The inside story of how the trucking industry and politicians have conspired to make our highways less safe.
WASHINGTON — Illinois State Trooper Douglas Balder sat in his squad car, its red and blue lights strobing into the frozen night of Jan. 27, 2014. He was about to be set on fire.
Balder had stopped to assist a Chicago-bound big rig that had stalled out in the rightmost lane of the Ronald Reagan Memorial Tollway. A heavy-duty tow truck and a bright yellow Tollway assistance vehicle were also pulled over, attending to the stranded semi.
Balder, a Navy reservist and father of two, had his heater cranked against minus-30-degree wind chill. He had positioned his 2011 Crown Victoria behind the Tollway vehicle and switched on his flashers. There were also flares sputtering on the pavement, and the Tollway truck was flashing a large blinking arrow and its amber hazard lights. Visibility on that clear, cold night was excellent — around 10 miles.
Renato Velasquez, who was barreling toward the stopped vehicles in a flatbed big rig loaded with three massive rolls of steel, didn’t see Balder’s flashers. He didn’t see the pulsing arrow or the flares. He didn’t change lanes or take any evasive action until far too late. Velasquez was falling asleep, a court would find later. His truck rammed into Balder’s squad car at 63 miles per hour, according to the National Transportation Safety Board investigation into the accident.
The impact crushed the Crown Vic’s trunk, exploding the gas tank and catapulting the patrol car into a roadside ditch. The three 14,580-pound steel coils chained to Velazquez’s trailer bed burst their restraints. One of the massive rolls struck the cab of the Tollway vehicle, instantly killing its 39-year-old driver Vincent Petrella and injuring Agron Xhelaj, the driver of the stalled truck who was seated beside him.
Balder had lost consciousness when his face hit the steering wheel.
“I woke up a short time later on fire,” he said. “Literally on fire. Burning alive.”