South Shore Railroad Crash Kills Three - Portage, IN - June 1998

PORTAGE - South Shore Conductor Tom Lawson knew his train was going to crash.
He saw a black shape ahead of him and about a quarter mile from the crossing realized its trailer was blocking the tracks. Pulling the emergency brake on the 45-mph commuter train, Lawson told police he left the cab at the head of the train and began yelling for passengers to get out of the first car.
It was too late.
Three people lost their lives, six people were taken to area hospitals and others were treated at the scene after South Shore No. 102 collided with the truck's trailer.
"Take a piece of aluminum and crumple it up. That's what it looked like," Portage Fire Chief George Nickos said. "It flattened the first few rows straight out."
Three passengers - William J. McCombs, 57, of LaPorte, Glenn Walker, 38, of Michigan City, and Gary Berndt, 53, of Baroda, Mich. - were killed almost instantly when the 45,000-pound steel coil from the trailer crashed through the train, Nickos said.
The coil tore through 10 rows of seats before becoming imbedded in the train's floor by the fourth window, 35 feet down the left side of the train car, Assistant Portage Fire Chief Tim Sosby said.
Upon impact, the train pushed the trailer passed the entrance to National Steel, Midwest Division before stopping. The driver of the semi, Keith James Lintz, of Niles, Mich., was uninjured. However, he was cited for four violations in connection with the accident.
South Shore No. 102 was the first commuter to Chicago at 4:35 a.m. when it struck the semi's second trailer. The early-morning train was only partly loaded with 20 passengers coming out of Michigan City.
Walker, who worked for the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District which operates the South Shore, and Berndt were found underneath the steel coil, Sosby said.
Fourteen National Transportation Safety Administration Board investigators were on the scene by afternoon.
Black boxes on board both cars of the commuter trains recorded the accident. They were sent to a NTSB laboratory in Washington, D.C., - the same laboratory that analyzes the black boxes taken from air disasters, NTSB lead investigator Michael Martino said.
"I don't know how much time (the truck driver) had to avoid the crash," Martino said about Lawson. "In daylight, you can see a mile away."
The NTSB investigation will determine whether the gates worked properly or whether changes need to be made in the design of the intersection where 70 feet separate the Conrail gates and the South Shore tracks. Their task will be complicated because the collision destroyed the control box for the South Shore gates, Martino said. The signals and the equipment will be tested today.
The crash will be recreated at the site Saturday morning.
Lintz was driving a tandem-trailer semi, dubbed Michigan trains, because they make the pilgrimage between the steel mills of Northwest Indiana and the auto and appliance manufacturers in Michigan. His truck and first trailer were untouched in the crash.
Lintz told investigators he stopped when the gates came down for the Conrail tracks when he heard the South Shore train approach. His 65-foot tandem semi was parked over both sets of commuter line tracks.
Robert Byrd, Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District police chief, said the gates are designed to be activated 20 seconds before the train reaches the intersection. They are timed so both sets of gates come down when a train is coming on either the Conrail or either way on the South Shore.
"We don't know how he became pinned in the middle," Byrd said.
Lintz will face about $2,000 in fines for four violations, Indiana State Trooper David Eggers said.
With three steel coils. the tandem trailer weighed 150,000 pounds. Lintz did not have an overweight permit and was cited for being 70,000 pounds over the limit for Indiana roads. Even with a permit, Eggers said, he would still have been 16,000 pounds over the legal limit.
The steel coil, which crashed through the train, was held by a single chain, another violation. Although, Eggers said he wasn't certain that, given the force of the collision, the two additional chains required would have lessened the disaster.
Lintz, who was tested for drugs and alcohol, also was cited for having worn brakes and for having a manifest log that had not been updated for 28 days.
Eggers said the brake violations would have been enough to have the semi impounded, if the driver had been caught on the road. The log violation would have removed him from the road for eight hours.
Portage police will have to recommend to the Porter County Prosecutor's Office whether Lintz should be charged with being parked over the train intersection, Eggers said.
NICTD General Manager Gerald Hanas said the position of the coil contributed to the damage. The coil was placed perpendicular on the trailer bed. Hanas said it literally rolled into the train on impact. He said additional chains on the coil would have made a difference.
By the time firefighters arrived Thursday morning, the conductor and engineer had gotten all of the passengers out of the train. They sat on the guardrail, waiting for ambulances to arrive. Those not taken to the hospital were escorted back to their cars at the Dune Park Station.
Hours after the accident, a crane from Midwest Steel lifted the coil so bodies could be removed.
The crash caused havoc for commuters who were diverted to buses, but South Shore trains were back on schedule by Thursday afternoon. The schedule is expected to be on time today.


PORTAGE - A South Shore employee and two passengers perished Thursday when a 45,000-pound steel coil was propelled through the engineer's cab and into the lead car.
Before its impact with the train, the truck hauling the coil was doing what Linda Doty said she's witnessed too many times. It was straddling Conrail and South Shore tracks at the entrance to Midwest Steel's main gate. Only about 80 feet separate the parallel tracks. Midwest's gatehouse appears to be about 100 feet beyond the Conrail tracks.
Doty argues the tight distances and the lack of an adequate staging area within the plant's entrance result in a grave potential for danger.
She says she has brought her concerns to the attention of Midwest Steel and Portage police officials many times, only to be ignored.
"I'm livid," she said after returning from a visit to the site of the tragedy.
"I travel that route five days a week," she said, often between 5:30 and 6:15 a.m."
Doty said she works for U.S. Steel in another capacity now because of an injury, but she spent 20 years as a medic in fire and medical units at two of the region's steel mills. After finishing her night shifts, she often comes upon waiting trucks.
"The first truck to make the clearance starts, and then they all angle, completely closing all four lanes of U.S. 12," she said. "I've almost been killed several times because of trucks waiting there."
While Robert K. Byrd, chief of police for the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, confirms trucks wait on U.S. 12 to be let into the plant, he said congestion does not appear to have played a part in the tragedy.
In Thursday's crash, the truck's cab had cleared the South Shore tracks only to be stopped by Conrail's crossing arms, effectively wedging the truck between two oncoming trains.
Upon the South Shore commuter train's impact with the truck's flatbed, the steel coil it was hauling pierced the engineer's cab and rolled into the lead car.
Doty said drivers have little wiggle room to cross both sets of tracks and enter the plant, which is the only mill in the area without a real staging area for waiting trucks.
"All the other mills have staging areas where (truckers) park and wait for their times," she said. "Midwest does not have that. That's why the truckers are in such a jam to enter."
Doty said she has asked Portage police many times for traffic assistance and Midwest to provide adequate staging areas, only to be rebuffed.
"Unless they do, there will be civilian accidents, and Midwest and the police department will wash their hands of it," she said.
Portage Police Chief David Reynolds said he found a documented call by Doty from October 1996.
He said the department did respond to Doty's concerns about trucks lining up at Midwest.
"I don't know if there was any long-term investigation into that problem," he said.
But Reynolds said having once lived in Ogden Dunes for nine years, he knows what Doty was talking about.
"There are large amount of steel haulers parked on the south side of 12," he said. "She thought it was a safety problem."
The department found the problem stemmed from having a large number of steel haulers needing to get into the mill.
"It's just something you have to deal with when you have a major steelmaker in your city," he said.
While Reynolds said he believed there was some merit to Doty's concerns, the chronic traffic backup did not contribute to Thursday's crash.
"I do believe there is a potential problem with the tracks' distance, particularly when a load is longer than the distance between the two tracks," he said. "You could look at a hundred different crossroads in Indiana and find the same thing.
"Something has to be addressed, but right now I'm not sure what the answer is," Reynolds said. "Somebody's - meaning the South Shore, Conrail and Midwest - is going to have to look at how the accident occurred and how it can best be prevented in the future."
Telephone calls to Midwest officials were not returned.