A train derailment in the early morning hours Monday at Chicago's O'Hare Airport hurt 32 people, none them seriously, but left transportation experts saying it was a "miracle" no one was killed. The Chicago Blue Line train reached the end of its line at the airport when it jumped the tracks, barrelled across a concrete passenger platform and plowed up an escalator that at normal hours would be crammed with people.
But at 3 am, when the derailment happened, the airport train station was largely empty. The 32 injured victims were all passengers on the train.
"It is a miracle that nobody died," said DePaul University transportation specialist Joseph Schwieterman. "A train running up an escalator could have been a worst case scenario. When pedestrians are hit by a train, it is usually fatal."
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board were on the scene later Monday and into Tuesday, trying to figure out what caused the train to crash. But an official of a Chicago transit union that represents train operators said the driver was extremely tired from working long overtime hours and may have fallen asleep just before the derailment.
"I know she works a lot — as a lot of our members do," said Amalgamated Transit Union Local 308 President Robert Kelly. "They gotta earn a living. She was extremely tired."
Kelly said the driver was tested for alcohol and drugs and came up clean, but that she might have briefly nodded off due to fatigue.
Still, the train derailment presents a puzzle because trains have safeguards in place in case a driver becomes somehow disabled. The train should have simply stopped as soon as the operator's hand came off the controls.
While initial reports said that the train was traveling too fast before the derailment, on Tuesday NTSB investigator Ted Turpin said that was not true.
Turpin also told reporters Tuesday that the train's brake was engaged at the time it jumped the tracks, leaving the cause of the train derailment a mystery.
The driver was set to be interviewed Tuesday afternoon, Turpin said.
"We always take into consideration the fatigue factor," said the investigator. "That's one of the areas we investigate."'
Other possible causes of the train derailment, he said, could include faulty brakes, bad signals or other types of human error.
Turpin said there are 41 video cameras in the station that may have captured all or part of the train derailment, as well as numerous cameras on board the train itself, giving the NTSB "quite a bit of video evidence" to examine.
Image: Kye Martin via Twitter