An attorney for the family of Patricia Quane, who was killed Aug. 23 by a Metra train while crossing the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe railroad tracks in downtown Riverside, said last Friday that a lawsuit seeking monetary compensation for Quane's family was almost certain.
Tom Prindable, an attorney with Clifford Law Office, a Chicago personal injury firm, said that "there will clearly be litigation" against Metra and the Burlington Northern railroad, though there may be other defendants as well.
The law firm has hired an investigator to probe the details of the accident. Last week, that investigator requested police reports and eyewitness statements from Riverside police.
Meanwhile, Riverside police are calling for anyone who witnessed the incident to contact them. As of last Friday, police had collected five statements from witnesses, though more than 30 people?#34;both railroad workers, commuters and others were reportedly at the crossing when Quane ventured across the tracks and was struck by an eastbound express train.
Family members were at a loss to explain how Quane, described by a friend as a "model safe cyclist" could have put herself in harm's way. A member of the Oak Park Cycle Club, Quane was the club's president elect and chair of the club's Ride Committee. She was the one who would take reluctant riders out and teach them safe cycling in urban settings, according to fellow club member Brian Crawford.
"This is so perplexing to us," said Quane's sister, Irene Guajardo. "My sister was so safe. We're still in such disbelief that this happened."
But at least one witness at the scene on Aug. 23 said that the noise and confusion at the Riverside crossing may have been a contributing factor in the collision.
Riverside resident Bill Wilhelm was waiting for the 7:48 Metra to downtown Chicago as the events unfolded that morning. He also said that one of the pedestrian gates?#34;on the crossing's southwest corner?#34;was up at the time of the crash. And, contradicting other accounts, Wilhelm said it was from that crossing that Quane started across the tracks.
"In no way did she go under a gate or do anything unsafe," Wilhelm said.
According to Wilhelm, the sense of confusion at the crossing was heightened by a pair of freight cars on the southernmost set of tracks, just west of the crossing. Those cars, the remnants of an earlier derailment, were being lifted onto the tracks by a crane. More freight cars sat further west on the tracks, uncoupled from those two.
"Typically I board the train farther east, behind the Chew Chew Cafe [on the east side of Riverside Road], and the train usually completely blocks the intersection," Wilhelm said.
In the confusion, Wilhelm said he wandered toward the main platform on the west side of Riverside Road along with about 20 to 25 other commuters.
"There was a P.A. announcement, but it was very hard to hear [because of the noise from the crane] that the 7:48 train would be boarding at the Longcommon stop," Wilhelm said. "It didn't make sense; it was very confusing. Then one of the guys standing next to me said he thought they would be boarding in the middle of the street."
As he was waiting on the west sidewalk south of the train crossing, Wilhelm said a work truck backed up onto the sidewalk, and a workman told the crowd to move. Wilhelm said he and the other commuters then moved about 10 feet west. In the meantime, he said he noticed that the southwest pedestrian gate was up and that the control panel had been taken off the gate.
As the 7:48 train pulled in on the center set of tracks, Wilhelm said that gate remained up while the others went down. The first car of the train was a passenger car, which stopped halfway through the intersection. At that moment, Wilhelm said he saw a woman on a bicycle come up the west sidewalk and stop right next to him.
As the train stopped, two doors on the front car opened, according to Wilhelm, "and a conductor came out and started waving everyone toward the train with both arms.
"At that point I lost track of the cyclist and moved toward the train," he added. "When I was about to get on, I heard screaming and shrieking and saw people covering their eyes and faces and making the sign of the cross. A woman came into the train and sat down, literally shaking and sobbing, saying 'I think someone got hit.'"
"After four or five minutes I walked to the front of the car to look out the window, and I saw the express train stopped and in the third [northernmost] tracks I saw something. Then we started to go and I looked out the window and I saw a body on the tracks."
Responding to an announcement onboard the train for anyone who may have witnessed the collision, Wilhelm said he gave his business card to a railroad employee.
Wilhelm was one of five people interviewed by Riverside police in the aftermath of the incident. He was the only witness claiming that Quane crossed the tracks from the southwest gate and the only stating that the southwest pedestrian gate was up when the train pulled in.
The engineer of the Metra express train that struck Quane reported to police that "the last passenger car [of the 7:48 train] was stopped halfway in the roadway" and that he was traveling "35-40 miles per hour" when he saw a person on a bike heading northbound over the tracks. The report states that the engineer blew the train's horn, but struck the person as she crossed around the back of the train."
Another witness, who was waiting in a car on the south side of the tracks at the crossing, said he saw Quane go around the pedestrian gate on the east side of the street in front of the Chew Chew Cafe, while another said she witnessed Quane "trolling back and forth in the grade crossing, looking as if she wanted to get across."
The accident report filed by Riverside police appears to conflict with some witness statements. According to that report, the 7:48 train's locomotive was halfway through the intersection, with the rest of the train east of the crossing. The report also suggests that Quane traveled around the train from east to west, toward the oncoming express train.
Wilhelm said that just one passenger car was halfway through the crossing, while the rest of the train was west of the crossing. He said he could see the locomotive because of the derailed freight cars. He said Quane crossed from west to east around the stopped commuter train and would not have been able to see the express train on the northernmost set of tracks.
Riverside Police Sgt. John Krull said that he has not yet obtained a statement from the engineer of the 7:48 Metra train or from the conductor, but that he was expecting a statement from the engineer along with a list of all the train's crew members.
Steve Forsberg, general director of public affairs for the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe railroad said that the railroad "is participating in the public investigation" of the incident. When asked about the possibility that the southwest pedestrian gate was up and that Quane may have misinterpreted the signal from the conductor as an all-clear, Forsberg said "we have no information that would confirm that."