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Trucker charged in accident that killed tollway worker, injured trooper in fiery crash

Vincent Petrella loved his job at the tollway, especially being out on the road in weather people hated.

"He just loved it," said his sister Maria Petrella. "He always looked forward to it when it came to snow. He was just a hard worker."

Petrella had pulled over on Interstate 88 in Aurora in the bitter cold Monday night for a semi that had broken down when another semi crashed into a state trooper's squad car which then crashed into his truck in a fiery explosion. Petrella, 39 and the father of two, died at the scene. Trooper Douglas J. Balder, 38, remains in critical but stable condition.

"He was a good man," Maria Petrella said. "Too young to go. Too young."

Officials Tuesday night charged Renato V. Velasquez, 46, of Hanover Park in connection with the accident.

Velasquez was charged with operating a commercial vehicle while impaired/fatigued, filing a false report of record and duty status, driving more than 14 hours and driving beyond the 11 hour rule, all class four felonies, according to state police officials.

He was also charged with failure to reduce speed to avoid an accident and failure to yield to stationary emergency vehicles in violation of Scott's Law. A bond hearing is scheduled for Wednesday in DuPage County Court.

The accident happened around 9:45 p.m. Monday about a quarter-mile east of Eola Road, state police said. The disabled semi was pulled over onto the right lane of traffic and the shoulder, and the tollway truck and the trooper's car were behind it.

The state police car's lights were flashing, and an illuminated arrow on the back of the truck was lit and directing traffic away from the semi, officials said.

Petrella and the trooper were helping the driver of the disabled semi when another semi hit the trooper's car, Petrella's truck and the stalled semi, according to state police. All three vehicles exploded in flame.

Two dozen state police cars took part in a procession escorting Balder to Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, where he was listed in serious condition. Two Maywood police vehicles blocked traffic on Roosevelt Road as the procession sped by about 2:10 a.m. Tuesday.

The driver of the semi that caused the crash was being questioned, but no charges have been filed. The driver of the disabled semi was not injured.

Paul Darrah, a spokesman for the DuPage County state’s attorney's office, said no charges had been filed as of Tuesday morning as authorities continue to investigate the crash.

Illinois State Police Director Hiram Grau said Balder "is expected to make it." Balder has been with the Illinois state police since 2007 and had served several tours of duty while in the military.

“I offer condolences to Vincent Petrella’s family and to the entire Illinois Tollway," Grau said. "It is also with deep sadness that we offer our support and deepest sympathies to the family of Trooper Douglas Balder, who remains in serious condition and is expected to recover. These first responders are dedicated to service and risk their lives every day to keep citizens and roads safe.”

Grau reminded motorists to stay clear of emergency vehicles. "Scott's Law was passed for a reason," he said at a news conference. "You see those emergency lights, you get away as far as you can."

Scott's Law, also known as the Move Over Law, requires a driver to change lanes, if it is safe to do so, or to reduce speed and proceed with caution when approaching a stopped emergency vehicle displaying flashing warning lights.

The law was named in memory of Chicago Fire Department Lt. Scott Gillen, who was fatally injured by a drunken driver while working at a crash on the Bishop Ford Freeway in 2000. Gillen, 37, was the father of five children.

Tollway executive director Kristi Lafleur released a statement saying the accident was a reminder of the dangerous conditions tollway workers find themselves in.

"They plow snow, maintain our roadways and, most importantly, are the first on the scene to help drivers in need," she said. "It was during what should have been a routine job that things went horribly wrong.

"Vincent was an equipment operator laborer for the Illinois Tollway since 2005, but began his career as a toll collector," she added. "Vincent was a hard-working family man and father of two who was committed to doing his best each day to serve our customers on the tollway. We extend our deepest sympathies to Mr. Petrella's family and his loved ones during this saddest of times."

Petrella had honed his work ethic as a 12-year-old kid taking valet tickets in Chicago's Little Italy neighborhood, his sister said.

Petrella grew up in Little Italy and moved to northwest suburban Wheeling as an adult, his sister said. He enjoyed fishing, was always quick to crack a joke and never hesitated to brag about his two young children.

Maria Petrella said funeral plans were pending. She said her brother is survived by his wife, Sandra, 7-year-old daughter Carmela and 4-year-old son Giovanni. He's also survived by his parents, a sister and a brother.

Gov. Pat Quinn ordered the state's flags to be flown at half-staff.

"Vincent Petrella is a hero," Quinn said in a statement. "Both he and the injured state trooper were doing heroic work -- assisting their fellow citizens in an emergency. Both men were committed to keeping our roads safe and to helping those in need.  Vincent was a selfless man, dedicated to his family and his job. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family, friends and fellow employees during this difficult time."

Balder is a Navy reservist whose return from a deployment to Dijbouti in the Horn of Africa in June was celebrated at a large party with family and friends.

“The whole neighborhood turned up. Well-liked man, well-liked family,” said Donna Morsovillo, founder of Operation Welcome You Home, the nonprofit that put on the celebration. “He was just so humbled that people would come out like that.”

According to a bio printed by Morsovillo’s organization last year and cited Tuesday by state police, Balder holds a master’s degree and won several military medals during a Navy career that dates to 1994.

A state trooper car was parked in front of the injured trooper’s Oswego home. Neighbors were seen bringing over food to his family.

Residents in his subdivision described Balder as a friendly neighbor who always was willing to help out.

Balder, for example, was out shoveling a neighbor's driveway yesterday morning before he left for work.

"That just shows (his) heart," said Lydia Bauer, who added that Balder and his wife, Kim, have helped her and her husband over the last several months as her husband battled illness.

She said she had given Balder's wife a hug yesterday morning when she dropped off a meal to thank the couple for all of their help.

"We've been in prayer for them today," she said. "We're just praying that he is healed and restored to his healthy self."

Bauer and another neighbor, Debbie Kehoe, said the neighborhood is pulling together to help the family. One neighbor is organizing meals to help, Bauer said.

"He's a great guy," said Kehoe, whose brother-in-law also is a state trooper.

"It's not an easy job," she said. "They put their lives out there for us. It's terrible that something like this happened but I know he's strong and he'll pull through."

A man who answered the door at the couple's home and who identified himself as Balder's father-in-law declined comment.

Last March, a semi crashed into a parked state police car and killed Trooper James Sauter on Interstate 294 near Willow Road. Sauter was stopped on the shoulder when he was hit. A trucker from Wisconsin was charged in connection with the accident.

Tribune reporter Carlos Sadovi and contributors Alice Fabbre and Jack McCarthy contributed to this report.

pnickeas@tribune.com | Twitter: @PeterNickeas

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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