Naperville man rescues family after highway crash

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As Mike Roberson headed north on a misty Interstate 57 Wednesday night, all he wanted was to hug his 5-year-old daughter and fiancee and then, finally, get some sleep.

By any measure, the 40-year-old Naperville truck driver had had a horrible few days. On Wednesday, he was just south of Champaign driving home from a funeral in Mississippi for an uncle he loved dearly. And while away, Roberson learned that his home in Naperville had gone up in flames. His cat, Lexi, died in the fire.

Roberson needed a break.

But in the mist up ahead, he noticed a minivan fishtailing. A few moments later, the van veered off the highway, plunged down an embankment and rolled over.

Dressed in shorts and a long-sleeve T-shirt, Roberson pulled over and ran out into the chilly darkness. He called 911, but he didn’t stay on the line long enough to speak. He couldn’t risk it. The van was upside down in a pond. The windows were shattered and there were people inside screaming for help. Hands — children’s hands — were reaching out of the rear back windows.

“The mom was in the front seat,” Roberson said. “She was hanging upside down with her seat belt on. She was trapped. She was screaming, ‘My kids! My kids!’ ”

<small><strong> Michael Roberson of Naperville rescued several members of a Willowbrook family after their van rolled into a pond along Interstate 57 near Champaign. | Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette</strong></small>

Michael Roberson of Naperville rescued several members of a Willowbrook family after their van rolled into a pond along Interstate 57 near Champaign. | Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette

Alone, Roberson went to work, pulling children out of the van and dragging them to safety. He pulled out four children in all. Then he went back for more. He pulled out the mother, then an elderly woman he later learned was the children’s grandmother.

They were all conscious, except the mother, who wasn’t breathing, Roberson said.

Roberson had to think quickly. An elderly man remained in the van and perhaps the children’s father. So Roberson turned to one of the children, a teenage girl, and told her to breathe into her mother’s mouth.

“As I was on the way down, I heard [the daughter] yell, ‘She’s started breathing!’ ”

Try as he might, Roberson was unable to pull the grandfather out of the van. And in the soggy darkness, he couldn’t find the children’s father.

Soaked from head to toe, Roberson flung his arms in the air, finally managing to flag down a motorist. A short while later, emergency crews came.

As the professionals hauled the grandfather out, Roberson dealt with the shivering survivors. He ushered them into his truck, and gave them some baggy clothing — things that had belonged to his uncle and, because of the fire, his only spare clothes.

Eventually, crews found the father. They carried him away on a stretcher. Roberson said he later learned the father died.

Murtaza Rajkotwala, 43, of Willowbrook, was killed in the crash, according to Illinois State Police. His wife, Farida Rajkotwala, 45, who was driving, and seven other passengers were taken to hospitals with injuries, police said.

The family was returning from a religious gathering in Houston. Roberson joined them Saturday in honoring Murtaza Rajkotwala at the Masjid Al-Badri mosque in Willowbrook. Aamir Chalisa, a spokesman for the mosque, said several people wanted to shake Roberson’s hand. Chalisa also said the community is helping Roberson raise money to recover from the fire.

“He helped our community and our families in their need,” Chalisa said. “The least we can do is help him in his need.”

<small><strong> Michael Roberson with members of the Masjid Al-Badri mosque (from left) Aamir Chalisa, Hatim Poonawala, Hussain Karimi, Bakir Doriwala, Yusuf Shikari and Dr. Mufadal Moosabhoy. | Provided photo</strong></small>

Michael Roberson with members of the Masjid Al-Badri mosque (from left) Aamir Chalisa, Hatim Poonawala, Hussain Karimi, Bakir Doriwala, Yusuf Shikari and Dr. Mufadal Moosabhoy. | Provided photo

Chris Humer, Tolono’s assistant fire chief, said Roberson is “truly a hero.”

“There’s no doubt that the outcome could have been drastically different if he hadn’t pulled over and provided aid to these people,” Humer said.

Roberson said all he knew was the family needed his help. The van wasn’t visible from the highway and, as far as he knows, only he had seen it veer off the road.

Late last week, after finally getting a good night’s sleep — he’s staying at his fiancee’s father’s house — Roberson said every muscle in his body aches.

“There were muscles that hadn’t been used for years and years,” he said.

Roberson said his house, which belongs to his fiancee, will likely have to be gutted.

Naperville fire officials said last week that the fire was accidental and was thought to have started in the kitchen. No one was home at the time. The property is insured, Roberson said.

After the last few days he’s had, did he wonder if someone had it in for him?

Not at all, he said.

“It’s kind of funny, my boss said to me, ‘You’ve got to have the worst luck of anyone I’ve ever seen.’ And I told him, ‘I don’t consider it bad luck. If I hadn’t seen that van, it would have been much, much worse,’ ” Roberson said.

Contributing: Jon Seidel

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