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Memories of crash linger 15 years later

FOX RIVER GROVE – Oct. 25, 1995, was the worst day of Bill Kopanda’s life.

It’s been 15 years since the vice principal at Cary-Grove High School received the news about a bus-train accident involving his students.

He eventually would learn that the crash, which happened at 7:11 a.m. at the intersection of Route 14 and Algonquin Road in Fox River Grove, left seven students dead.

Jeffrey Clark. Stephanie Fulham. Susanna Guzman. Michael Hoffman. Joe Kalte. Shawn Robinson. Tiffany Schneider.

“For those of us who were there, it’s not something we’ll ever forget,” Kopanda said.

The accident, which happened when a commuter train slammed into the back of a school bus waiting at a red light, received national news media attention and shook the community to its core.

Now, a decade and a half later, memories from that day still linger.

Kopanda and then-Principal Lawrence Bennett found out about crash when Cary police came to the school to pick them up. Then, under full lights, they went to the scene.

“We could tell that something bad had happened,” Kopanda said. “We were kind of hoping, ‘Please don’t be too bad.’”

When they saw the bus, though, they knew that they were looking at a tragedy.

In the days that followed, they attended seven funerals and did their best to run a high school that was in shock.

“We didn’t sleep very much in the next three to five days ... it was very stressful,” Kopanda said. “[But] the community, the other district schools, virtually the world was very, very supportive. [And] the governor put the flags at [half-staff] for the state of Illinois.”

Jason Kedrock, who was 15 at the time, was on the bus that day.

He blacked out after impact, then came to and was led to the corner of the intersection where others from the bus were standing.

Kedrock now is a firefighter who serves with the Fox River Grove and Arlington Heights departments. Both stations are near railroad tracks.

At the time of the accident, he already was training as a cadet with Fox River Grove fire because his sister, Jennifer Kedrock, was an EMT. She was among those who responded to the scene.

“I saw her, she came over, gave me a quick hug and then went back to what she had to do,” Kedrock said. “I think I kind of just knew by looking at it that there were some serious injuries.”

Kedrock said it didn’t feel like it had been 15 years.

“I was probably numb during that entire time and at least a year after that,” he said. “I lived this. I lived the tragedy. ... I would think, some people that were on the bus, they just want to move on, not get bothered with it because they’ve lived it every day for the last 15 years.”

Jim Kreher, the Fox River Grove Fire Department’s deputy chief, was the incident commander at the scene.

“There was a lot of emotions in our community,” he said. “Fifteen years ago does seem like a long time, but the subject does come up. I know it’s still on everybody’s mind any time they drive by that intersection.”

Kreher said he found himself being more emotional about things after having witnessed that.

“I’ve been on the department for over 30 years,” he said. “But it makes you realize how important every call is around here, and how you treat each patient.”

Kopanda said he was deeply affected as well, and so was the school as a whole.

“The line between students and teacher became blurred because everyone was helping each other,” he said. “I really think it’s a strength [and] it just exists as part of the culture [now].”

Many of the people involved in that day aren’t with the district anymore, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t be on their minds, Kopanda said.

“I know that I will hear from most of them [today],” he said. “There’s a deep bond that’s still there.”

Kedrock said he still didn’t have a full view of how the accident shaped him into who he was today.

“You can’t look at something like that to that magnitude and say it definitely changed your view,” he said. “Because you don’t know where you would have been if that didn’t happen.”

In the years that followed, railroad safety was highlighted nationwide, and the specific intersection, now referred to in community as “Seven Angels Crossing,” was redesigned. People used to be able to pull over the railroad tracks to turn, but they now have to stay on the south side of the tracks.

At Cary-Grove High School, Kopanda said he planned to buy flowers for the Friendship Circle, an outdoor memorial in front of the school. The school also plans to display, for the day, a quilt from Peaceful Gathering Quilt Shop that honors the emergency crews that responded to the scene.

The Fox River Grove Fire Department and Flight For Life hosted a blood drive Saturday to commemorate the 15th anniversary. It’s the first time that they’ve held the event, but Kreher hopes that it will become a yearly thing.

Kathryn Hoffman, who lost her son Michael in the crash when he was 14, said community support such as that meant a lot to her.

“He’s been gone longer than he was alive,” she said. “It’s quite a milestone. We miss him.”

Kopanda said 15 years seemed like a long time, but in some ways it also felt very short.

“I do wonder,” he said. “These kids would have been parents now, or mayors. And I do wonder what could have been.”

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