CHICAGO — A train operator apparently made two key errors in quick succession to cause a derailment that left passengers perched more than 20 feet above the ground and sent several to hospitals, the Chicago Transit Authority said Wednesday.
The operator failed to heed a red signal ordering him to stop, agency spokeswoman Noelle Gaffney said. After the four-car train went through the signal, it automatically activated a trip, which stopped the train.
But the operator moved the train forward again at a spot where the tracks split before they were switched into proper position, causing the rear end of the front car and the second car to derail but remain standing, with the other two cars still on the tracks, Gaffney said.
“He was going on the wrong tracks, or started to,” Gaffney said.
She said there was still a possibility the aging transit system played a role in the derailment, which sent 14 people to the hospital, none with life-threatening injuries.
“The signals at this location were installed in the 1970s and refurbished in 1996,” she said. “But some components are still more than 30 years old.”
Investigators were interviewing the operator, who has 31 years’ experience, and he was cooperating, Gaffney said. He will undergo drug testing and not be allowed to return to work until the investigation is done.
The derailment jolted the passengers enough to cause injuries, as well as leaving them fearing for their lives as they remained stuck about 22 feet from the ground.
“Everybody was screaming and hollering and, you know, and praying for God,” said 35-year-old Willie Jackson, who was aboard the second car.
“I was just hoping that train didn’t go over the edge. That was the only thing I was really concerned about,” he said. “If the train would have fell off the edge on to the ground, we probably would have been dead and hurt real bad.”
And Renee Davis could hear “hollering, screaming, praying” when her sister, Mary Ann Baker, called her on her cell phone after the derailment.
“She said it just spin around, it just tipped,” Davis said of her sister. “She hit her head, her whole body.”
Baker was one of 14 people taken to hospitals. Eleven were considered in good condition and three were in fair, said Fire Commissioner Raymond Orozco. A total of 25 people were on the train, including one CTA employee.
Some of the injured were put in ladder baskets and lowered to the ground, where they were put in ambulances. Others were led off the tracks via a nearby stairwell, officials said.
As with other derailments of CTA trains, this one triggered a swift response from Chicago police investigators, who quickly looked for indications someone had sabotaged the train.
The derailment also served as another example of problems for the city’s deteriorating century-old train system, which runs throughout the city and to nearby communities on tracks both elevated and underground.
Last month, a train derailed as it pulled into a station. A week earlier, an electrical problem caused a train to stall underground, forcing the evacuation of as many as 100 passengers and shutting down service between downtown and busy O’Hare International Airport. Seven people were taken to hospitals with injuries not considered life-threatening.
And a crowded rush-hour train derailed in a subway in July 2006, causing a smoky fire that injured more than 150 people, six seriously.
The National Transportation Safety Board in September issued a blistering report of the system, saying a seriously flawed inspection and maintenance program likely played a major role in the 2006 derailment.