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The Worst Disaster in Chicago Transit Authority History

Updated on August 19, 2013

The El-Train Disaster in Downtown Chicago

The photo of the disaster shows the position of the cars after they fell.
The photo of the disaster shows the position of the cars after they fell. | Source

Everything Normal

It was a normal kind of evening on February 4, 1977. It was still getting dark too early in Chicago and it was frigid outside. People in the downtown area were just trying to get home. Some of them were walking down the busy downtown streets. Some were trying to get home via the El-trains, the elevated train cars that ran above the streets, roaring down their tracks and sending out occasional sparks from time to time. What no one knew that day, however, is that some changes had been made in the middle of the downtown "Loop" of El-train tracks and that one coachman was about to make a fatal mistake.

Changes In the Pattern

The rectangular tracks that encircle the main downtown area of Chicago is known as the Loop. It is a busy and remarkable place as many different train lines all use the same tracks before heading off to all directions around the city to bring busy Chicagoans downtown and then back home. Each line is color-coded and known by a different name.

On this particular day an accident in the morning involving a switching problem meant that the train known as the Evanston Express ran in a counter-clockwise manner that evening, which was exactly opposite of the way it normally ran. It also meant that it now shared the tracks with other busy train lines such as the Ravenswood Line and the Lake-Dan Ryan train. This should not have been a problem. There were electronic safety measures in place that would prevent trains from colliding and the new pattern had been communicated to the coachmen who controlled the trains. They were to stop while making one of the sharp turns just before the platform once they entered the Loop and wait for the re-routed Evanston train to clear the station. Then they were to move forward. It would cause delays, but it should not have caused what happened to happen.

The Accident

It was 5:25 p.m. that evening, the height of the evening rush for the streets, highways and public transportation systems in downtown Chicago. On the tracks within the Loop a Ravenswood train had stopped on that sharp bend, just short of the platform, waiting for the Evanston train to clear. As the train and passengers waited, they were surprised when there was a sharp, but not alarming, bump from the rear of the train. A Lake-Dan Ryan train had bumped the rear of the train, causing the Ravenswood train to shift slightly. Passengers would tell the press that the initial contact was not much more than a slight bump.

What happened next is still not entirely clear. The coachman in the Lake-Dan Ryan train instead of braking or shutting down his train applied power. This caused this train to push harder against the Ravenswood train. The added pressure on that train caused the couplings that held the train cars together to bend. The two rearmost cars on the Ravens wood train were soon pushed together, then began to bend outward and upward. Then, as the passengers looked on in horror, they began to push closer to the edge and the long drop to the street below.

Again, instead of applying a brake, the coachman inside the Lake-Dan Ryan car increased speed. This finally pushed the cars beyond their ability to hold. Three cars would be involved. One of them would fall completely to the street below. Another would fall and end up with one end down on the street and the other end on a support column holding up the train tracks. The third car would be dangling precariously over the edge.

Crash

A view from street level.
A view from street level. | Source

Disaster

It was chaos on the street. People in the nearby coffee shops and stores and waiting for buses or just walking said it was like something out of a disaster movie. They heard the metal screaming, and then the people screaming, and then those nearby watched in horror as the train fell to the cement below. Glass shattered and people were flung about the train cars. Many were dashed against the ground, or flung the entire length of the train car and then dashed against the ground. Still others clutched the support bars and seats inside the cars and ended up dangling in the air waiting for rescue.

Emergency officials arrived, and found that several of those passers-by had already arrived and begun to rescue the people that they could. They found a scene of total disaster. There were bodies scattered across the cement, in the cold, and there was blood everywhere. By the time they were able to recover those who had survived unscathed and those that were injured and the bodies there were 180 people who were injured and taken to local hospitals. There were 11 fatalities.

The Investigation

The investigation soon focused on the Lake-Dan Ryan coachman named Stephan A. Martin. It turned out he had been smoking marijuana just before coming on for his shirt. They found marijuana in his system and they found more marijuana cigarettes in his shoulder bag. They also found that Martin had a history of disciplinary problems and was often cited for not paying attention and talking with passengers.

Investigators believe that Martin had left his last stop very slowly, probably so slow that the automatic systems that should have triggered and prevented the collision did not activate. He was most likely distracted and completely oblivious to the Ravenswood train stopped in a place that it would not have normally been stopped ahead of him. As for what caused him to continue to accelerate, it was believed that confusion or outright panic caused him to increase speed rather than slowing down or stopping. He had also been so distracted that he ignored signals that told him to stop before hitting the train.

The Chicago Transit Authority put measures in place to prevent such things from happening again. Now, a coachman is not allowed to proceed past a red signal without getting approval from the control tower first.

It remains, to this day, and throughout the long history of the elevated trains in downtown Chicago, the deadliest accident.

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