CHICAGO — As heavy equipment tore wreckage from a CTA station Friday, police began scouring surveillance video to figure out why a semitrailer truck sped through a crowd of pedestrians and slammed into the station’s entryway.
The horrifying crash at the base of the Cermak-Chinatown Red Line elevated train stop, at the height of rush hour, killed two pedestrians and injured at least 21 more.
The truck driver limped out of the hospital in police custody late Friday. A Stroger Hospital spokesman identified him as Don Wells, 51. A police source confirmed the name of the driver. Police spokeswoman Monique Bond said he had not been charged.
Witnesses, many of whom were showered by glass and wall tiles after the impact, recalled a scene with people trapped under the truck, others lying unconscious on the pavement. Many described the sounds, beginning with screeching tires, then the collision.
“It sounded big, like a bomb,” said Sohail Malik, a parking lot attendant who works across from the exit ramp. As the CTA overpass shuddered, the truck climbed several steps up an escalator leading to the Red Line station’s platform above, Malik said. Blood and debris littered the sidewalk behind the truck.
Chicago Fire Commissioner Raymond Orozco said 11 of the victims of the crash, which occurred just before 5:20 p.m., were in serious to critical condition. Another eight were in fair to serious condition, and two more were in good condition.
Four people had to be cut out of the escalators, Orozco said.
Wells was treated at Stroger Hospital, said hospital spokesman Sean Howard. Also treated at Stroger were a 26-year-old woman, a 14-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl. The boy was released; the woman was listed in stable condition, and the girl had multiple injuries.
Wells refused the doctor’s advice and asked to be released, in part because he didn’t have health insurance, Howard said. He was handcuffed and escorted by police to a waiting police wagon.
Among the others injured, hospital officials listed two women, including a CTA employee, in fair condition at Northwestern Memorial Hospital; two adults in good condition at Mercy Hospital and Medical Center; a man in good condition at Rush University Medical Center and three children in fair condition at the University of Chicago Medical Center. One woman and one man were taken to Provident Hospital in stable condition.
Fire officials said three victims were taken in serious to critical condition to Mt. Sinai Hospital Medical Center, but hospital officials there refused to comment. The truck, operated by Whiteline Express, was exiting a ramp to Cermak Road from the Dan Ryan Expressway when the crash occurred, said Chicago Police Sgt. Maurice McCaster of the Major Accident Investigation Unit.
Instead of slowing to turn onto Cermak, the truck plowed through the intersection.
Maury Shiu, who was standing about 100 feet west of the station, turned around in time to see the truck hit the station. He said it was going relatively fast, and the driver appeared to have no control.
“He hit that with a good amount of force, crashed into that and even shook some of the structure of the facility,” he said. “It was almost like something from the movies, you know.”
One of the people killed by the truck was walking near the escalator; the other was heading either up the escalator or down the stairs next to it, McCaster said.
There were no indications of drugs or alcohol playing a role in the crash, he added. Investigators were interviewing Wells on Friday night. As the rescue unfolded, hundreds of people stood under the pagodas on Wentworth Avenue in Chinatown watching the rescue efforts less than a block away and talking on cell phones. Someone strung green tarps across a fence separating the Chinatown parking lot at Wentworth and Cermak from the CTA platform above.
On the other side of the tracks, children from the National Teachers Academy, at 55 W. Cermak, poured out of the school while adults flocked from nearby CHA complexes and storefront businesses. They pressed against police blockades, many of them asking about family members.
As a steady stream of emergency vehicles arrived at the scene, police blocked off Cermak to Wabash Avenue. More than a half-dozen firetrucks pulled up next to the station, and firefighters could be seen lowering victims from the station in gurneys.
Denise Bridges, whose 11-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son use the station to catch a train home, heard about the collision on the radio and rushed to the station.
Police told her that her children had been in the station when the truck slammed into it below them. Both were injured and taken to the hospital. Distraught, Bridges said she had not yet been able to talk to them. Some knew even less. Liz Vance, 28, has four children who attend the academy a block from the train station. They usually catch the train after school to head home to the South Side.
Vance was riding the Red Line home from downtown Chicago and was forced to get off at the Red Line’s Roosevelt Road subway platform. Knowing her children could have been on the affected train platform, she rushed to the station.
“I’m a little worried,” Vance said.
Recovery workers began removing the truck’s wreckage at 6:45 p.m., when a tow truck arrived on the scene. As it pulled the semitrailer truck from beneath the overpass, the bashed-in front end was exposed to people standing east of the railroad tracks.
Twisted metal hung from the overpass after the truck was removed, and a strong smoky odor wafted over the crowd.
As the sky dimmed about 7:15 p.m., rescue workers erected bright white floodlights. A heavy rain began falling, dispersing most of the spectators, but in the harsh glare of the floodlights, firefighters could still be seen clearing debris from beneath the overpass.
Power was restored to the tracks shortly afterward, CTA spokeswoman Noelle Gaffney said as a test train rolled behind her. Damage to the train platform entrance, escalator and elevator was extensive, she said.
Hours after the crash, the truck remained on the scene, its cab torn open into a mangled maw. Heavy equipment and emergency vehicles with flashing lights remained as well, gouging at the wreckage of the train station.
“He just wrecked everything,” McCaster said.
Tribune reporters Angela Rozas, Robert Mitchum and James Janega contributed to this report.