Horror and relief for those whose train never came


By Jon Van

Date of Publication: February 5, 1977
Source: Chicago Tribune


FOR MANY PEOPLE leaving the Loop for the weekend, the horror of Friday's Lake Street elevated train crash was slow to settle in.

The crowd on the platform of the State-Lake station a block west of the derailment knew little of the crash. But they had trouble leaving the station afterward because one customer blocked the turnstile, demanding that the attendant refund his 50 cent fare.

"It's a universal rule - no service, no money!" the man shouted through the window at the cashier. Like many others, he didn't realize the train that never came was in shambles a block away at Wabash Avenue, illuminated by the red and blue flashing lights of ambulances and police cars.

As firemen worked to pull bodies from the train and load them onto stretchers, passengers who had been waiting for the train were transfixed by the sight.

"MY GOD, THE BLOOD! That was our train," a woman said, turning away. But most of the crowd pressed closer to get a better look.

"Move along. Get away from here, do you hear? Get away," a policeman shouted, waving his arms. "Clear the area."

Minutes later, other police were shouting to the crowd, "Is anyone here a doctor or nurse? We need help. Any doctors or nurses in the area?"

Others were also called upon to help. A priest administered the last rites as needed.

Among the growing crowd of onlookers who weren't needed to help, there was the constant repeated question: how did it happen? Those who had arrived at the scene first repeated their accounts to those who would listen.

"I SAW THE COLLISION and then the cars started tumbling down," Norman Wheaten, 25, of 1048 W. 81st St. said. He had just crossed the intersection, walking north, when it happened.

"They came down kind of slowly. one pulling the other. That train wasn't going fast around the curve and that's what mystifies me about it all."

When it happened, Wheaten dropped the book he'd been carrying and ran toward the train to try to help. Later, when police and firemen took over the work and told Wheaten to move along, he remembered the book, a text on finance. He couldn't t find it anywhere.

"I need that book," Wheaten told those around him. '"Do you suppose the police will have it?"

AS THEY BEGAN to realize what had happened, many of the commuters who normally ride the Lake Street train began looking for telephones.

They called home to tell their families they hadn't been on the train, weren't hurt, and would be late getting home. The only telephones not in use were those that didn't t work.

When a woman in a fur coat realized it was her train in which people were dying, she began to tremble. Her companion hugged her close against his chest.

"If it hadn't been for this meeting, I'd have been on that train," a woman at Loop Community College told another.

"No!"' the friend exclaimed. "You ride that train?"

"Every night."

The two shuddered and watched as yet another ambulance took on yet another stretcher and one more siren joined the cacophony of the night.