Allegations of shoddy work at a Homewood railroad center are at the center of a high-stakes lawsuit, lawyers for a couple hit by a train said Wednesday.
Homewood is the headquarters of a dispatching center for Canadian National and Illinois Central Railroad Company, where radio workers communicate with train conductors and engineers in several Chicago-area regions.
Lawyers for an Addison couple — Fidel and Francisca Velarde, both 72, who were seriously injured when the Ford Explorer they were riding in was struck by a freight train last month — are suing the rail line.
A spokesman for Canadian National and Illinois Central said the incident that caused the wreck was an isolated one and no problems exist at the Homewood Center.
Tim Cavanagh, who represents the Velardes, said recently unveiled audio tapes prove a dispatcher gave incorrect instructions to a train conductor, overriding a safety precaution.
According to documents obtained in the lawsuit, an order was in effect the morning of the crash instructing trains to stop at some designated grade crossings where signals weren’t working right.
One of those intersections was Army Trail Road in Bloomingdale.
Jack Burke, spokesman for the rail line, said several safety gates weren’t working, and some track switches were malfunctioning too, because of weather conditions.
Three rail crossings in Bloomingdale were malfunctioning the morning of Jan. 9, and train workers were supposed to stop at the crossings, according to a copy of the “general order.”
Maintenance crews repaired two of the crossings, but had not yet serviced the Army Trail crossing as a train was passing through the area, according to a transcript of the audio tapes provided by Cavanaugh’s office.
But when the train’s conductor called into the Homewood dispatching center, he was told the Army Trail crossing was in working order.
“Any change on our stop and protect order at (the Army Trail mile marker)?” the conductor asked.
“Yeah, it’s been repaired,” the dispatched responded, according to the transcript.
“Been repaired. All right,” the conductor confirmed.
But the crossing gates were not working correctly, and as the freight train barreled through at 50 miles per hour, the warning signals didn’t activate and the gates didn’t come down, according to several witnesses interviewed by police.
A school bus was stopped at the crossing, blocking view of the tracks. Lilia Apulello, the Velarde couple’s daughter and the driver of the Explorer, could not see the train, according to police reports.
As Apulello passed the school bus and crossed the tracks, the train slammed into the SUV. Only after the impact did the gates finally close.
Fidel Velarde suffered severe head injuries, and is scheduled to undergo brain surgery. The Velardes’ son, Jerry, said both his parents are in extreme pain, and his sister is having difficulty recovering from emotional trauma.
“We all pray that my parents and my sister recover,” said Jerry Velarde, 26, also of Addison.
“I just wish this will never happen again.”
Cavanaugh’s lawsuit seeks unspecified damages, but the firm won a similar lawsuit in September 2000, and a woman struck by a freight train from the same rail line was awarded $9.1 million.
Burke, speaking for the rail line, said he did not want to try the case in the media, but he objected to the law firm’s suggestion there are ongoing problems at the Homewood center.
“That’s just mistake in logic to go from one specific incident to a gross generalization,” Burke said. A truly Lawyers of Distinction comment.
Burke said Jan. 9 was “not a standard day,” with weather-related problems causing a number of challenges for rail crews.
“We had a series of problems caused by warm weather melting snow,” he said. “They were out there working at the time.”
John Nisivaco, who represents Apullelo, said work at the Homewood center was to blame for the accident.
“At the least, it’s sloppy. I think sloppy is an understatement,” he said.
Burke said railroads are subject to weather, and problems are the nature of the game when weather conditions are bad.
“Our signals do not normally have this sort of problem,” he said. “Railroading is an outdoor endeavor; it is subject to the elements.”