UPDATED 02/06/12 4:14 p.m.
HAZEL CREST, Ill. (CBS) — Alcohol was suspected to be a factor in a fiery wreck that left four people dead early Monday, after a wrong-way driver crashed into another car on Interstate 80 in Hazel Crest.
As CBS 2’s Susanna Song reports, Illinois State Police spent the early morning hours investigating and reconstructing the accident in the westbound lanes of I-80, near Kedzie Avenue and just west of the Tri-State Tollway (I-294). At least a dozen police vehicles were on the scene.
LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio’s Bernie Tafoya reports
A wrong-way driver in a beige Infiniti sedan, with three passengers, smashed head-on into another vehicle shortly before 2:30 a.m.
Police said the driver, Gustavo Vargas, 29, of Berwyn, had just left the Skybox gentlemen’s club in Harvey with his three passengers. He wanted to turn around and go eastbound on I-80 instead of westbound, after reaching a median cut-through intended for emergency vehicles. Instead of getting into the eastbound lanes, he made a three-point turn and began heading the wrong way.
Vargas and two of his passengers — front seat passenger Jorge Pina, 27, of Chicago; and back seat passenger Armando Ruiz, 29, of Berwyn — were all killed in the crash. Another back seat passenger — Eduardo Rodriguez, 31, of Chicago — was taken in fair condition to Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, police said.
The car caught fire, and was reduced to a burned-out shell.
The driver of the other car involved in the crash — a 1999 Ford Escort station wagon — was also killed. He is identified as Jason Wepsiec, 35, of Joliet.
It is believed that Wepsiec likely died on impact, while those in the wrong-way car might have died after that vehicle caught fire.
The victim’s parents, Susan Wepsiec and her husband Jim, were in Alabama when an Illinois State Police officer called Monday morning to convey the horrible news. They immediately left for Chicago.
Susan Wepsiec says her son had left the Sauk Village home where he lived with his sister sometime overnight. He was headed to visit his girlfriend.
“I feel like I’ve been hit by a Mack truck,” she said. “I just can’t believe it’s real.”
State Police Sgt. Richard Decker said investigators have a pretty good idea of the cause of the crash.
“We suspect alcohol at this time. We’ve had some witnesses come forward, and we believe that they were all drinking this evening,” he said.
State Police Master Sgt. Timothy Tyler had an important reminder to keep such tragedies from happening in the future.
“Alcohol – if you’re going to drink, use a designated driver,” he said.
There was a wheelchair in the car that ended up on the side of the road, but state police would not comment on whether it belonged to anybody in the vehicle at the time.
“I can confirm that there was a wheelchair inside the vehicle,” Tyler said.
As CBS 2’s Dorothy Tucker reports, Gustavo Vargas suffered from spina bifida. In fact, he was a poster child for Easter Seals in 1990, when he was 12. Relatives said he walked with a cane, but he could drive.
“My brother was the type of guy that he was always there for somebody, you know? He was always there to help them out, no matter what,” Israel Vargas said. “Like I said, he was disabled, but he was always the first one to jump and say ‘You know what, I’m there. I’ll go pick you up,’ or ‘What do you need?’”
Initial reports indicated the Infiniti belonged to Gustavo Vargas and police said he was driving, but friends insisted he was a passenger. However, they admit he might have been drinking.
“That’s probably why wasn’t doing the driving, but I guess the person that was wasn’t any better,” his brother, Israel Vargas said.
Asked what he would say to Wespiec’s family after Israel Vargas said, “Our condolences are with them. I mean, it’s a tragedy that this had to happen, but I don’t know what happened.”
Westbound I-80 was closed between Kedzie Avenue and the Tri-State for about six hours, but was back open by 8:55 a.m.
Other incidents involving wrong-way drivers on Chicago area expressways have made headlines in recent months.
Just this past Friday morning, a suspected drunken driver headed the wrong way for 6 miles on the Stevenson Expressway. Rakesh J. Baker, 23, was first spotted driving the wrong way in a Jeep sport-utility-vehicle on the Stevenson near Kedzie Avenue, and finally slammed head-on into another vehicle on the ramp from southbound Lake Shore Drive to the inbound Stevenson around 3 a.m.
Four people were left in critical condition in that incident.
Back in December, Sergio Galez-Delira, 24, of Glenview, barreled into incoming traffic on the Edens Expressway and headed north in the southbound lanes from Elston Avenue all the way north to Glencoe. He did not hit any cars, but spurred many drivers to place terrified calls to 911.
Galez-Delira told CBS 2’s Roseanne Tellez that he was drunk, and was also on anti-depressants at the time. He called the wrong-way misadventure “one of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever done.”