In 37 years as a tow truck operator, Bill Howard has walked away from many accident scenes saying "it could have been worse." Walking away from the tragic crash that killed a tollway worker Monday, he was speechless.
Howard, owner of Naperville Towing Service, had initially dispatched a two-man crew and a 50-ton tow truck to remove a stalled semitrailer truck from the right eastbound lane of I-88 near Eola Road in Aurora late Monday.
The crew was on the last step, releasing the brake lines, when another semi plowed into the rear of an Illinois State police car, setting off a chain reaction that killed 39-year-old tollway worker Vincent Petrella and seriously injured 38-year-old District 15 state trooper Douglas J. Balder.
"When you say it could have been worse, this is the scenario you're talking about," Howard said. "That young man (Petrella) had a wife and two children who he didn't go home to."
Howard said he was just walking in his door at home when his wife received a "frantic" call from his employee at the scene. Howard said he made a U-turn right back out.
"As the owner, I have two guys and equipment out there. I needed to be there," he said. "Old tow truck drivers get an adrenaline rush going to the scene because they enjoy their work. But bad ones like this are hard to take, and it's even worse when you know it's bad before you get there."
By the time Howard arrived, firefighters had extinguished the flaming wreckage and were treating the victims.
Howard said his two employees knew Petrella from "working shoulder to shoulder with him" throughout the years. "When time passes I'll get them in the office, get them to talk about it and open up about how they're feeling," he said. "They saw some fairly disturbing things happen to a guy they knew out there. It's not as close as a family member, but it's darn close."
What makes the situation more tragic, Howard said, is that accidents like Monday night's could be avoided if drivers paid attention and followed the law.
"Those huge bright amber and red and white lights are not on for our enjoyment. They're to warn you something's going on and tell you to slow down and get over," he said. "It's really irritating to have to work on the side of the road with 6,000-pound cars flying at you at 65 mph because my body is frail bone and doesn't stand a chance. I don't think people respect that those are human beings working on the side of the road."
Howard said he has already begun thinking about new safety measures for his own employees. "Its all about time and spending as little time on the scene as possible because minutes count. It is inevitable that there will be a secondary crash if you don't get that disabled vehicle out of there quickly," he said.
Fortunately, Howard said, not every tow scenario is a tragedy. "There's nothing better than rescuing someone or being someone's hero when you pull them out of a jam. That's why we do what we do."