When in Chicago, look up: The ice might be falling

March 06, 1994|By ROGER SIMON

CHICAGO -- I pick up my friend at the Tribune Tower, and we walk up Michigan Avenue to find a place for lunch.

As we walk, he brags about how well Chicago handles snow.

"Look at these streets," he says. "Do you see any snow on them?"

There is no snow on them. And it is not because all the snow has melted.

Huge dump trucks rumble down the streets carrying small mountains of snow. The snow is dumped in the Chicago River or on the frozen lakefront.

Snow removal has become a mania for this city ever since it cost a mayor his job.

Michael Bilandic, who became mayor when Richard J. Daley died, failed to remove the snow after one storm in 1979. And people were furious.

Bilandic had forgotten the essential rule of machine politics: People will forgive corruption, as long as the goods get delivered.

But Bilandic failed to deliver the goods: he failed to clear the

streets. And a few weeks later, he was voted out of office.

So today, before they do anything else, mayors remove the snow.

We walk along Chicago's Magnificent Mile, past upscale stores and high-rise buildings and past signs I have never understood.

They say: "Caution. Falling ice."

But what "caution" are you supposed to use when you see those signs? Are you supposed to put on your hard hat? Cross the street?

In reality, I do what nearly everybody does when they see such a sign: I look up.

This is not a good thing to do.

We walk a few blocks until we get to Neiman-Marcus, the fancy department store. The sidewalk is blocked by saw horses and a half-dozen cops.

I ask one of the cops what is going on.

"Big piece of ice fell off the building and hit some guy on the head," he says.

He hurt? I ask.

"Oh, yeah," the cop says.

In fact, the man is dead.

He was Donald Booth, 48, of Brookfield, Wis., a suburb of Milwaukee.

He and his daughter, Amanda, 16, had taken the train down so she could take a series of career guidance tests.

Booth had taken the day off from his job at Briggs & Stratton, a motor manufacturer, though he had taken a briefcase full of work with him.

At 10 a.m., he dropped off his daughter. He told her he was going sightseeing and would pick her up for lunch at noon.

It was a pretty nice day. Early flurries had ended, the wind had died, the temperatures were just above freezing.

And the ice was melting.

At 11:45 a.m. Booth passed by Neiman Marcus.

I don't know if he looked up or not. But a chunk of ice -- "the size of a microwave," one cop would later say -- fell on his head.

Northwestern Hospital is just two blocks away, but Booth was dead on arrival.

Noon came and went, and his daughter waited for him. She waited and waited until the testing center grew worried and called the police and learned what had happened.

Booth's widow, Dawn, talked to Mary Schmich, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

"He was very much a family man," Dawn said. "Education was very important to him. That's why this trip meant a lot to him. He worked very hard at his job, but was home every night for dinner. On the weekends he was there for us. He was very involved in the church.

"He was your everyday kind of guy who gets looked over. He never did anything outstanding, but he was just a pillar of strength all the time."

In May 1991, a pedestrian was killed in Chicago when a plywood board blew off a high-rise building. But this was the first time anyone had ever been killed by falling ice.

People in the city couldn't stop talking about it. Tens of thousands of people stream past the store each day. I used to live four blocks away. My friend passes the spot twice each day going to and coming from work.

There are many ways to die in a big city. But nobody expects ice to be one of them.

Up and down the avenue, store owners who had not put them out before, now hurried to put out their signs:

Caution. Falling ice.

Which doesn't do you all that much good.

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