HIGHLAND | Investigations continue into the death of Richard Haschke, 50, an off-duty Highland firefighter who died early Sunday from injuries sustained while driving a department off-road vehicle.
Fire Chief Bill Timmer said Haschke wasn’t authorized to take the Polaris Ranger out of the fire station at 2901 Highway Ave., and wasn’t responding to any incident on behalf of the Fire Department during the time of the crash.
According to a statement Sunday by Highland police Cmdr. George Georgeff, Haschke used a code known to all Highland firefighters gain entry to the station. The volunteer firefighter was accompanied by two other men – Jeffery Cifaldi, 31, of LaPorte, and Bryan Minnich, 42, of Highland.
Neither Cifaldi nor Minnich is affiliated with the Highland Fire Department, Timmer said.
Georgeff said Sunday that Haschke was turning a corner when he sped up and lost control of the vehicle causing it to overturn in the 2900 block of Condit Street, almost directly behind the fire station.
Indiana Department of Natural Resources said they responded to the crash at 3:26 a.m. Timmer said the IDNR is mandated to respond to and investigate any off-road vehicle accident that results in a fatality.
“We went to the best to investigate this,” he said.
Haschke died at the scene of blunt force trauma, according to the Lake County coroner's office. He was pronounced dead at 5:45 a.m.
Cifaldi was taken to The Community Hospital in Munster for a broken arm, according to the release from the IDNR. Minnich wasn’t injured.
None of the men in the vehicle was wearing a seat belt at the time of the crash.
The two passengers told police they had been drinking with Haschke before the crash happened, Georgeff said.
Calls to the Lake County Sheriff’s Department regarding blood alcohol levels for Haschke and whether an autopsy would be conducted weren’t immediately returned Monday.
Equipment at the fire station is always “at the ready” to response to fires and other emergencies, Timmer said. “Every second we save in preparation can mean a life.”
A resident of the 3000 block of Strong Street in Highland, Haschke had been a volunteer firefighter for a year and a half and had just finished his probationary period with the department, the fire chief said.
“He was a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Army," Timmer said. He had served in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I’m struggling with this and why he would take the ATV,” Timmer said. “The fire department has been in Highland since 1927 and I’ve been with the fire service for 35 years. We’ve never experienced this before.”
The four-wheeled vehicle was bought following then-presidential candidate Barack Obama’s appearance at Wicker Park on Oct. 31, 2008, Timmer said. Massive crowds filled the park making emergency response nearly impossible.
“We realized then that we needed more accessible equipment to through the crowds. Ambulances couldn’t get in,” he said. “This is very maneuverable.”
The department’s ATV features a small water tank and hose system to fight brush fires and a stretcher basket to transport the injured from a remote site, he said.
“We’ve used it for EMS service at Fourth of July parades and other events in town,” Timmer said. “It’s been used at multiple brush fires throughout Lake County, and we use it to patrol the dyke (levee system) along the Little Calumet River during closure exercises.”
Timmer said the Highland Fire Department is conducting an internal investigation. The IDNR and the Lake County Sheriff’s Department are also continuing their investigations.
The fire chief said it’s not known if the vehicle is repairable.