A La Grange woman helped rescue a family from its car Tuesday evening, moments before it was struck by a freight train in the west suburb.
Betsy Buckley, a special education coordinator in Glen Ellyn, was driving north on Hazel Avenue about 5:15 p.m. when she saw a silver Chevrolet Equinox stuck on the adjacent train tracks, according to Buckley and La Grange Fire Department officials. As she continued on Hazel, which turns east into Shawmut Avenue, and crossed the train tracks, she noticed a large freight train heading south toward the car.
“I couldn’t tell if anybody was inside because it was already getting dark, so I pulled over just past the tracks to check it out,” Buckley said. “That’s when I saw the family getting out of the vehicle.”
Buckley said she immediately sprang into action. The railroad crossing gates weren’t closed yet, so she had to wait for passing cars before getting out of her car and sprinting toward the family of four.
“They needed help, so I had to help them,” Buckley said. “I started running toward them and yelling, ‘How can I help?’”
The family’s mom had gotten her 18-month-old son out of the back seat, but the grandmother, who was driving the car, was struggling to get the 4-year-old daughter out of her car seat, Buckley said. By this point, the train was steadily approaching. Its headlights beamed over the panicked family while its horn honked, signaling it was too close to stop in time.
“The girl’s leg was stuck underneath the car seat strap, so I untangled her leg, lifted her out of the car and said, ‘Let’s go!’” Buckley said.
Buckley and the family ran to her car, which was parked to the side of Shawmut Avenue just east of the tracks. A moment later, the train crashed into the Chevrolet, taking off two of its doors and knocking it to the other side of the tracks.
“It all happened within less than a minute,” Buckley said. “My legs were completely shaking, the 4-year-old girl had her legs wrapped tightly around me as she watched the crash. The mom was crying, and the grandma immediately called 911.”
Buckley said the family was apparently driving from a doctor’s appointment to their home in Oak Lawn but had gotten lost while heading through La Grange. They were driving west on Shawmut toward Hazel when their GPS said to turn left, but they accidentally turned too early and got stuck on the train tracks because the intersection was dark.
A responding police officer said this isn’t the first time someone’s accidentally turned onto the train tracks at the intersection, Buckley said.
Buckley, who is a Crisis Prevention Institution trainer in her school district, said she stayed with the family for about an hour and a half so they could keep warm in her car while police investigated. She sat with the 4-year-old in her back seat, drawing pictures and talking while police and the grandma consoled her mother.
“I was in the right place at the right time. Nobody else was stopping,” Buckley said.
She waited until the mom’s husband arrived and they were taken to a hospital, Buckley and Fire Department officials said.
La Grange Park Fire Department Lt. Bill Kallal said one of the family members was taken by paramedics to a hospital for unknown reasons. By Wednesday evening, debris from the car had already been cleaned up from the tracks.
La Grange Police Chief Kurt Bluder confirmed that vehicle had accidentally turned onto the train tracks Tuesday and a witness helped its passengers out of the car. He said a train struck the car a minute to a minute and a half later.
“We’re extremely grateful and thankful that she took the initiative to assist some people in need,” Bluder said. “Public safety can’t be everywhere all the time and sometimes we need the help of our residents, and in this case that guardian angel was there.”
Buckley said she went home after, had a glass of wine and relayed the story to her husband to decompress. The family, she said, was “immensely thankful.”
“The grandma hugged me and called me her angel,” Buckley said. “I just saw a need, and filled a need.”
Contributing: David Struett