EDITORIAL: Down in flames

Bill Wilson / March 10, 2011

This time it was a bus knocking over the lantern.

Just about everybody knows the folklore behind the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, when Farmer O’Leary’s cow kicked over the flaming light source and charred everything but the water tower, a pumping station and a couple of churches.

However, on Feb. 1 it was a four-wheeled beast of the roads doing the greatest amount of damage. During the dawning stages of the Great Blizzard of 2011, a CTA bus spun out on Lake Shore Drive (LSD)—and hundreds of motorists were caught in the line of fire. The remains were sprawled out over about a 2-mile stretch the next morning.

By this time you would think the city of Chicago would have a pretty solid fire prevention plan in place. After all, these sparks have been caught flying at least twice before—in 1967 and ’79. Now, the Blizzard of ’67 was a paranormal event. The weather technology at the time simply could not predict the magnitude of the storm, and before they could call in the National Guard, cars were choking on the powder dumped on the LSD. However, 12 years later meteorologists were a much sharper bunch, but that did not stop the city of Chicago from dumbing down its response. Once again, traffic loads of stranded bystanders were left to their own devices on the drive along the lake.

This latest bomb launched by Jack Frost did not sneak up on anybody. Some even had time to warm up to it by participating in a Name that Blizzard contest—Snowmaggedon, Blizzaster and even Snowprah were being tossed around for days leading up to the event. Yet, Mayor Richard Daley’s army once again fell asleep at its post. Perhaps it just thought it had enough firepower, but as it turns out these snow warriors were holding cork guns.

Chicago officials were handed severe-weather intelligence on not one, but two life-threatening movements. There was the blizzard warning, but also a marine warning due to the threat of 20-ft waves being thrown down by Lake Michigan. Word of these two dangers should have been enough to drop the barricades on the LSD, but for some reason nobody lifted a finger. They just watched as the blizzard delivered punishing blow after punishing blow, and when the possibility of making it through the night without serious incident was dropped to the canvas they listened to the 10-count and then left the fighter, or in this case fighters, lying there motionless for hours. It was not before 3 a.m. when the city decided to send a rescue team in and pull out the weary travelers. For most, that translated into excruciating hours sitting in park.

I would like to think weather terrors like this serve as good practice for a city’s emergency response. So, you know, if and when a dirty bomb makes its presence known, those at the controls will be ready. However, Chicago made the type of mess that blows a reputation to smithereens.

Let’s start with the guilty bus. The city was well aware of the spin-out threat, but still allowed the blizzard-bumbling boxes on the LSD. At the very least someone should have initiated a temporary bus ban on the route. Then we have the lack of communication. Many of the stranded motorists said they did not receive a single word on the situation until police and firefighters arrived in the dawning hours. Didn’t this call for an emergency broadcast message over the entire radio-listening area? Informing drivers on what exactly they needed to do may have prevented some of them from abandoning their vehicle hours before the official rescue. And why did it take so long for emergency responders to pull these souls from the stalled rubble? Police and fire should have been on the scene well before midnight. Imagine if this was a real fire. With what transpired I do not think even the water tower would have a fighting chance.

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