Aug 19, 2004
NEW BERLIN, IL – Six members of Loami’s volunteer fire department were injured, one critically, late Tuesday after an allegedly drunken driver slammed into a van parked at a fire scene just west of New Berlin.
The driver, Patrick J. Heinen, 35,of Alexander, was charged by the Sangamon County state’s attorney’s office Wednesday with aggravated driving under the influence, DUI, failure to yield to a stationary emergency vehicle and failure to reduce speed to avoid an accident.
Heinen was being held in the Sangamon County Jail on $500,000 bond.
The most seriously injured of the firefighters was the assistant fire chief, Michael W. Hinman, whose 47th birthday was Tuesday. He was listed in critical condition at St. John’s Hospital. The Loami fire chief, Richard C. Woolfolk, 38, was in serious condition at St. John’s, while firefighter Troy D. Brewer, 33, was in fair condition.
Three other firefighters – Glenn A. Smith, 31, Alan L. Harris, 26, and Steven L. Brummett, 35 – were treated at St. John’s and released.
When the crash occurred at 11:54 p.m., the firefighters were finishing up at a fire scene along Old Route 54, about a mile west of New Berlin and 10 miles west of Springfield. They had been assisting New Berlin firefighters, who were putting out a shed fire that may have started after lightning struck it. As the firefighters were getting ready to leave, they discovered one of the Loami member’s van, which he had driven to the scene, had a dead battery, Illinois State Police said. So the firefighters pulled a firetruck, with its emergency lights activated, into the westbound lane of Old Route 54 so they could use it to jump-start the van, which was parked on the shoulder of the west-bound lane. As the firefighters were gathered around the van, Heinen approached in a westbound pickup truck. State police said he swerved to avoid the firetruck in his path and rear-ended the van, which was pushed 50 feet into the firefighters. Some firefighters were struck by the van, although at least one was reportedly injured when he rolled out of the way of the wreck, according to witness reports.
At least one firefighter also was trapped under the van. One of the injured was airlifted to the hospital.
Trooper Vince Fisher, a state police spokesman, said that if Heinen had swerved to the left, his truck would have likely avoided the crash and the resulting injuries. But Fisher noted that what happened goes along with the observation that drunken drivers often will swerve toward lights when they’re trying to avoid a crash. Heinen went to Memorial Medical Center for treatment before being released to the jail. It appears he was headed back to his hometown in Morgan County when the crash occurred. Bruce Antonacci, a Loami firefighter who went to the scene after the crash, said the department was in “semi-shock” Wednesday.
“We still can’t believe something like this could happen,” said Antonacci, one of roughly 15 volunteer members of the department. Glenn Pearson, Loami’s village president, said many of the 800 residents also were taking the news hard. “Firefighting is a dangerous thing,” he said “I think the last thing they worry about is going out here and getting ran over. If a building falls or something like that, it’s one thing. This just should have never happened.”
Antonacci said Hinman was one of the veterans of the department, having served for more than 20 years, some of that time as chief. “He was dedicated,” Antonacci said. “He was a very dedicated man as far as taking care of the town and taking care of the firemen themselves.” According to Sangamon and Morgan county court files, Heinen has no record other than traffic tickets for speeding 15-20 mph over the limit, not wearing a seat belt and disregarding a stop sign. Heinen’s attorney, John Sharp, said in court Wednesday that because of his client’s lack of a criminal record – as well as his full-time job and the custody of a 5-year-old child – the bond should be lowered to $25,000 or $50,000.
But Associate Circuit Judge John Mehlick kept the bond at $500,000 because of the seriousness of the allegations. Heinen would need to post $50,000 to be released. With nearly half of Loami’s department at least temporarily out of action, Antonacci said firefighters from New Berlin and Chatham will help respond to any fire or rescue calls in Loami. Pearson also said he believes some former Loami firefighters will step forward to fill in as needed. “This community is a good community,” he said. “It’ll pull together.