Marian Petruta knew something was seriously wrong from the moment he saw the Mercedes-Benz's headlights racing toward him on Northwest Highway.
"It was speeding so fast," the downtown Des Plaines resident said. "I estimate 60, 70 mph. I honked at him as he went past."
Petruta said the Mercedes "was accelerating as I was passing by him" going the other direction on Northwest Highway.
Moments later, Petruta heard the crash and explosion of impact as a ball of fire briefly illuminated the darkness in his rearview mirror Thursday night.
"I thought he hit a pole or something because there was no car in front of him to hit," Petruta said.
A journalist who writes for the Oregon-based Romanian Times and the Chicago Romanian American News, Petruta said he's not often on the scene of the events he covers so quickly.
"It was one of those surreal moments where you see it coming," he said.
He estimated it took about three or four minutes for him to turn around and reach the crash scene at the entrance to the Lattof YMCA in Des Plaines.
He was stunned when he saw another vehicle, and not a pole, was what the Mercedes had struck.
"I was pretty sure that people were dead, because the way the car looked ... it was so damaged," Petruta said.
Des Plaines Police Chief Bill Kushner said the damage to the Impala was so extensive that the front end looked like a crushed ball of aluminum foil. The right front tire was completely missing, while the rack-and-pinion steering assembly lay along the side of the car as if it had been unbolted and placed on the ground, he said.
The driver of the Mercedes and three members of an Arlington Heights family in the car that was struck all died from injuries suffered in the crash, police said. A passenger in the Mercedes was critically injured, and an elderly couple in a Toyota Highlander suffered minor injuries.
"My first thought was it could have been me," Petruta said. "Because at first, I couldn't tell if he'd crossed the median."
About 10 to 15 other people were quickly on the scene, calling 911 and looking for ways to help. Someone with a baseball bat was trying to break vehicle windows.
"It was kind of a scary scene," he said. "There was gas and kinds of liquids on the road."
The noise brought residents out of nearby apartments to help and also alerted neighbor Cindy Gice, who could see the scene from an upper floor of her house on Warrington Road.
"First we heard the explosion, and it was very loud," Gice said. "It sounded almost like a truck hit a building or something. It was significant. It didn't sound like two cars collided."
The condition of those vehicles was startling.
"The front ends were completely obliterated," Gice said. "It looked like the back end of a car."
Petruta said police and fire departments arrived quickly at the crash scene, but it took crews a "little while" to get into the cars because they were trying to put out the fire.
He said he remained on the scene for about an hour and was streaming live on Facebook for nearly 10 minutes before returning home.
• Daily Herald staff writer Steve Zalusky contributed to this report.