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NTSB releases preliminary report on crash that killed Tollway worker

The National Transportation Safety Board issued preliminary findings in its investigation about a suburban crash that killed an Illinois Tollway worker and severely injured an Illinois State Police trooper last year on the Reagan Memorial Tollway.

The crash on Jan. 27, 2014, prompted U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin to call for the federal investigation.

Durbin asked the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to “immediately and fully” investigate the accident to determine if the driver or his employer, DND International, violated rules limiting the number of hours a driver can be on the road, and take steps to ensure every trucking company complies with the law.

State Trooper Douglas Balder, 38, was helping 39-year-old Vincent Petrella with a broken-down semi truck in the right-hand lane and shoulder of eastbound I-88 near Eola Road, authorities said. About 9:45 p.m., a second semi crashed into the vehicles and fell into a ditch. The crash ended in a fire, engulfing both Balder and Petrella in flames, authorities said.

Petrella, a Tollway worker, died in the crash, while Balder was critically hurt, authorities said. Petrella was the first Illinois Tollway employee since 2003 to be killed on the job.

Prosecutors said Balder suffered broken ribs, a broken shoulder and third-degree burns over 15 percent of his body. The trooper, who was in his car at the time, was able to climb to safety, the Sun-Times reported at the time.

The driver of the second semi—Renato V. Velasquez, 46, of Hanover Park—was charged with four felony counts of operating a commercial motor vehicle while impaired or fatigued, making a false report of a record and duty status, and driving beyond the 14- and 11-hour rules, according to Illinois State Police. He has pleaded not guilty.

Balder and his wife, who have filed a lawsuit against Velasquez and his employer, conducted a press conference on Tuesday morning in Wheaton calling on prosecutors to file tougher charges against the driver.

The DuPage County State’s Attorney’s office released a statement late Tuesday morning, assuring charges were made after a thorough review.

“While this tragic case involves the death of a state employee and severe injury to an Illinois State Trooper, the charging decision was handled no differently,” State’s Attorney Robert B. Berlin said in the statement.” “The Illinois Supreme Court Rules of Professional Conduct mandate that as State’s Attorney, I have the duty to only bring charges that can be substantiated in a court of law. My charging decisions cannot be based on emotion, politics or any other forces. My decisions must be based on the law and what can be proven in court beyond a reasonable doubt, and that is what I have done in this case.”

The NTSB’s preliminary report said the accident happened in total darkness, and the area of the crash had no immediate roadway lighting.

The company that operates the semi Velasquez was driving had previous alerts for unsafe driving and violating hours of service compliance, according to the NTSB report released Tuesday. Those alerts are in two of five categories the NTSB uses to measure how well a commercial carrier operates.

Steven Goldman, Velasquez’s attorney, denied the trucker was sleepy behind the wheel despite working 37 hours straight before the crash. The status of Velasquez’s case was not known Tuesday.

The carrier of the broken-down semi also had alerts for four of five categories, including unsafe driving, hours of service compliance, driver fitness and vehicle maintenance, the report said.

The NTSB’s investigation is ongoing.