Firemen examine vehicles
Jeff Roberson  /  AP
Firemen examine vehicles struck by a commuter train during the holiday rush hour in Elmwood Park, Ill., on Wednesday.
updated 11/25/2005 4:41:45 AM ET 2005-11-25T09:41:45

A group of cars hit by a commuter train at a suburban Chicago crossing had 54 seconds from the time the gates were activated until the train came barreling through but they couldn’t escape, an official with the National Transportation Safety Board said Thursday.

The crossing gates appeared to be working, but traffic was backed up during the evening rush Wednesday and several cars became trapped, acting NTSB chairman Mark Rosenker said.

“The cars were in a place they shouldn’t have been at the time,” Rosenker said. He said the train hit them because they had nowhere to go.

Sixteen people were injured when the train slammed into the trapped cars, destroying five and starting a chain reaction that damaged others. Three people remained hospitalized Thursday.

Investigators are now looking into whether the traffic signals at the long diagonal intersection gave vehicles enough time to clear the tracks. They also planned to interview the train’s crew members on Friday, and were investigating human error and other possible reasons for the crash.

Rosenker said the train’s engineer applied the emergency brake 450 feet before impact, as soon as he saw cars in the crossing, but “there was nothing he could do.” The Metra train was going 70 mph, its authorized speed, and slowed to 65 mph after the impact, he said.

Company: Sign above gate
A Metra spokesman said the vehicles shouldn’t have been in the train’s path in the first place. A large sign above the tracks reads: “Long crossing. Do not stop on the tracks.”

“It’s right above the gate” said Metra spokesman Patrick Waldron. “If you followed that sign you wouldn’t have been on the tracks.”

Sixteen people complained of injuries after the crash in Elmwood Park, Metra spokeswoman Judy Pardonnet said. Rosenker said three people remained hospitalized in stable to serious condition Thursday.

Christina Rodriguez said she was stuck in traffic at the crossing when the gates came down, trapping her car and several others. She saw the lights of the train coming, jumped from her car and ran.

“I tried to move (my car), but I couldn’t. Nobody moved,” said Rodriguez, 29. “Too many tried to get in.”

Chief Michael Marino of the Elmwood Park Fire Department said two people had to be extricated from their cars, including one woman whose car caught fire after she was pulled free. Civilians helped emergency workers rescue others from vehicles scattered near the accident site.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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