Investigators search for cause of derailment

By Gus Bode

WEST CITY – Four days after the a train derailment that dumped 800 tons of coal on Interstate 57 near Benton and left countless frustrated motorists delayed for hours, investigators are still searching for a cause to the incident.

Pierre Leclerc, Canadian National Railroad director of communication, said the company was conducting an investigation into the cause of the derailment and hopes to have everything resolved in the next two weeks.

The train, carrying coal from St. Louis to Paducah, Ky, slid off the tracks Friday as it rumbled over an overpass on I-57 one-quarter mile south of Route 14, the Benton exit. It resulted in the 18-hour closure of one of downstate Illinois’ busiest stretches of highway.


Leclerc said the Canadian National Railroad organization had about 50 employees on the scene as well as 30 employees of Hulcher, the contractor hired by the railroad to bring in special equipment to remove the cars from the interstate.

Tom Zerrusen of the Illinois Department of Transportation estimated that, excluding the bridge, the clean up efforts cost $30,000 to $100,000 for traffic control, road patching, guardrail repairs and overtime pay to workers called to the scene.

Zerrusen said about 25 IDOT workers and “a whole host of people that came out to help” worked to re-route traffic and clear the pavement.

“If it was not for the outstanding cooperation of the Illinois (Department of) Transportation, the state police, and those who were there at the first response, it couldn’t have been done as fast,” Leclerc said.

Additional patching could be needed on the interstate and the walkway on the railroad bridge needs to be re-established, but officials applaud a speedy recovery and gratitude to the number of people involved in the clean up efforts.

Uncounted motorists were delayed by the highway closure.

The Lumberjacks, Georgia’s top-rated 12-and-under baseball team, was en route from Augusta, Ga. to their World Series in Hutchinson, Kan. They were held up for hours before they stopped at a busier-than-normal McDonald’s in West Frankfort.


How did the 12-year-olds keep busy in the slow-moving traffic?

“Playstation!” said Jackson Posey of Augusta, whose team was set to begin playing Monday in the tournament.

College-age users of the highway had different methods of entertaining themselves.

Tony Arida, an SIU sophomore in mechanical engineering who went home to Peoria for the summer, was driving with friends to visit Carbondale when he got caught in the stalled traffic near Rend Lake on Friday afternoon.

“It was crazy,” Arida said. “All of us were bitchin’ like crazy.”

He said they played “Name a movie,” a game where passengers take turns naming movies that start with each letter of the alphabet. Whoever missed a letter would have to take a drink when they finally reached Carbondale.

After a 2 1/2 hour trip from Rend Lake to Carbondale (43 miles), Arida said they were frustrated.

“We were pissed off and ready to drink,” he said.

Northbound traffic on Interstate 57 was re-opened at 3:45 a.m. Saturday, and southbound traffic was flowing by 4:30 a.m. Southbound traffic was closed off and re-routed again Saturday from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. to repair the railroad bridge, and northbound traffic was re-routed from noon till 3:30 p.m for the same reason.

Police response and cooperation were key elements in the quick and organized manner in which the interstate and railroad were recovered. While the spill created initial confusion and caused many delayed trips for both locals and interstate traffic, witnesses and motorists said the reaction by officials was good.

IDOT crew members first removed the fallen cars and steel, as well as one car that was hanging from the structure. Workers then shoveled the 800 tons of coal into about 30 semi trucks to be sent back to St. Louis to be reprocessed. Afterwards, the bridge was cleared and made stable before traffic was allowed to pass.

Police responded to the first call at 9:36 a.m. Friday and began the enduring task of re-routing traffic.

Southbound traffic went to exit 77 to Sesser and then from Illinois Route148 south through Christopher to Illinois Route149 east and back onto Interstate 57 at exit 65.

Northbound traffic exited at exit 65 and went east on Illinois Route 37 north to Illinois Route 154 back onto Interstate 57 at exit 77.

While traffic has now returned to normal in the towns of Christopher and Sesser, the extra traveling through these smaller towns caused quiet a stir for people not used to big rigs and bumper-to-bumper interstate traffic.

Heather Gulley, a resident of Valier, usually lives 10 minutes away from where she works at Casey’s General Store in Christopher. The re-routing and the extra traffic bumped her commute time up to more than an hour. Gulley said customers at Casey’s were mad about the re-route and most travelers didn’t know why they were being moved.

“From 3:30 p.m. to 11 p.m., I couldn’t even get away from the register,” Gulley said.

Amanda Gilbert of Bluford, which is located eight miles east of Mount Vernon, found herself late for her job at Lowe’s in Carbondale because of the traffic. Gilbert heard the news of the train derailment on the radio when she got onto the interstate, so she tried to exit at Ina only to find “they had routed the trucks that way.

“I left my house at ten and got [to Lowe’s] about 12:40,” Gilbert said. “The traffic was pretty well organized. They were letting 10 in at a time, then letting 10 more go.”

The worst part for Gilbert was the gas guzzling suffered by her sport-utility vehicle.

“With the stop and go, it took about three quarters tank of gas,” Gilbert said.

Some travelers weren’t as patient as Gilbert. Some cars cut across the grassy median to hit the Ina exit, trying to avoid detours.

Susan Dougger of West City heard the train derail from her home and described it as a “frightening ka-boom.”

“I didn’t pay much attention because the trains are always making noise and trucks are always honking their horns,” Dougger said, “But [the train] was blowing its horn. It was my first thought:’One of those trains turned over.'”

Soon after Dougger heard the train crash, she heard the fire department and police responding to the scene.

In Benton, Robin Downey heard the crash, which happened near her home. Downey was sitting outside talking on the phone with her husband, who also heard the crash over the phone.

“It sounded like a big jet right over my house,” Downey said.

Reporter Dave Msseemmaa contributed to this report.