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'Miracle' no deaths in Chicago airport train crash

CHICAGO--The crash of a Chicago commuter train that derailed and plowed up an escalator at one of the world's busiest airports would have been far worse, and likely fatal, had it not happened how and when it did, a transportation expert says.

Federal investigators are staying mum about what may have caused the Chicago Transit Authority train to jump its tracks around 3:00 a.m. Monday, screech across a concrete platform and crash up a heavily used escalator that takes travelers and workers into O'Hare International Airport. Investigators were expected back on the scene Tuesday.

“It is a miracle that nobody died,” said Joseph Schwieterman, a transportation expert at DePaul University.

Had the crash occurred during the day, when the trains are often full and the escalator packed with luggage-carrying travelers, far more people likely would have been injured, some even killed, he said. The crash injured more than 30 people, all of whom were on the train, though none suffered life-threatening injuries.

“A train running up a (crowded) escalator could have been a worst case scenario,” Schwieterman said. “When pedestrians are hit by a train, it is usual fatal.”

He also noted that jumping the track likely dissipated the train's forward movement, thus lessening the accident's severity. A more abrupt stop would have more violently slammed people into the train's seats and walls, he said.

“That was a lucky break,” he said. “A train hitting a wall at ... high speed could easily have been fatal for many.”

The union representing the train operator said fatigue may have played a role in the crash in a tunnel at O'Hare, the second busiest U.S. airport, suggesting the woman may have dozed off.

The operator, who was not immediately identified, had started work at around 8:00 p.m. on Sunday but had recently put in a lot of overtime, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 308 President Robert Kelly said Monday afternoon.

“I know she works a lot — as a lot of our members do,” he said. “They gotta earn a living ... She was extremely tired.

Kelly said she underwent standard drug and alcohol tests after the derailment, and he said she assured him they were not an issue.

Asked whether she may have nodded off, Kelly responded, “The indication is there. Yes.”

The train is designed so that if operators become incapacitated their hand slips off the controls, and it should come to a stop. Kelly speculated that, upon impact, inertia may have thrown the operator against the hand switch, accelerating it onto the escalator.

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