An Illinois state trooper awarded a lifesaving medal as a cadet was killed in a fiery collision between his patrol car and a semi on Interstate 294 south of Willow Road, authorities said.
James Sauter, 28, was on duty in his squad car when it was struck by a semi shortly after 11 p.m. Thursday, state police said. Both vehicles burst into flames and Sauter was pronounced dead at the scene.
Sauter was stopped on the shoulder of southbound Interstate 294 when the semi struck him from behind, Illinois State Police Director Hiram Grau told a news conference this morning. It was not clear whether Sauter's emergency lights were on or why he was stopped.
"Our accident reconstruction team is working," Grau said. "It was a pretty horrific accident. We don't have all the details yet."
The driver of the semi, a United Van Lines truck, was being questioned by police. He may have suffered a burned hand, Grau said, adding that the results of blood tests were not available yet.
Fellow troopers followed a flat-bed truck carrying Sauter's body, still in his charred car, down the Kennedy and Eisenhower expressways toward the morgue as Chicago police cleared traffic for the procession.
At the medical examiner's office on the West Side, a platoon of Chicago police officers and five sergeants stood watch, under a full moon, as firefighters worked to remove the trooper and bring his body into the morgue. A state police investigator circled the wrecked car and took photos as firefighters pried away sections of it.
Several state troopers stood in a line to their right in their tan uniforms. The Chicago police officers stood in formation, about ten wide, four deep, with the supervisors in the back.
As a morgue worker stepped out to the intake bay, surrounded on three sides by glossy white brick walls, an officer called out, "Attention."
The other officers stiffened, their arms at their side, as the officer ordered, "Present arm!" The officers raised their right hands in salute.
"Order arm," the officer ordered, and they dropped their arms.
"At ease." The officers brought their hands behind their backs and spread their feet in "parade rest" position.
As firefighters continued working on the car, the officers shifted their weight as sergeants stepped around the corner to answer radio calls.
As the hour went on, the officers did not break ranks but placed their hands in pockets and vests to ward off the early morning chill. Steam curled from a firefighter's head after he removed his helmet.
Sauter, a licensed pilot, had been a trooper since 2008 and had just completed a temporary assignment in the state police air operations. He was recently assigned to District 15, which covers the tollways. He is survived by his wife, Elizabeth, and family.
As a cadet, Sauter was awarded the Lifesaving Medal in October of 2008. While on his way to the state police training academy, he saw a motorcycle on its side in the eastbound lane of I-80. No emergency vehicles were there yet, so Sauter grabbed a first responder bag and crossed over the lanes to help, state police said. Sauter tended to a woman whose airway was blocked by blood. She was airlifted to a hospital and survived, state police said.
"Trooper Sauter was a very talented, wonderful police officer," Grau said. "He was with our air ops operations unit, he's a pilot, and tried that for ... a couple a months and decided, you know, he wanted to come back and work the roads. Very well-respected.
"As you can imagine, his fellow troopers, his fellow officers are devastated," he continued. "I spent some time with his wife Liz this morning and as you can imagine, very difficult time for her... They're all devastated as we are."
Sauter is the second Illinois state trooper killed in the last five months. Trooper Kyle Deatherage, 32, was struck and killed by a semi during a traffic stop the end of November along northbound Interstate 55 near Litchfield.
"Unfortunately, this is the second line of duty death within the last five months for the Illinois state police," Grau said. "Trooper Sauter represented everything good about this department."
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