4 dead in fiery wrong-way crash: 'I'm lost for words, it hurts so bad'

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Jason Wepsiec spent Sunday evening watching the Super Bowl and wishing his beloved Bears were on the field.

After the game, he left his home in Sauk Village and headed to his fiance's place in Plainfield, which was closer to the unemployment office he planned to visit in the morning.  He never made it.

Wepsiec, 34, was driving his Ford Escort down Interstate 80 when an Infiniti going the wrong way plowed into him in a fiery collision near Hazel Crest around 2:15 a.m. Wepsiec was killed, along with three of the four people in the other car.

“He was just trying to come out and be with me," said Kelli Minger, 23. “I can’t believe this happened.”

Wepsiec was nearing Kedzie Avenue when he was hit by the Infiniti, driven by Gustavo Vargas of Berwyn and carrying three of his buddies after a stop at the Skybox gentlemen's club in south suburban Harvey.

Vargas had been on I-294 but had mistakenly taken the turn onto westbound I-80, police said. Vargas, 28, then made an illegal U-turn and headed east in the westbound lanes to get back to northbound Tri-State Expressway, according to state police, who interviewed the sole survivor in the Infiniti.

The car exploded into flames after striking the Escort. Troopers managed to pull one person away from the burning wreckage. “Two of our troopers were able to rescue one of the passengers, and they attempted to rescue another passenger, but that’s when the car burst into flames,” said Master Sgt. Timothy Tyler.

Three people in the Infiniti died: Vargas, the driver; Jorge Pina, 27, of Chicago, was a passenger in the front; and Armando Ruiz, 29, who was sitting in the back, according to the state police. Eduardo Rodriguez, 31, of Cicero, the other passenger in the Infiniti, was stable at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, authorities said.

Alcohol is suspected as a factor in the crash, according to another state trooper, Ivan Bukaczyk.

“It makes me sick. I just don’t know how can someone do a U-turn in the middle of the interstate," Wepsiec’s mother Susan said through heavy sobs. "I’m lost for words, it hurts so bad.”

Wepsiec had battled drug and alcohol abuse, but had been living a clean life and wanted to find work and an apartment for himself and Minger. “We were going to be working on his resume to be able to get his life together to seriously get down business to get jobs and better our lives,” Minger said.

She said it wasn’t unusual for her fiancé to drive out to visit in the early morning hours. But this time, she had a bad feeling. He told her he was leaving his home at 1:50 a.m., but at 2 a.m. he called and said he’d been delayed.

"I called him about 10 or 15 minutes later because I had gotten up and looked outside and was trying to let him know not to come because it was too foggy and I didn’t want anything happen to him,” Minger said through tears.  “I was actually a minute and half to two minutes too late calling him.

"I had a feeling after him not coming within 25 minutes that something had happened but I didn’t want to believe something happened until it was confirmed.” Minger said. She found out about the accident when Wepsiec’s parents called early this morning.

Wepsiec had been laid off from a baked goods factory about six months ago and was receiving unemployment payments. He needed to visit the government office to show them his job search progress, Minger said.

“He had a tough run in with drugs and alcohol but he was changing his life around and we were bettering ourselves together,” Minger said.

She and his parents said Wepsiec loved classic rock and playing his guitar – though singing wasn’t his strong suit, Minger said laughing. “He tried. When he sang, certain songs, especially to me he had the best voice in the world.”

Wepsiec, the youngest of two, was considered by his parents a miracle child. He was born with a hole in his heart, but pulled through after open heart surgery in 1978, his father James Wepsiec said. The early health problems left Wepsiec  “the runt of the litter,” his father said.

"A parent doesn’t want to bury their child,” James Wepsiec said through tears, his wife crying in the background. “We are supposed to go first.”

Eduardo Rodriguez’s sister Rose Rodriguez said her brother suffered a broken left arm and pinkie finger and was undergoing surgery late Monday afternoon.  His sister, who was reached by telephone, said friends told him about the fate of his companions.

“He was terrified to find out that his friends died,’’ she said. “He can’t believe it.’’

“I am grateful that he is alive,’’ she said of her brother, who explained what unfolded moments before the collision.

He believes Gustavo hit the accelerator instead of the brake and began going “really fast’’ after making the u-turn and getting on the highway the wrong way.

Eduardo heard Jorge scream, “I’m burning, I’m burning,’’ and he tried to save him, she said.

Then next thing he remembers was a woman pulling him out of the car, who he called an “angel,’’ she said.  There were no reports of a woman being on the scene.

The group visited another bar prior to going to Skybox, and she said she had warned the group before they went out that someone should be the designated driver.  

Both siblings said they are not holding any grudges and are praying for the victims’ families, she said.

In Cicero, Vargas' brother Israel said he was devastated when he heard the news. “It was the worst thing you ever could imagine.”

Israel Vargas said his brother was born with spina bifida, a birth defect in which the bones of the spine do not close. He got around on crutches but also kept a wheelchair in his car.

Gustavo worked as a door-to-door salesman for IGS Energy, which sells natural gas to residences as an alternative to Peoples Gas. “Even though he was handicapped, he would walk up the stairs and never complain,” said Israel Vargas. “He always had a positive attitude.”

Gustavo had lived with his parents for the last 20 years in an apartment above a storefront in Berwyn. His girlfriend, Elizabeth Renovato, called him “a wonderful guy” and said the two liked to go to the movies and shop. Family and friends were gathering at the apartment this morning.

The family of Armando Ruiz learned the tragic news when police came to their home in Berwyn at 5 a.m.

"We're just so shocked and hurt that he had to go so young," said Ruiz's oldest sister Maria Becerra, 37, tearing up. "But I guess it was his day. . . He was very special to us."

Ruiz was the youngest of the five siblings and went to Morton College for a year after graduating from Morton West High School in Berwyn.

Ruiz worked at a factory and lived with his mother Hermelinda, 69, and father Juan, 63 and his brother Juan Jr., 30, according to Becerra.

This past Saturday the family, who live blocks from each other, got together for a traditional Mexican dinner, Becerra said. On Sunday Ruiz, a fan of the Cubs and Bears, was home watching the Super Bowl with his parents, said another sister, Blanca Ruiz, 35.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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  • Photo: Wrong-way crash
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    The wreckage of the Ford Escort driven by Jason Wepsiec (inset) after a two-vehicle accident on westbound I-80 near Hazel Crest. Wepsiec was driving the Ford Escort when it was struck by a 1996 Infiniti driven by Gustavo Vargas, who police say was traveling the wrong way.

  • Photos: I-80 crash kills 4
    Four killed in wrong-way crash on I-80

    Alcohol is suspected in a fiery collision that killed four men on Monday, Feb. 6, 2012, when a wrong-way driver smashed head-on into another car on Interstate 80 near south suburban Hazel Crest.

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