In the final moments before Henry Laseke's SUV disappeared under water Thursday morning, he had a phone to his ear.
Was he trying to call for help?
Rick Geiger isn't sure. As one of Laseke's neighbors on Courtland Drive in Arlington Heights, he heard the SUV crash into the neighborhood retention pond behind their townhouses at about 6:58 a.m.
Geiger ran straight into the water where the SUV floated, trying frantically to pry open the door or break a window.
“I wasn't thinking about anything other than getting him out and getting him out quickly,” he said.
The two men made eye contact, but Laseke didn't say anything.
“He had the phone to his ear, but he was obviously in shock,” Geiger said.
Police say they don't know what caused the 89-year-old Laseke to drive into the retention pond. A widower who lived alone, neighbors think he was returning from breakfast and backing into his garage when he accelerated, hitting a neighboring townhouse, an electric box and eventually the pond, all in reverse.
Another neighbor joined Geiger in the water, but they could not get inside the SUV.
“We had nothing in our hands,” Geiger said. “In hindsight I keep thinking that I should have grabbed a hammer before I went in the water.”
The men switched tactics, trying instead to keep the car level and not nosing down into the water. They tried to push the SUV closer to the shore.
But after several minutes of trying and almost going under themselves from exhaustion, Geiger and the other neighbor watched Laseke's car slip below the surface.
“Once he went under, the clock just ticked,” Geiger said.
Several neighbors had called 911. One of them was Kay Sullivan, 84, who was on her porch eating breakfast and saying her morning prayers when Laseke's SUV, flying backward, hit one of the porch support beams. The shaking was like an explosion.
“I felt it tipping and falling and there was this terrible noise,” she said.
She ran inside to call 911 and watched from the window as her neighbors tried to save Laseke.
When the first police officer arrived on the scene, he, too, jumped in the water, but he couldn't reach Laseke. He called for Arlington Heights Fire Department dive rescue crews.
Using tools, those crews tried unsuccessfully to break the windows and the sunroof to the SUV. Eventually, they had to pull the car out of the water to get Laseke out.
Geiger guesses Laseke was under water 10-20 minutes before he was taken to Northwest Community Hospital. He died shortly before 11 a.m., authorities said.
The Cook County medical examiner plans an autopsy Friday, and police say the cause of the crash is still under investigation.
Later Thursday afternoon, crews were trying to get power turned back on for a few of the townhouses that lost electricity when the SUV hit the utility box.
Sullivan's balcony is now tilted, her bowl of cereal and spoon abandoned on the table. It doesn't seem safe to go back out on the deck and retrieve them.
Geiger got a hepatitis shot and was checked out by a doctor for a sore back. But he isn't concerned for himself right now.
“None of that matters. My mind is on him, his family and the things they're going through,” he said.
But the memories of Thursday morning will haunt him forever.
“I didn't have the tools, but there was no way I was going to just stand there and watch,” Geiger said. “I will never, ever be comfortable with the fact that I didn't get him out.”Copyright © 2013 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.