seven students killed 11 years ago — a plaque set into a stone at the southeast corner of Algonquin Road and Route 14 — a makeshift memorial to Glassmyer sprang up.

Friends and family had laid bouquets, a pumpkin balloon and a memorial T-shirt around the memorial.

Former Cary-Grove student Heather Skinner visited the site Thursday afternoon. She said that despite the safety measures that have been taken in the past decade, the intersection remains unsafe.

“I think the whole thing should be shut down completely,” Skinner said.

Zareen Shah, an employee of the Fox Pantry convenience store across the street, agreed there are lingering safety concerns but said the intersection is safer than it was 11 years ago. Back then, the major intersection had only a stop sign, which has since been replaced with a traffic light.

Chip Pew, rail safety specialist for the Illinois Commerce Commission, returned Thursday to the same intersection he investigated 11 years ago, while working for Metra.

Still working for Metra, Pew said investigators are not sure why Glassmyer rode his bike onto the tracks just as Metra train 641 was crossing. Police did confirm that at least two other kids were at the scene when the incident occurred.

Train accidents that involve a pedestrian or bicyclist are extremely rare. This was only the second this year in Illinois, Pew said.

The state, meanwhile, led the nation last year in fatal train crashes, with 30. That’s largely because Illinois has more railroad tracks and crossings than any other state except Texas, Pew said.

The speed limit for the train that hit Glassmyer was 50 mph and, according to Pew, it didn’t appear to be speeding.

But even at that speed, Pew estimated it covered the length of a football field about every four seconds and could take up to a mile to stop.

Initial investigations show the crossing gate and lights were working, Pew said. The crossing does not have a gate to block pedestrians and bicyclists from crossing.

A crisis team of school counselors and social workers convened Thursday before the bell rang at Cary-Grove High School. Grief counselors are available for all students and staff, said Jeff Puma, spokesman for Crystal Lake High School District 155.

Administrators were acutely aware that Wednesday’s accident would trigger memories of the bus tragedy that occurred 11 years ago.

“It is a coincidence, but at the same time we were very mindful of that coincidence, and we are being very active in supporting our staff to make sure they have an opportunity to go through grief counseling, because a lot of them were teachers when the bus tragedy occurred,” Puma said.

Wednesday evening, Cary-Grove sophomore Abby Cassidy got a call from her brother, who told her Glassmyer had been killed.

“I got really upset because I had gone to school with him my whole life,” Cassidy said.

Cassidy described Glassmyer as a high-spirited boy who was always smiling.

She said she didn’t think a shortage of safety measures was a factor in the accident.

“They did everything they could,” she said. “It’s just one of those things.”

Glassmyer’s autopsy is scheduled for today. Funeral arrangements are pending.