I-55 victims remembered, mourned
By Donna Vickroy and Susan DeMar Lafferty Staff reporters July 23, 2014 9:22PM
In this Monday, July 21, 2014 photo, vehicles involved in an accident that killed four people are seen on Interstate 55 near Channahon, Ill., southwest of Chicago. On Tuesday, July 22, semi-truck driver Francisco Espinal Quiroz, 51, of Leesburg, Ind., who was involved in the crash, was charged with failure to reduce speed to prevent an accident and willfully making false entries in his logbook. (AP Photo/The Herald-News, Rob Winner) MANDATORY CREDIT ORG XMIT: ILJOL502
Updated: August 25, 2014 5:56PM
Long journeys. Short jaunts. They were busy people, focused on their busy lives when tragedy came calling.
Three of the four victims of Monday’s horrific crash on Interstate 55 were enjoying their summer vacation. The fourth was en route to work.
One woman was headed north with her daughter to visit her parents on the East Coast, another was returning with her children from a day of blueberry picking near Braidwood, a third was en route to her job in Joliet.
All were killed when Francisco Espinal Quiroz, 51, of Leesburg, Indiana, plowed his semi truck into their stopped vehicles within a road construction site on northbound I-55 near Arsenal Road, Illinois State Police said.
Police said Ulrike Blopleh, 48, of Channahon; Kimberly Britton, 43, and Piper Britton, 11, of Urbana; and Vicky Palacios, 54, of Coal City, were killed.
Britton’s husband, Tim, was injured and airlifted to a Chicago hospital, where he was reported in critical condition Wednesday.
Also injured were Blopleh’s 16-year-old daughter, who was driving the family’s Chevrolet Astro van, and two of her sons, ages 8 and 15. The boys were airlifted to hospitals, and the girl also is hospitalized, police reported.
A semi truck also was hit by Espinal Quiroz’s truck, but the driver, a 43-year-old Joliet man, was not injured, police said.
Espinal Quiroz is being held on $1 million bail and is charged with failure to maintain a log book, falsifying his log book and failure to reduce speed to avoid an accident,
Chuck Pelkie, spokesman for the Will County state’s attorney’s office, said police are looking at several factors in Monday’s crash, including Espinal Quiroz’s “vision disability,” the trucks speed at the time of the crash and his apparent failure to apply the brakes.
Espinal Quiroz has had 12 traffic-related violations between 1991 through 2013, including three speeding offenses since 2012, according to the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles.
Records at the federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration show that Espinal Quiroz has had one inspection during the past two years. On Nov. 4, 2013, he was inspected for compliance on hours of service, driver fitness and tested for use of drugs and alcohol. No violations were found.
His business, Espinal Trucking, is listed as having just the one truck, which is approved for interstate driving of loads of metal sheets, rolls and coils.
Prior to Monday’s crash, the construction zone on I-55 had 91 accidents last year and 41 this year, with 31 people injured and two killed, according to a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Transportation.
On Wednesday, family and friends of the victims struggled to cope with their deaths.
Steve Flynn, an elder with the Kingdom of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Wilmington, described member “Uli” Blopleh as “sunshine.”
“She was always smiling wherever she went,” Flynn said. “We had a convention last Sunday, and you could pick her out of the crowd because of her smile and the big sun bonnet she was wearing.”
Flynn said Blopleh, a housewife and mother of four, had three loves — her family, her ministry work and her carpentry.
“Her husband Moses says, ‘Uli was the home and the home was Uli’,” Flynn said. “She fixed everything. She built her sons’ tree fort. She built the chicken coop.”
Flynn said Blopleh learned carpentry while helping to build Kingdom Halls across the Chicago area. She worked as a carpenter, a roofer and a materials handler on projects in Momence, LaSalle-Peru and along the Chicago lakefront, he said.
“I would see her with her 16-year-old daughter at her side all the time,” Flynn said.
That daughter was driving Monday, while her mother rode in the front passenger seat.
“It was a very bad scene,” Flynn said. “Her daughter keeps saying it should have been her that was killed. She is being comforted by family and by her friends who’ve been holding her hand and sleeping in her bed with her.”
The irony, Flynn said, is that Blopleh spent many hours in her free home Bible study sessions comforting people and helping them understand why things like this happen.
A service for Blopleh will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Plainfield Kingdom of Jehovah’s Witnesses, 157 Frederick Ave., Plainfield; (815) 436-7949.
Britton, assistant director of business information systems at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is being remembered as a positive, creative woman who was “just filled with life,” her supervisor, Gloria Keeley, said.
“She was a wonderful person who deserves to be remembered,” Keeley said.
Keeley, assistant vice president of administrative services at UIUC, said Britton, who had been in the department since 2001, worked in software design and created the office’s website. She was recently promoted to manager of software development, overseeing staff on both the Urbana-Champaign and Chicago campuses.
“She spent every minute well, she always sought to be cooperative and collaborative with everyone,” Keeley said.
Outside of work, Keeley said, Britton loved to bake elaborate cakes for Piper to bring to Yankee Ridge Elementary School, where she was to start fifth grade this fall.
Britton was also a seamstress who made her own clothes, Keeley said, and loved to make fascinating costumes for Piper.
“Kim was very family-centric,” Keeley said.
Herschel Graham, who has lived next door to the Brittons for about four years, said Britton “was a wonderful neighbor.”
“She was always as friendly and nice as can be,” Graham said. “It’s just a terrible thing, that crash.”
Larry Stonitsch, president of Rovanco Piping Systems in Joliet, said Palacios was not only a valued member of the maintenance staff, she was a longtime friend to him and his wife, Cynthia.
“Sometimes you have friends who end up being family,” Stonitsch said. “Vicky was family to us.”
Stonitsch described Palacios, a graduate of Joliet East High School, as a caring, hard-working mother of four who liked to rib fellow employees.
“Everyone loved her. She was very outgoing and had a great sense of humor,” he said.
Palacios, whose husband John died in 1986, enjoyed shopping and vacationing, particularly at the beach. She had 10 grandchildren.
“We had a running battle over whose granddaughter was cuter,” he said.
A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at Messiah Lutheran Church, 40 Houbolt Road, Joliet; (815) 741-4488.