On The Job - Illinois: Seconds That Changed Lives: The Bourbonnais Derailment

Mileen M. Joines reports from the scene of the fiery wreck of an Amtrak passenger train that collided with a truck, killing 10 people.


March 15, 1999. To some in Bourbonnais, IL, the date meant planting season was right around the corner. To others, it was time for a sigh of relief as the last corporate income tax return was mailed. Others looked forward to an upcoming St. Patrick’s Day party. But no one in Bourbonnais will...


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March 15, 1999. To some in Bourbonnais, IL, the date meant planting season was right around the corner. To others, it was time for a sigh of relief as the last corporate income tax return was mailed. Others looked forward to an upcoming St. Patrick’s Day party. But no one in Bourbonnais will ever look at that date in the same way again. In just a few seconds, the lives of thousands of people changed forever.

The “City of New Orleans” Amtrak passenger train was linked with Kankakee, Bourbonnais’ neighbor to the south, in the Steve Goodman song sung by Arlo Guthrie. Providing overnight sleeper service, the train begins its southward trip in Chicago and heads through Memphis, TN, toward the Gulf of Mexico. Many times, it carries college students returning to schools in Carbondale and Champaign, IL, but that night the students were away on spring break.

On this trip the 14-car train was being hauled by two locomotives and carried 214 passengers. But the train never made it to its destination that night; instead, it came to a dead stop as though it had hit a brick wall at 9:47 P.M.

John Stokes, a trucker from nearby Manteno, had just loaded his flatbed trailer with rebar steel at a nearby Birmingham Steel plant and was crossing the McKnight Road crossing when the Amtrak train clipped the end of his trailer bed at 79 miles per hour. While the initial impact was enough to derail the train, the engine then slammed into a hopper car loaded with 90 tons of steel waste that was sitting on the next track. The cars toppled into each other, spilling back and forth to the east and west of the tracks like dominos. The 2,200 gallons of diesel fuel that was leaking from the second engine and friction from the crushing metal caused flames to break out, engulfing the 156,605-pound sleeper car. The sleeper had “T-boned” the derailed engine, nearly splitting in two, trapping its victims. Into the sleeper crashed the dining car and other coach units. All but three cars derailed in the incident. The truck received little damage and the bed was still connected to the cab at the crossing. The driver was transported to the hospital for minor injuries.

passengers trapped

The disaster occurred in just a few seconds. The sound of the impact led workers at the nearby steel plant to think that it happened in the melt shop, where a loud “boom” occurs when cold water hits hot metal. While a guard called 911, about a dozen workers grabbed flashlights to run toward the screams of the trapped victims. They immediately began to enter the two most heavily damaged cars – the sleeper and dining car, helping victims to safety. Despite the fire and the hot metal of the derailed train, they were determined to stay and help the people on the train. Victims were first put in a nearby work trailer; when it was full, they began to gather in the plant’s office and even the plant itself just to stay out of the cold. Many tumbled out wearing just their nightgowns with no shoes, as they were ready to be rocked to sleep by the gentle beat of rolling train.

The Bourbonnais Fire Protection District covers about 60 square miles and protects about 30,000 people. Its roster includes 39 paid-on-call members, of which one is a full-time administrative officer. Its members answer about 1,800 fire and ambulance calls annually. The 19,000-square-foot station houses three pumpers, two tankers, a rescue squad, two advanced life support (ALS) ambulances, a brush truck and two cars for the night duty and administrative officers. Members take pride in their training and in their modern, well-kept equipment. Both traits benefitted them that night.

The station was being staffed at that time by two personnel, but they were busy with an ambulance call to aid a teenager with a pitchfork in his foot. Three other personnel were just leaving that call to hear the second page of “Ambulance needed for a train-versus-truck incident at the Birmingham Steel facility.”

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