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Engineer Braked, Blew His Whistle And Prayed Before Fatal Crash

January 17, 1996

CRYSTAL LAKE, Ill. (AP) _ The engineer braked, blew his whistle and prayed as his commuter train sped toward the school bus _ its driver unaware of the onrushing danger that would take seven young lives.

``I just kept whistling plumb up until I hit the bus,″ engineer Ford Dotson told federal officials Wednesday. ``I kept saying to myself, God, please let it move, please let it move.″

His testimony came on the first of three days of federal hearings into the Oct. 25 crash that killed seven high school students in Fox River Grove.

The bus, with 35 students aboard, was waiting at a red light with its rear end overhanging the tracks. A safety system turns the light green when trains approach, but tests have shown it can turn green with as little as two seconds to spare before trains arrive.

Fox River Grove residents had repeatedly complained about the traffic light and village officials had reported the problem to the state. After each meeting with the railroad and the Illinois Department of Transportation, village officials believed the problem had been solved, village president Bill Yocius said.

Yocius noted that Police Chief Robert Polston was at the rail crossing to inspect the light when he witnessed the crash. But Polston could not testify as scheduled Wednesday because he was hospitalized in serious condition. Polston complained of chest pains Tuesday night, Yocius said.

At the hearing, National Transportation Safety Board officials released the transcript of an interview with bus driver Patricia Catencamp _ her first public comments.

Catencamp, who had been filling in for another driver, said she stopped, looked and listened before crossing the tracks and saw nothing, then pulled up to the traffic light. She said she had no idea that the bus failed to clear the tracks.

``It never entered my mind that there wasn’t room for that bus to fit,″ she said.

The transportation safety board is not expected to issue its report on the accident for months. But the case has prompted federal officials to issue a nationwide warning about similar signal sequencing.

Chief investigator Kennith Rogers said he didn’t know the extent of the problem in other states.

Rogers said tests have indicated the driver may not have been able to hear the train. A radio was on and students were noisy, though not unusually so, testimony indicated.

The space available between the crossing gate and the stop line at the traffic light was big enough for a car but not for a bus or commercial vehicle, one of the facts that Rogers said would be more closely examined in the hearings.

Dotson, who has worked for the railroad for 22 years, said October’s accident continues to haunt him.

``Ever since then, I’ve been asking myself why did this accident happen?″ Dotson said. “But it still happened and there ain’t nothing we can do about it.″

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