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5/3/04 Drowning due to Meigs closure?

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Has the destruction of Meigs Field already cost lives?

It could be.

On Sunday, April 25, 2004, a distress call for "something in the water" was received by the Chicago Fire Department.  The CFD's helicopter rescue squad was formerly based at Meigs, but is now located 10 miles farther south, near the Illinois-Indiana border.  With the extra transit time, by the time the helicopter could reach the distress call at 5800 North, nothing could be seen in the lake any longer.

Probably a false alarm...this time.  But what about when it happens for real?  How many lives must be lost before something is done?

Read the whole account by "Chicago Ed" Schwartz, published in the Lerner Newspapers on May 3, 2004.

May 3, 2004                                                             © Lerner Newspapers



The destruction of Chicago's lakefront airport was not done with any concern for public safety. The midnight rip-up of Meigs Field forced the eviction of the Chicago Fire Department's Air-Sea Rescue Unit without warning the night the bulldozers came to crunch.

The rescue helicopters so vital to lakefront, river and lagoon responses have been dispatched from the far south side since the night they were tossed out of Meigs. Facilities for them were built on the lakefront near the Calumet Harbor Coast Guard Station.

The Navy Pier area is Chicago's hottest tourist attraction. In warm weather the lake is a magnet. Before Meigs Field disappeared, in an emergency the fire department could launch a rescue copter with onboard rescue diver and respond to Navy Pier in three or four minutes. It was a matter of the personnel running out the door at the Meigs Fire Station and quickly warming up the copter. They had priority take-off status. Everything halted until they were airborne.

If a 911 call for that same helicopter came today, pull up a chair and make yourself comfortable. It's going to be a few minutes. A few too many minutes. A fire department pilot wishing to remain nameless told me after the move to the "new" south side home that it was too far away and added much flight time to their area of greatest service. Now I can demonstrate just what he meant.
Sunday afternoon (April 25) a call to 911 reported a person in distress in the lake off off a north side beach. Fire department land units were sent led by a battalion chief. The fire boat berthed at the Jardine Water Filtration Plant was sent, and a helicopter with diver was dispatched from it's base on the far south side at 9500 South on Lake Michigan.

The land based units arrived at the incident location and reported the possibility of "something" in the water several hundred yards off shore. A few minutes later the chief radioed "where's that helicopter?" The answer to that question was the helicopter was on the way and at that moment they were over the lakefront at 5500 south. That would have put them just passing the Museum of Science and Industry. There was still a long way to go. The distress call was about 5800 north.
The first rescue unit to arrive was a police marine unit. The helicopter eventually arrived. The fire boat never got there and was returned to it's berth. A fire department spokesman later told me no victim was located. However, I don't know if it was a false report or too much time elapsed and the "victim" was lost. I tend to think it was a false report. It is a safe assumption, but I'm using it to make a point. If the copter unit was still at Meigs the copter and rescue diver could have been there to handle this call in six or seven minutes. When the unit was moved from Meigs to 95th street inquiring reporters were told this would add "only a couple of minutes" to response times. Wanna Bet?
The majesty of spring and glory of summer will soon bring millions to the Pier, lakefront, harbors, beaches, lagoons, museum campus and other treasures of Chicago's postcard lakefront. None of those people, tourists or citizens was considered when the midnight madness at Meigs Field was launched without a moments thinking about public safety.

Meigs Field should be restored to accommodate the Chicago Fire Department Air-Sea Rescue Unit, or another location with minutes of Navy pier should be found immediately. How many people cruise nightly on those dinner boats? What are we waiting for?


Almost two years ago Mayor Daley, then Gov. Ryan, and representatives of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the US Coast Guard held a very impressive news conference to announce the new joint Marine Safety Station to be constructed just south of Navy Pier. The facility was to occupy the space once used for the Randolph Street Coast Guard Station.

To quote Mayor Daley that September morn, "It's always gratifying when the three levels of government can put jurisdictional concerns aside and work together on behalf of all the people-not just the people of Chicago, but people throughout Illinois and across the nation."

According the the Mayor's own news release the city, state and federal government all committed two million dollars to the project. A spokesman for the Coast Guard told me last fall the new facility should be done late this summer. I was eagerly awaiting this six millior dollar joint headquarters.


The new Chicago Marine Safety Station is still nothing but a blueprint. Not a nail driven nor a paintbrush lifted. All promise, no action.

The Chicago Police Marine Unit now operating seven boats is headquartered in two temporary trailers near what is supposed to become their eventual home, if any of the promises are ever kept.

The new lakeside safety station was supposed to house units of the police marine unit, the state conservation police and units of the Coast Guard. Now at the start of a new boating season the Fire Department Air-Sea rescue unit is almost in Indiana, and this new safety headquarters next to Navy Pier has been forgotten.


According to Mayor Daley's own news release 75% of Lake Michigan boating traffic occurs near downtown Chicago.

Schwartz here again to inform you that the closest Coast Guard units operate out of Wilmette Harbor and Calumet Harbor. If you're a boater in distress, a swimmer in trouble, or some other water or lakeside problem in need of solving from other than shore-side help, here's what we have in the inventory:


Do I dare ask whatever happened to the six million dollars that was earmarked for the Marine Safety Station? A veteran supervisor with the police marine unit told me that not a day goes by when he and other officers don't talk and worry about a mass casualty incident in the Navy Pier/downtown lakefront area and our level of preparedness. The conversation rolled right around to how far away the air rescue capability had been moved because the fire department copters were closer to Northwest Indiana than downtown Chicago.

Ed Schwartz

e-mail Ed

©Ed Schwartz 2003-2004


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