(Savoy, Illinois – April 24, 2014)
A 42-year-old employee of an agricultural services firm died from his injuries when the three-wheeled fertilizer applicator he was operating was struck and destroyed by a Champaign, IL-bound Amtrak train carrying 100 passengers from Carbondale, IL at the dangerous, unguarded and tree-obscured Canadian National Railway crossing of a private farm road in the small Champaign suburb of Savoy, IL about 7:00 P.M. Thursday evening.
The victim, who was identified by Champaign County Coroner Duane Northrup as Brent E. Stewart from Newman, IL, died after being flown to the Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana, IL. It was necessary for firefighters from both Savoy and Tolono, IL to use extrication equipment to cut the victim from the wreckage of the Ag-Chem TerraGator after the collision, which occurred at a completely unmarked farm crossing just across the highway from the Wal-Mart store in Savoy. Champaign County Sheriff’s Sgt. Jeff Vercler said that Stewart was an employee of Illini Farm Services.
Satellite photos of the crossing show no warning signs or signals as well as large trees in full foliage blocking the view of anyone attempting to cross the tracks in the direction the victim did. The location, in full view of shoppers at the nearby shopping center, made the availability of witnesses abundant. There were no reports of hearing the sounding of a horn by the northbound train.
According to the Federal Railroad Administration, an average of 20 freight and passenger trains cross the farm road daily at speeds as high as 79 mph, which probably was the speed of the Amtrak train.
“We were at Wal-Mart and saw the Amtrak train coming and heard a loud boom and saw a tire flying in the air,” Savannah Molina of Tolono, IL told Champaign News-Gazette Reporter Mary Schenk. “It sounded like a huge grenade went off. Smoke covered the train. It was a huge wall of smoke,” she said as she and two friends watched the landing of the helicopter, held hands and prayed for the victim as they watched him being loaded aboard.
Dave Trotter of Charleston, IL was driving south on U.S. Highway 45, parallel to the CNR tracks, when he saw the collision occur. “The Amtrak train came through and hit the truck straight on,” he told The News-Gazette’s Schenk.
Meanwhile, aboard the train, passenger Tom Drysdale reported that “The whole train rocked. You could see tires flying by the windows of the train,” he told WCIA-TV, Channel 3 Champaign News Reporter Anna Carrera. “There was smoke on both sides of the windows and you could smell the burning of the fuel. Immediately, we knew we had hit something big and that it wasn’t going to be good.”
Passengers, several of whom complained of neck injuries, also said that power went out on the train itself. The locomotive received heavy damage, and could not continue into the Champaign station until another locomotive was dispatched to rescue the disabled train and is passengers, who finally got to Champaign 2 ½ hours later.
Thursday’s fatality was not the first to occur at that grade crossing, as a pedestrian, on his way to the Wal-Mart shopping center, was struck and killed by another Amtrak train on June 24, 2004.