'I see it as just doing what we're supposed to do,' Round Lake Beach cop says of lifesaving effort
Round Lake Beach police Officer Ken Lupi was running radar to catch speeders along Route 83 to start his midnight shift July 14, when circumstances changed quickly and dramatically.
At 11:31 p.m., an emergency call about a head-on crash with a vehicle on fire within a mile of where Lupi was parked shattered the quiet of the routine summer night and launched him into overdrive as he sped toward the scene.
What Lupi saw and did in the ensuing minutes left an indelible impression and earned him a lifesaving award from the department.
"This is one of those -- really a true lifesaving action," said Deputy Chief Mike Scott.
A lifesaving certificate presented to Lupi at a recent village board meeting -- the second he's received in his 12 years on the force -- states, "It was his swift actions without regard for his own safety that certainly saved the life of the driver."
"I see it as just doing what we're supposed to do -- doing what's expected of us," Lupi said. "I don't personally find what I did that special. I did what I would hope anybody else would do who came across an accident."
With traffic on Rollins Road backed up as he approached the crash scene, Lupi said it was difficult initially to get an idea of what was happening. But as the view cleared, it became evident this was not a typical crash.
In the middle of Rollins Road, the front end of an older model pickup was crushed. A bystander stood nearby flagging Lupi as flames danced on and under the hood near the broken windshield, ready to spread to the interior. The driver was trapped and unconscious but making gasping breaths, Lupi recalled.
"The first thing that goes through your mind is 'Let's try to get him out of the vehicle.'" Lupi said as he replayed the dashcam video of the rapidly unfolding situation.
Seeing the extensive damage from the front bumper to the back of the driver's compartment, and with flames licking at the broken windshield, Lupi realized opening the driver's side door wasn't an option. When the passenger door wouldn't open either, he sprinted to his squad car for a fire extinguisher.
"You don't know how much gas is there, if it's going to blow up, if it's going to ignite any more," he said. "So the concern was getting the fire out, lifting the hood looking for a fire under there. You don't want the fire to restart.
"At that point you're not concerned or paying attention to the heat or anything. You're just focused on what needs to be done," Lupi recalled.
Lupi put out the fire, but the damage was so severe the driver ultimately had to be cut out. The driver of the car struck head-on by the pickup was conscious and alert but also had to be extricated by firefighters. Both were seriously injured and required surgery, Lupi said.
Born in Chicago but raised in Winthrop Harbor, Lupi started his police career there in 2004. He joined the Round Lake Beach department in 2007.
During his tenure, he has been assigned to the gang and drug unit working narcotics-based operations in Round Lake Beach and also worked undercover for more two years with the Lake County Metropolitan Enforcement Group.
In the many accidents he has responded to, Lupi recalls only one other that involved a vehicle on fire. Instinct and experience are integral, but Lupi has a standard approach for every situation.
"Whenever I show up to an accident, whether it's minor or severe, I treat it like, 'What if my family were in that car? What am I going to do to help them?' Because ultimately the goal is to help people," he said.
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