FOX RIVER GROVE – When Jim Kreher puts on his uniform each day, his sleeve bears a reminder of the darkest day in village history.
Beneath the traditional red crest on the Fox River Grove Fire Department’s patch, there’s a navy blue and white ribbon. It serves as a memorial to the seven Cary-Grove High School students who died in a bus-train crash Oct. 25, 1995, at Algonquin Road and Route 14.
Sunday marks 20 years since Jeffrey Clark, Stephanie Fulham, Susanna Guzman, Michael Hoffman, Joe Kalte, Shawn Robinson and Tiffany Schneider died in the crash.
Kreher, who was the department’s incident commander that day, estimates he was on the scene 20 seconds after a Metra commuter train slammed into the back of a school bus as it waited at a red light. He said it’s hard to believe two decades have passed.
“Time went by pretty quick,” Kreher said. “It seems just like yesterday that it happened.”
Of Fox River Grove’s 37 current firefighters, Kreher said five – including his brother, Fire Chief Bob Kreher – were working for the department at the time of the crash.
Even though a number of first responders are no longer there, reminders of that tragic day are everywhere.
There’s the ribbon on the patch, a reference to the ribbons in Cary-Grove colors that showed up on antennas and shirts around town in the months after the crash.
There’s the sticker of angel’s wings protruding from the number 7 on ambulance 657, a reference to the “Seven Angels” name the crossing eventually took on.
Of course, there’s the crossing itself, which is just steps from the department’s main fire station on Algonquin Road. Just north of the crossing, there’s a memorial that Jim Kreher and his wife maintain, which sits roughly where the shell of the bus landed.
“I go out there every October 25th at 7 o’clock in the morning, and I see the same parents there every year,” Jim Kreher said.
Those living reminders occur frequently when he runs into those families and the survivors of the crash around town. One of the survivors, Jason Kedrok, was the first person Jim Kreher saw on the scene that day. Kedrok is now a lieutenant with the department.
Kedrok was already a cadet at the time of the crash. He already knew he wanted to be a firefighter when it occurred, but he said the experience helped bring perspective to the work he does.
“The events that day just made me be thankful of everything that I have, because I also see accidents and people sick every day at the fire department,” Kedrok said. “People call us in their worst time.”
Kedrok and the Krehers both remember the response from the Cary and Fox River Grove communities, which banded together to support the families involved in the crash and the response. Jim Kreher remembers food and other items showing up on his doorstep.
“We don’t expect thank you’s,” Jim Kreher said. “When people say thank you’s, it’s overwhelming.”
Remembering that day doesn’t get any easier, but the Krehers are working to honor its legacy in a positive way.
In the months after the crash, the department worked with the National Transportation Safety Board on an investigation that led to sweeping changes in procedures at railroad crossings.
“It’s never a good thing that there’s an accident where lives are lost,” Bob Kreher said. “If intersections were made safer because of it, at least something came of it.”
For a few years after the crash, the first responders would go around the state to do a presentation on how they handled the call, but they stopped when re-living that day repeatedly took its toll.
For the tragedy’s 15th anniversary in 2010, the fire department started a memorial blood drive, remembering the need for blood among the 30 survivors of the crash.
Kreher said the drive is a way for the department to give back to the area. On the day of the crash, the department was able to transport everyone on the bus to the hospital within an hour and four minutes, thanks in part to the 17 area departments that helped with the response through the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System.
“We take it for granted where the blood comes from, but when you see an event like that and how it affected the surrounding hospitals,” Kreher said, “it makes you think about all those little things.”
Kedrok, too, said the crash taught him to value the little things.
“Since we just had our fourth child, I think about how fortunate I am, how lucky I am, how grateful I am for time with the family, for the support from the peers that I work with,” Kedrok said. “I squeeze my kids every time I come home. I stop and appreciate them a lot more.”