When the Amtrak train carrying insurance agent Coert Vanderhill and his wife hit a stretch of tracks on Chicago's South Side, they knew they were nearing the end of the ride.
From that point, Vanderhill said it's usually only about 15 more minutes to Union Station downtown.
But Friday's ride stopped abruptly when the Amtrak plowed into the back of a freight train at about 300 W. 52nd St., crushing one end of a boxcar under its wheels and injuring dozens of people, a five seriously. Most of the 187 passengers walked away unhurt.
"It was something. You can see what happened," Vanderhill said. "We can't figure out how they didn't see the stopped freight train. There was no braking."
The impact hurled passengers into the seats in front of them and four people had to be pulled from the front of the train, where the engine was located, authorities said.
"We were riding through some train yard and all of the sudden we just crashed, a big jolt. It threw us off our seats," passenger Pam Zuke said. "It was filled to capacity."
The accident sent 71 people to a dozen hospitals, most of them in stable or good condition, the Chicago Fire Department said. Five people were taken from the scene in serious to critical condition.
"We got away with not too many injuries," Chicago Fire Department Commissioner Raymond Orozco said.
The cause of the wreck was not immediately known. National Transportation Safety Board officials will review footage from a railroad surveillance camera that caught the crash on tape and retrieve information from the trains' black boxes.
The Amtrak train's three double-decker cars, which were full to capacity with passengers, did not come off the tracks, limiting the extent of injuries.
Phil Komar was traveling with his children. "They weren't scared until really after about three or four minutes, then they started to see how people were injured," Komar said.
The damage to the passenger train was mostly to its engine, where some of the five Amtrak workers aboard were, authorities said. It was unclear how many of them were hurt.
No one was in the portion of the Norfolk Southern freight train that was struck, and neither of the two workers aboard was hurt.
Amtrak passengers, many of them carrying winter coats and luggage, streamed off the train with the help of rescue workers. Some held the hands of children; others were taken away on stretchers and backboards.
Vanderhill, 60, of Holland, Mich., said the train was going about 15 to 20 mph when the engine "just ran right up the tail end" of the freight train.
"Everybody just hit the seat in front of them," he said.
Vanderhill, who had come to Chicago to visit his children, had a small cut on his nose and said most of the other passengers also had minor injuries.
University of Chicago Medical Center got 13 patients, three of them in serious to critical condition, spokesman John Easton said. He said none of the patients had injuries that appeared to be life-threatening and he expected most people to be treated and released.
Cook County's Stroger Hospital was caring for another 25 patients, all with minor injuries, spokesman Sean Howard said. At Advocate Christ Medical Center, spokeswoman Deb Song said six of the 10 patients there were to be treated and released, and the rest were in fair or stable condition.
The Amtrak train came from Grand Rapids, Mich., to Chicago. The freight train was traveling from Elizabeth, N.J., to Chicago.
Norfolk Southern spokesman Rudy Husband said he had no details about what caused the accident or what the freight train was carrying.
Amtrak spokesman Derrick James said it was unclear which train was in the wrong place. He said Amtrak shares the track with Norfolk Southern, which owns it. He also said he did not know if the freight train was moving or stationary when it was struck.
Of particular interest is what the signals were before the Amtrak train got to the spot where the collision occurred, James said.