Talking History with Dominic Konareski: The Fox River Grove Incident

“Talking History” is a new column by history buff Dominic Konareski, a freshman. In this first edition, Konareski describes the “Fox River Grove Incident,” a tragic train accident that just marked its 24th anniversary.

Imagine this: You’re on a school bus going to school in the freezing morning. The bus stops at a red light, then the railroad crossings suddenly activate at a crossing. What you don’t realize is that part of the bus is hanging over the tracks. You then hear the gate slam on the roof of the bus, then you look and see a train coming towards you at over 60 mph with no way to stop. The train engineer keeps pounding on the horn but the bus driver doesn’t realize. Then you come to the horrible realization that it’s about to hit you and you can’t do anything about it. You feel helpless.

This is the story of the Fox River Grove Incident.

On the morning of Oct. 25, 1995, in Fox River Grove, Illinois, no one expected tragedy would strike. High school students were going to school, mothers kissed their children goodbye, some for the last time.

Metra Express #624 departed Crystal Lake Station bound for Chicago at 7 a.m., running on time. 624 was known as “The Flyer,” as it skipped most stations, speeding through them at a rate of 90 mph.

The school buses in the Crystal Lake School District (CLSD) were not having much morning luck. Most buses were leaving to pick up students around 6:15 a.m., but the driver for bus #103 that ran route 47/155 for Cary-Grove High School (CGHS) was a no show that morning, not even calling out. So the bus company had to find a replacement fast. The replacement was Patricia Catencamp, a safety supervisor. She had prior experience driving a school bus, but was still new. By the time the bus left, it was already 20 minutes late, picking up the first two students at 6:55 a.m. The students helped Catencamp through the route. At 7:10 a.m., the last of 39 students were picked up. Seconds later, the train’s and the buses’ paths would intersect at the Algoquin Road train crossing.

The bus started to go across the train crossing, but at that moment, a red light appeared, so the bus stopped. Suddenly, the crossing lights activated  and the arm of the gate came down. An oncoming train was coming and that train was Metra 624. The arm came down on the bus. The driver didn’t realize it and the students didn’t either for a couple seconds, until they realized the train was coming right at them. About three inches of the bus hung over the train tracks.

The students first joked about it, but then they realized how close they were to the train. They  started panicking, alerting the bus driver, but she didn’t move. She would later claim she didn’t hear the students shouting. The students tried to get out the emergency exit but it was too late. Metra 624 T-boned the bus at over 60 mph. The force of the impact tore off part of the chassis, spinning it 180 degrees. Five kids died on impact, two others died not long after. One of them, Jeff Clark was being treated by a nurse who witnessed the crash from a nearby coffee shop. The nurse used a turkey baster trying to help him breathe by getting the blood out of his lungs…He died in her arms. A total of seven students died with another 21, including the bus driver getting injures. The NTSB stated that one of the crashes biggest factors was the crossing gate being poorly designed.

Even though the crash happened over 20 years ago, it’s not forgotten, as the 28th anniversary two weeks ago.