COOK COUNTY CRIMINAL COURTHOUSE — Former Chicago Fire Commissioner John Brooks went back into public service last week when, in the aftermath of a fatal pileup near the Stevenson Expy., he pulled an accused drunken driver from a car and held him for police.
The driver had sped down the Stevenson's exit ramp at Cicero on July 14 and barreled into several cars, killing a man and causing another man to lose a leg, prosecutors said.
His car also slammed into the Mercedes driven by Brooks, who served as Chicago's top firefighter from 2008 until 2010, when he says he was forced out amid allegations of sexual harassment. He denies the allegations.
On July 14, however, he was back in his role serving Chicago.
"When am I going to stop being a firefighter?" Brooks told DNAinfo Chicago, still aching and shaken from the fatal accident. "You never stop being a firefighter."
Bruised from the crash, Brooks made sure the man who allegedly caused the carnage, Ramon Vera, 34, didn't go anywhere.
"I saw him reverse and start to drive away," Brooks said. "So I reached in his window and pulled him out."
Prosecutors said Vera was drunk when he came off the Interstate 55 ramp toward Cicero Avenue shortly after midnight on July 14. Vera allegedly sped through the intersection, over a median and crashed head-on into northbound traffic stopped at a red light on Cicero.
Traveling 50 to 60 miles per hour, his car hit the first car, killing driver Sandro Santoya, 34, and forced the car into a panhandler, crushing his legs, prosecutors said.
A split second before Brooks saw the headlights of the car heading toward them, he said he heard Santoya say, "Oh no!"
"Time stopped for an instant," said Brooks, who responded to countless accident scenes over the course of his career as a firefighter, which began in 1980.
"I'll never forget those two eyes coming at me, and the noise. It was thunderous."
Brooks said after the impact he couldn't open the driver's side door of his mangled Mercedes. He climbed over the center console and out into the night to assess the scene.
The panhandler who had asked him for spare change moments earlier was lying crumpled on the pavement, Brooks said. Santoya was already dead. His passenger, a pregnant woman, suffered multiple broken ribs.
That's when Vera tried to make his escape, prosecutors said.
But Brooks, a hulking figure, grabbed hold of Vera and pulled him out of the car, he said. Other people at the scene came to help, and an off-duty Chicago police officer appeared to detain Vera.
In recent years, headlines about former fire commissioner have not been so heroic.
He was pushed out of the office of fire commissioner in 2010 amid claims of sexual harassment and after telling the Sun-Times: "I have never sexually harassed any woman or man in my life. I do not proposition women. I don't have to. Women usually proposition me. God has blessed me like that."
Brooks has since filed a lawsuit against former Mayor Richard M. Daley, charging he was forced to quit based on false sexual harassment accusations.
"My case is still pending," he said last week, declining to discuss the suit in detail.
Brooks is now recovering from his injuries. The panhandler, who was passing between cars asking for change, was crushed between Brooks' car and Santoyo's car. Prosecutors said he has since had his right leg amputated.
Vera, who allegedly tested positive for alcohol and marijuana, is charged with reckless homicide, four counts of aggravated DUI, driving under the influence of alcohol, driving on a suspended license, failure to reduce speed and possession of marijuana.
Prosecutors said Vera has not had a driver's license since it was suspended in 2011 for DUI.
He is being held on $350,000 bond.