Angels among us: A suburban Chicago man’s heroic acts unite two faith communities

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So many angels seem to appear this time of year, but one of them didn’t wait for the holidays. In late October, Mike Roberson of Naperville risked his life to save a family of nine. And as WGN’s Micah Materre reports, Mike’s selfless act has united families from two faith communities.

“I was running into this darkness. I couldn’t see exactly where it landed.” It was a van that 40 year old Mike Roberson was driving behind on I-57 near Champaign, when suddenly, the van swerved, rolled repeatedly, and disappeared. “So I dialed 911 on my phone and I turned the flashlight on and then I ran up the hill. And then you could see that it landed into a huge body of water and it was upside down and you could just hear people screaming.”

Mike was heading home to the Chicago area from his uncle’s funeral near Memphis. While away, he’d received word that there was no home to return to. His fiancé had called to tell him she and their 5 year old daughter were safe. But a fire in their Naperville town home had destroyed everything. Their precious pets, dog Lily, and kitty Lexi, born Christmas day, were trapped inside. “Lexi didn’t make it,” says Mike’s fiancé Theresa Tetti.

“So small, she took a couple breaths they said…” Because of the trauma of their own tragedies, Theresa says she didn’t really understand what Mike was saying when he called from a strange phone number. He was trying to tell her about his role in an attempt to rescue a family of nine. One of those he saved was a teenage girl who then saved her mother by following Mike’s instructions.

“I told her you need to hold her nose and start blowing into her mouth, that’s how she’s gonna live. So she started doing that and I ran back down to the van cause there were more people in the van. So by the time I got back to the van, then I heard her yell that her Mom was breathing.” It was dark, cold, wet, and bloody. And the terrain made it impossible to see the overturned van from the highway. Mike’s attempts to flag down help, failed. Yet he and eventually first responders were able to save all but one, 43 year old Murtaza Rajkotwala, husband, father, and prominent teacher at the Willowbrook mosque.

“We could have had nine dead people if Mike hadn’t gotten them out,” says Aamir Chalisa, spokesman for the Al-Masjid-al-Badri mosque in Willowbrook. “Who knows what would have happened? Mike was there like an angel that came out of nowhere to save 8 people.” Three days after the van crash, the mosque community buried their beloved teacher and invited Mike and his family to meet those he had saved. Aamir captured some of it on his cellphone. “This was a very big loss for the community. The fact that on the day of his burial almost every single member of our community was there.

“In the community, we teach our children compassion and that a life spent serving others is truly a rich life. Ok. And your rich actions are an example to us all.” Mike was particularly touched by a robing ceremony, hundreds wrapping their honored guest with love. “I have no doubt in my mind that if it was me in that van that flipped over and my family, and they were behind me, they would have stopped.” “There’s a lot of good people in this world, says Mike’s fiancé Theresa. “Of all the people I told him God chose you to be on that highway and save those people.” The community also heard about an online fund set up by Mike’s sister to help cover medical and vet bills, and rebuild from the fire. Many people handed Mike cash.

And word spread among Muslims nationwide. Their donations are easy to spot because they end in 53 in honor of the 53rd man to lead this suburban Chicago community. Though dog Lily suffered smoke inhalation and cuts from broken glass, now she’s just fine. It’s Mike who’s a changed man. “You just realize I’m no better than they are, they’re no better than I am. We’re all the same.” Mosque spokesman Chalisa agrees. “When you talk about humanity there’s not based on whether you’re Muslim or Christian or a Hindu or a Jew or whatever you are, it’s just humanity. You save people in times of need.”

The Go Fund Me account has collected almost $35,000 to help Mike’s family return to life as they knew it. If you’d like to be an angel too, click this link to donate.

Producer Pam Grimes and Photojournalist Steve Scheuer contributed to this report