By Rosemary Regina Sobol
CHICAGO — One's a suburban police officer, the other a retired officer and the third wants to be a cop. They all had the same thought when they came upon an SUV in flames after a crash on the Stevenson Expressway near Darien: Get the driver out.
"You do what you have to do," said Wayne Young, 66, a retired Burbank police officer. "I would hope that everybody would do something like that."
The crash occurred around 5:30 a.m. Sunday when a man driving the wrong way on the Stevenson collided with an SUV at Lemont Road, according to Illinois State Police Sgt. Bruce Orns. The wrong-way driver was killed and a young man in the SUV was trapped as it started burning, Orns said.
Romeoville Police Officer Woodsman "Woody" Jones, 38, was in a squad car on his way to Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood when he saw the wreck on the other side of the road.
"There were no other vehicles there so I stopped to assist," said Jones, a 13-year veteran of the Romeoville Police Department and a former military officer.
Jones, who had been northbound on I-55, called for backup and sped around to the southbound lanes. "I jumped the median and went over there," said Jones, who first saw the driver of the wrong-way vehicle. "He was unconscious and not looking okay. He was partially hanging out of the car."
Seeing the other SUV in flames that were "spreading quickly," Jones said he rushed toward it and saw the driver inside.
By this time, at least two other men stopped to help Jones: Young and Ernesto Irizarry of Chicago. "We decided we needed to get him out of the vehicle," Jones said.
"Typically, we like to keep (victims) in the car to maintain the spine and keep it so that they're not moving and you don't want to have any wounds open up, but the vehicle was on fire," Jones said.
The driver of the SUV appeared to possibly be a teenage boy and apparently had suffered a broken leg, Jones said.
Jones and Young carried the driver out of the SUV, with Irizarry helping to clear a space for the driver before racing to the other car.
"We tried to help the other guy in the other vehicle but it was smashed and pinned up against the median and we couldn't get to him," said Irizarry, 24, who was coming off a midnight shift as a security guard in River North and was headed towards his parents' home in Romeoville.
Their attention turned back to the SUV driver, who appeared to be in more danger as the flames grew. Irizarry and Jones moved him again -- about two minutes before the SUV was engulfed by a fireball.
"The fire got so big and hot, we were afraid it was going to explode," Jones said. "The tires were popping.
"We got him a blanket and made sure he was okay," Irizarry said. "Mr. Young was talking to him, making sure he stayed conscious and called his family. Had he stayed in the car, he would have been engulfed in flames."
Young was headed home after dropping off a friend from Tennessee at Midway Airport when he saw the crash.
"I just figured I better stop and lend a hand,"' said Young. "I went over to the SUV this young man was in. There was a fire in the engine compartment."
The driver, wearing a name tag, was able to tell the men that he was on his way to work. "He said he saw a car coming toward him and he tried to swerve out of the path of it but couldn't get out of the way."
The driver then pulled out his cell phone, dialed his father and asked Young to talk to him. "I reassured him (the father) that he was OK and conscious," said Young. "And he thanked me for stopping and helping his son."
The wrong-way driver was pronounced dead on the scene but has not yet identified him pending notification of next of kin, according to the DuPage County coroner's office.
Irizarry got home about 45 minutes late, where he was greeted by his mother. "She wasn't too worried but she was really sad about the accident," he said.
"The funny thing is I'm trying to become a police officer so she knew that was something that I would do," said Irizarry, who said he has applied to be a Chicago police officer and will be taking a test later this month. He also said he had applied for a job as an officer in Madison, Wis.
"My first thought was to help out," said Irizarry, who could have been sepaking for Jones and Young as well. "I was just to try to help out and get people to safety."
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Copyright 2013 the Chicago Tribune