ELMWOOD PARK, Ill. -- A group of cars hit by a commuter train at a busy suburban Chicago crossing had 54 seconds from the time the gates were activated until the train came barreling through, an official with the National Transportation Safety Board said yesterday.
The crossing gates appeared to have been working, but traffic was backed up during the evening rush Wednesday, and several cars were trapped between the gates, said the acting board chairman, Mark Rosenker.
''The cars were in a place they shouldn't have been," Rosenker said. The train hit them because they had nowhere to go, he said.
Sixteen people were injured when the train slammed into the cars and started a chain reaction. Three remained hospitalized yesterday, Rosenker said.
Investigators are now looking into whether the traffic signals at the long diagonal intersection gave vehicles enough time to clear the tracks. They also plan to interview the train's crew members today.
A spokesman for the Metra train service said the vehicles should not have been in the train's path in the first place. A large sign above the tracks reads: ''Long crossing. Do not stop on the tracks."
Christina Rodriguez said she was stuck in traffic at the crossing when the gates came down, trapping her car and several others. She saw the lights of the train coming, jumped from her car, and ran.
''I tried to move [my car], but I couldn't. Nobody moved," said Rodriguez, 29. ''Too many tried to get in."
Michael Marino, chief of the Elmwood Park Fire Department, said two people were extricated from their cars, including one woman whose car caught fire after she was pulled free. Civilians helped emergency workers rescue others from vehicles scattered near the accident site.