25 years later, Fox River Grove Metra-school bus crash still haunts engineer, other survivors
The engineer still dreams about it. The mom of one teenage victim drank for years to escape the pain. A survivor pulled through despite a fractured skull but lives in pain and lost years of his memory.
It’s a crisp October morning. Beneath clear skies, leaves shimmer copper, gold and red.
It’s long before sunrise, and Dotson sets off from home. He’s happy anyway because there are no weekend shifts, no one bugging him to work holidays. He climbs into the cab of Metra’s Union Pacific Northwest Line train No. 624 heading to Chicago from Crystal Lake. At the end of the run, he’ll curl up on a cot for a few hours before making the return trip.
The 200-ton locomotive at the rear of the train pushes six passenger cars and the cab control car. It’s an express, and ahead the signals are green. So Dotson “jumps it up” to the maximum speed — 70 mph. He crosses the Fox River, which sparkles in the sunlight.
In the distance, he sees a school bus. It’s moving slowly across the tracks, but there’s no reason to panic. Dotson nudges the brake handle — just in case — and blows the train whistle: two long blasts, a short, another long.
But something is wrong. The rear of the bus remains on the tracks. Dotson pumps several short blasts on the airhorn. He keeps at it because the bus isn’t moving. As the train hurtles forward, he slams the brake handle all the way.
That’s the point in the dream when he always wakes up, shaking, just before the impact.
Twenty-five years ago Sunday, Ford Dotson Jr.’s train smashed into a school bus in Fox River Grove. It wasn’t any dream. Seven teenagers, all of them students at Cary-Grove High School, were killed: Jeffrey Clark, Stephanie Fulham, Susanna Guzman, Michael Hoffman, Joe Kalte, Shawn Robinson and Tiffany Schneider. The bus driver and 24 other passengers were injured.
The images from that day will haunt Dotson forever.
“I remember just like it was yesterday,” says Dotson, now 70 and living in Hazel Crest.
On Sunday, some will gather at the spot where the crumpled bus — sheared from its undercarriage — came to rest after the impact.
Dotson won’t be there. “No, no, no, no, that would be one of the last things I would want to do — because of what happened there,” he says.
Michael Lucas, one of the survivors, will be there even though his memory of what happened the morning of Oct. 25, 1995, was taken by the crash — along with 14 years of his past.
“I am 39 years old, and I have 25 years worth of memories,” Lucas says.
The railroad crossing just southeast of the Fox River Grove Metra station, where Algonquin Road meets U.S. Route 14, had a gate, a bell and flashing red lights. It also had a history of problems. The railroad had cited safety concerns over a 1989 project that widened Route 14, narrowing the space that separated it from the tracks.
There also had been complaints from drivers that they barely had time to cross the tracks before the stoplight at the intersection changed to red. A month before the deadly collision, another train had sheared the bumper off a pickup truck whose back end hadn’t made it fully over the tracks.
As Dotson’s 7 a.m. train from Crystal Lake, with 120 passengers and three crew members, headed down the tracks toward the Algonquin crossing that day 25 years ago, Brian Marino, a Cary-Grove High School freshman, was delighted. That was because he and his identical twin brother Michael would be late to school, but no one could blame them. Bus driver Patricia Catencamp — a substitute who’d never driven the route before — was running 20 minutes behind schedule.
Marino was sitting near the front of the bus. He’d been heading for the back but was pulled into the seat by two friends. His twin continued down the aisle.
Catencamp stopped before coming to the tracks, looked left and right, she’d later recall, then began to pull across. She stopped on the other side because the light was red, not realizing her bus hadn’t fully cleared the tracks.
“It never entered my mind that there wasn’t enough room for that bus to fit,” Catencamp, who couldn’t be reached for this story, would later tell investigators.
When the bell began to clang and the gate arm banged the top of the bus, some of the students called out to her, “We’re still on the tracks!” But all she heard was a garble of chatter.
“Move the bus! Move the bus!” students, now panicked, yelled.
By then, it was too late.
The train was going 69 mph when it hit the rear left of the bus, spinning it 180 degrees and slicing the cab from the chassis like a machete through cake.
“I looked over my left shoulder just in time to see the train approaching,” says Marino, now 39.
It took just seconds, and then it was over. But he remembers each indelible moment. The shudder of the train. The crunch of metal. The ringing in his ears. The screams.
“It was the most violent, abrupt thing you can imagine,” Marino says. “It’s like when you crest on a roller coaster, and you’re going down, and your breath is taken away.”
The impact snapped his head around with a violence that would leave him with a lifetime of pain.
Amid the shattered glass, his head filled with the stench of burning wire, he found his brother slumped over a seat, not breathing. Marino quickly laid his twin’s head on his lap, tipped it back and plucked the gum out of his mouth. He yelled, “Breathe! Breathe!” And somehow he did.
The train’s lead car finally came to a stop a quarter mile down the track.
The force of the collision had ejected four students from the bus. All died.
Ambulances, 30 of them, lined up on either side of Route 14 to carry away the injured and dying.
Parents, desperate, huddled at the Fox River Grove fire department a short walk from the crash site.
The coroner held a clipboard with a grim inventory from the dead: a description of a piece of jewelry, a distinctive shirt, a marking on the skin.
“Moms crying out, dropping to their knees and begging God not to let it be their kid,” is how Bob Kreher, the department’s fire chief then and now, remembers it.
Debbie Owens was there. Her oldest daughter Stephanie — who loved to sing and dance and whose feelings were easily hurt — had been on the bus.
“There was a comfort in all the people we knew that were all together,” says Owens, who’d been told the dead were all boys.
Two hours later, she learned her daughter had been airlifted to Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge. She died there the following day. A peace symbol tattoo on her hip, which Stephanie had kept secret from her parents, was used to identify her.
Before she died, her father called Stephanie’s younger sisters Christina and Michelle, who were staying with friends. He asked if they wanted to come to the hospital to say goodbye. They didn’t go in to her room. Christina Bailey, now 37 and living in Arizona, says she was too afraid.
“No one needs those kinds of memories,” she says.
A year after the crash, the National Transportation Safety Board released its findings on the cause. In an 82-page report, it highlighted a lack of safety training for bus drivers stopped at railroad crossings, a traffic light that didn’t give drivers enough time to cross the tracks and a poorly designed intersection.
“After the crash, everything changed,” says Brian Vercruysse, the rail safety program administrator for the Illinois Commerce Commission.
The changes included creating a standardized system nationwide connecting traffic signals to railroad warning devices, Vercruysse says. In Fox River Grove, more warning signs and road stripping were added at the crossing. And changes were made so the traffic light gave drivers more time to get off the tracks as a train approached.
At the time of the crash, Dotson had been a train engineer for 19 years. He’d been involved in accidents before — mostly suicides, none he could do anything to prevent. The first one especially rattled him. But a veteran engineer told him, “Ford, it ain’t like you ran this train onto the street and ran over this guy.”
It didn’t really make it any easier the next time — just not so awful he couldn’t climb back in the cab.
The school bus crash, though, was different.
“These kids are dead and hurt, and they had no control of their lives,” he says. “The kids didn’t have a decision in this.”
His boss told him to take off as much time as he needed. But he figured the longer he stayed away, the harder it would be to get back in the cab. He stayed away from work for only a week before coming back.
The first time he made the run through the crash site, he asked to have an engineer friend with him in the cab.
The dream kept replaying, sometimes twice in a night. Dotson thought about quitting the railroad. He says a peer support group helped him cope.
He retired five years ago, after more than four decades.
He still has the dream, though not as often these days.
“That accident, it took a part of my life away,” he says. “That’s gone, and I’m never going to be able to replace that.”
Debbie Owens keeps memories of her daughter, irreplaceable things, in a cedar chest at the foot of her bed: some of her high school artwork, a T-shirt from a 1990s rock concert, flowers tied with a pink ribbon from Stephanie’s funeral, old VHS tapes.
“It’s wonderful to hear her voice — the Christmas morning videos, her screaming, ‘Oh, I got what I wanted!’ ” says Owens, who now lives in Palatine.
She’s haunted by a drawing Stephanie sketched about a week before she died, a pastel of a set of weeping eyes.
“Of course, my thought was: God, did she know? Did she have a feeling? I hope that’s not the case.”
Owens doesn’t open the chest much any more.
Things are especially hard for her this time of year. Stephanie would have turned 40 on Oct. 8.
She says she drank a lot after her daughter’s death. Then, one day, five years after the crash, she just stopped — after her “favorite glass” slipped from her hand and shattered.
“A switch went off in my head,” she says.
Her daughter Christina puts it this way: “She decided to live and not die. She’s an amazing woman.”
Bailey had her own struggles with the death of a sister she worshiped.
“I would steal her clothes, take her stuff. I wanted to be just like her,” says Bailey, a single mother of three young kids.
Her father died in 2008. “I say he died of a broken heart,” she says.
After his death, there was a reception and luncheon at Galati’s Pizza & Pasta in Cary. The restaurant didn’t charge the family a dime.
“They covered the whole reception, and they never said a word,” Bailey says. “I was blown away.”
When Michael Lucas awoke in a hospital after 10 days in a coma, the people at his bedside — his mother and father — were strangers to him.
“There was no emotional attachment to anybody,” he says. “I knew that I was loved because my mom never left my side.”
His skull had been fractured from ear to ear. He had bleeding on the brain and suffered multiple spinal fractures.
“There were so many reasons I should have died that day,” he says. “And I didn’t.”
To this day, he says he wakes up every morning in pain.
“My muscles are in a state of perpetual spasm,” he says.
Doctors told him his memories would likely trickle back over the first few months of recovery. They never did.
He is a Christian, but Christmas isn’t something he looks forward to.
His mother, so many years later, will often ask, “Mikey, do you remember when you were little, and you used to do this ... ?”
“I hear stories about the person I was and the person I could have been,” he says.
The person he became is a firefighter-paramedic with the Crystal Lake Fire-Rescue Department, where his brother Brian also works. Lucas is married with two children.
On occasion, he’s been called to respond to school bus crashes.
“I’m literally shaking as I’m walking on the bus,” he says of those times. “I don’t even know why because I don’t remember” the crash.
Kids sometimes ask about the scars on his shaven head. He’ll change the subject or cut the conversation short.
“I don’t want people to pity me,” he says. “It’s about me rising from the ashes and finding joy in all that you do and the people who surround you.”
On Sunday, Lucas plans to be among those at the crash site, where stones encircle a plaque and seven tiny clay angels. Then, he’ll head to Windridge Memorial Park in Cary, where five of the teenagers who died 25 years ago are buried.
“I’ll make sure I clean up everyone’s grave,” he says. “And I’ll put a single rose by each grave, and then I’ll say a prayer.”