– Ben Martens

South Shore Train Crash

Have you ever been in a big new group where everyone has to go around and tell something interesting about themselves? For a while, my go-to-story was that I was in a train crash. That actually didn’t work very well. It was too serious and usually brought down the fun mood. But it’s a true story, and here’s how I remember it…

On January 18, 1993, our family decided to head to Chicago for the day to see the Shedd Aquarium. I had never been there before (and still haven’t.) There’s a little commuter train that runs back and forth from Chicago to South Bend and this was going to be the first time that I had been on the train. At 13 years old, I was pretty excited about the whole day.

When we got to the train station, I immediately headed to the front of the train. I had heard Dad tell stories about how the conductor would sometimes let you come up and see the controls and that seemed like prime seating to me. I wasn’t too happy when Dad insisted that we sit in the second of the three cars. For years I never knew why he did that, but I recently found out it’s because the front train sometimes gets unhooked part way along the journey and you have to move.

The train finally left the station and we were zooming off across the northern Indiana countryside. All of a sudden, I remember our train hitting the brakes extremely hard. We all slid forward, felt a rumble, and saw a big black mass fly past the windows. Whispers of “Did we just crash?” filled the cabin. Pretty soon a hysterical conductor came running back through the cabin in a panic shouting, “Is everyone ok!?” There were no injuries in our car so he continued back to the third car. We still didn’t know what had happened though so nobody was too concerned. One of the adults walked forward to the front car and came back with a white face, “No one goes in the front car. No one.” That was my first clue that this was more than a quick stop.

We sat on the train for over an hour (maybe two?) only knowing that we had crashed. For the first time in my life, I saw body bags in person. They contained bodies and were zipped up. Apparently the time spent waiting on the train was so that they could clean up the mess before we got off the train.

Only when they finally let us off did we see the extent of the damage. We had hit another train almost head on. It split our front car down the middle, bounced off the tracks around the middle car and bumped into the rear car on our train. The front car was quite bloody despite there efforts to clean. We later found out that seven people in that car had died and most of them were by decapitation.

They led us down a snowy slope to waiting buses and shipped us back to the train station we departed from. News crews were just showing up as we got there. Since we were the first ones off the bus, I was excited to be interviewed and get on TV. “We’re going home” was all my parents said to the reporters as we walked by.

I’m pretty sure it made the national news for a bit, but the local news covered it for quite a while. About six years later in college, I ordered the NTSB’s final report on the incident which is available through the Freedom of Information Act. The wreck occurred just as our westbound train was exiting a bridge. The parallel tracks converged for the length of that bridge. I’m oversimplifying, but basically the two conductors were playing chicken and they both lost. Our conductor thought he could make it in time but was clearly wrong. Both conductors were fired.

It’s difficult to find news articles about this online since it was pre-Internet boom, but here’s one blurb I found:

In the first passenger fatal accident since 1909, Train 7 from Chicago runs a red signal on the western approach to the Gauntlet Bridge, goes into emergency stop, and pauses for 5 to 30 seconds before being hit by Train 12 from South Bend. The lead cars, Car 27 Eastbound and Car 36 Westbound, slice into each other killing 7 passengers in Car 36, including a 10 year old boy. Most of the victims were decapitated. There were initial reports of 70 or 65 injured. (A 1998 TV report claimed 150 injured in a story about a lawsuit, as well as reporting an eighth passenger death from injuries sustained in the crash, but this report is not supported by other media.) A signal prior to the signal run had been reported defective in prior weeks, however the Gauntlet signals were working properly. A second bridge has now been added at the site and the Gauntlet is no longer in operation. The engineer of Train 7 was the dispatcher in the 1985 accident. NO CRIMINAL CHARGES WERE FILED, but both engineers were fired. (Car 36 apparently has been replaced by another car, or repaired, as it has been seen in operation. Based on video of the accident it would seem that Car 36 received the largest amount of damage.) [source]

UPDATE: You can download the NTSB report here.