Video: Chicago train derails, sparking fire

updated 7/12/2006 12:51:31 PM ET 2006-07-12T16:51:31

Wary commuters boarded downtown subways Wednesday morning, a day after an eight-car train derailed and started a fire that injured more than 150 people in one of the city’s few underground stretches of rail line.

Downtown Blue Line stations reopened Wednesday, but with delays.

“It took me three hours to get home yesterday, so hopefully (it will be) a little bit better getting to work than coming home,” commuter Alicia Hutchinson said as she entered a downtown Blue Line station Wednesday morning. “Luckily, everybody got out OK.”

At a news conference Wednesday, Chicago Transit Authority President Frank Kruesi and other city officials praised the train operator for getting the rush-hour passengers off the train in a hurry Tuesday as he was trained to do.

“He followed the procedures precisely right,” Kruesi said. “The key was to get people out of the train and up the exits, and that’s what he did.”

The operator had been on the job for 19 months, Kruesi said earlier.

Two injured passengers remained hospitalized Wednesday in critical condition as federal investigators tried to determine why the train’s rear wheels jumped the track. Law enforcement officials said there was no indication of foul play or terrorism.

As many as 1,000 people were aboard when the eight-car train heading to O’Hare Airport derailed shortly after 5 p.m. Tuesday and material under the train caught fire, Kruesi said.

“It felt like it jumped the line, and a fire started in the car behind me,” said Joel Johnson, 24, of Chicago, whose face and white shirt were covered in soot when he emerged from the tunnel Tuesday. He and hundreds of other riders had made their way along a wall through the darkened, smoke-filled tunnel to an emergency exit leading to the street.

“I saw the orange flames but I didn’t hear it,” Johnson said. “I could barely breathe.”

The shutdown of the downtown stretch of the Blue Line — which takes travelers from one of the nation’s busiest airports to the business district, its Amtrak stations and then Chicago’s west side — left commuters to patch together new routes Tuesday evening using buses, taxis or multiple train lines.

CTA spokeswoman Noelle Gaffney urged commuters to be patient,

“We’re hoping to catch up quickly,” Gaffney said early Wednesday. “People should still allow a little extra travel time but they don’t have to worry about exiting at a different stop than they’re used to because we will be bringing trains to the subway.”

Chicago Fire Commissioner Raymond Orozco said 152 passengers were taken to 12 hospitals, primarily for treatment of smoke inhalation, and 33 others refused treatment. Many were considered to be in good or fair condition, officials said, but at least one hospital reported two patients in critical condition.

Officials said it was too early to say what caused the derailment. Kruesi said the National Transportation Safety Board was investigating.

The train had just left the busy station at Clark and Lake, at the northwest corner of the Loop, when the operator realized there was a problem, stopped the train and called for power to be cut, Kruesi said. He said the operator then led passengers to the nearest emergency exit.

Rita Bacon, 25, who was on the train, said she felt much safer after commuters were able to open the train cars’ doors using the emergency release.

“Everyone was just holding out their hands, holding each other’s hands, feeling their way along,” she said. “It was pitch black in places, but there were signs in the tunnel that said, ’500 feet to the exit, 250 feet to the exit,’ so I felt much better.”

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