Last week 20-year-old Rachel Barton was trying to exit a northbound train in Winnetka when her violin-case strap got stuck between the doors. She was dragged 150 feet, and the train's wheel severed part of her left leg. Metra spokesman Tom Miller told a Sun-Times reporter that Barton had apparently pushed through the doors after the conductor gave the all-clear sign.
A week earlier the topic of conversation in the locker room at my health club was people who are injured or killed by trains. Metropolitan Chicago has had a rash of deaths since last summer, some of them probably suicides, others the result of carelessness. Last year Metra, Amtrak, and freight trains killed 20 Chicago-area pedestrians.
"People don't start running across the tracks until the very last moment," said a man who was tinkering with a lock. He said he and other people waiting for the 6 AM Metra from Elmhurst often watch commuters, some of them women wearing high heels, race in front of the train's headlights. "We call this 'bowling for pedestrians,'" he said with a smirk, then added that he couldn't fathom why people take such risks. "Before the train appears you don't see anyone running. They don't start running until the train gets to the YMCA, less than 100 yards west of the station."
I told the story of the 68-year-old woman who was killed in Elmhurst last fall, the mother of one of my brother's best boyhood friends. At 6 AM eyewitnesses saw her hurry around the lowered crossing gates and flashing lights at Poplar Avenue, several hundred yards east of the station.
"We heard that she had on a Walkman and didn't hear the train," the man tinkering with the lock said. Metra has a safety program, and Illinois is a national leader in automatic warning devices. But bells and lights do little good if people aren't paying attention.
I then related the only story of a train-crossing pedestrian fatality that I remembered from my childhood in Elmhurst. The principal at Immaculate Conception School hauled a seventh-grader in front of every classroom to mumble an apology for the stir he'd created the day before during recess. Some woman had been killed by a train, and Mike, who was on his way to school, had found her dentures.
Everyone in the locker room laughed.
A man from Elgin told how last summer he and another commuter were running across the tracks to a Metra train that was already in the station. He wasn't about to race in front of the engine, so he waited until the train left, then walked to the platform to wait for the next one. But the other guy had crawled underneath one of the passenger cars. "He had on a suit and must have figured that he had a minute before the train began moving. The conductor said this happens all the time. And he told me about another guy who didn't even let a closed door stop him." This guy had jumped onto the narrow ledge outside the door, grabbed the handle, and held on for dear life. The train crew didn't realize he'd jumped on until after he'd been thrown to the tracks.
The locker-room conversation shifted to other things, but a couple days later I read that Michele Rose of Villa Park had become the first Chicagoland pedestrian killed by a train in 1995. An eastbound train struck her on January 11 around 8:15 AM. The 37-year-old woman hadn't been trying to catch the train, Tom Miller told me. She worked nearby and was crossing the tracks. Seeing her in his path, the engineer sounded the horn. She must have heard it, because she waved. But she never looked up.