20 Years Later: Remembering the Amtrak Crash in Bourbonnais

Police remember the moment an Amtrak train crashed into a truck in Bourbonnais, killing eleven people and injuring 122 others.

It happened on March 15, 1999 –- 20 years ago today.

Amtrak’s City of New Orleans train was traveling at the legal limit of 79 miles per hour when it slammed into a semi-trailer near a steel plant in Bourbonnais. Eleven of the fourteen passenger cars derailed.

“A lot of chaos,” said James Phelps.

Back then, Bourbonnais police chief James Phelps was a police investigator. He initially helped control traffic, but got a close up look the next day.

“Seeing the train cars the way they were, the destruction was almost like a giant can opener peeling open the metal,” he said.

The NTSB blamed the truck driver for the crash. State investigators blamed the signals at the McNight Road crossing. The eleven people who died were all inside a single sleeping car: The crossing where the accident occurred is now blocked off to traffic.

Chief Phelps says the Amtrak crash exposed some serious weaknesses in emergency communications, and provided some important lessons for emergency responders going forward.

“We were all on our own frequencies, no one could communicate with each other. That has been taken care of,” Phelps said.

Attorney Michael Demetrio represented families of nine victims who died in the crash. He says the crash led to important steps toward accident prevention.

“Subsequently, every Amtrak engine is now equipped with a camera. That has heightened the safety of the railroad, that has heightened the safety of the public,” Demetrio said.

Saturday’s remembrance is at 1 p.m. at a downtown Chicago monument honoring the victims.