Sunday, January 12, 2014

The tragedy behind those "Falling Ice" signs

     The warnings are out in force. Yellow plastic tripods. Big metal signs. “CAUTION: Falling Ice.” They cause a flash of unease — what to do? Look up and get a plummeting icicle in the eye? Look down and hurry past, hoping for the best? That’s what most pedestrians do.
     And wasn’t there some tragedy? Years ago. Someone killed on Michigan Avenue? 
     Yes there was. The accident dwells at the periphery of mind for many Chicagoans, a place of half-remembered horror, like an urban myth except, of course, it actually happened 20 years ago.
     Donald Booth, 48, of Brookfield, Wis., a Milwaukee suburb, was escorting his 16-year-old daughter, Amanda, to Chicago to take a college aptitude test. He was a hardworking manager at Briggs & Stratton, and a loving family man with a warm smile. Taking a day off work to ski with his children, or go to Great America, or join his middle child on the train to Chicago to take a test to see what kind of career she might be interested in was exactly the sort of thing he loved to do.
     It was Feb. 28, 1994.
     Booth left Amanda at the testing center. They planned to meet for lunch. With time to pass, he strolled south down Michigan Avenue on the unusually warm day. In front of the grand, pink granite entrance of the Neiman Marcus department store at the precise moment a 100-pound block of ice the size of a microwave oven came loose 45 feet above.
     Booth was killed instantly. Passersby covered him. Amanda waited, and waited. Her dad was always prompt; his not showing up was out of character. She ducked around the corner for lunch by herself at a sandwich shop. The lady administering the test began making calls, eventually to the police, who were already looking for her. The test administrator walked her over to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, but they wouldn’t let her see her father, wouldn’t tell her anything. Amanda’s uncle eventually met her there, drove her to her aunt’s, and her aunt drove her home.
     And if the ice warning signs are unsettling to you, imagine what they mean to Donald Booth’s daughter, now Amanda Dwyer, having married last year and working downtown for the past decade.
     “I see the signs every year,” she said. “Living in Chicago, it’s hard when I see that every winter. Obviously a constant reminder.”
     Her attitude toward the signs is not too different than the reaction of most.
     “What the hell do they mean?” Dwyer said. “Should I stand right here? Should I stand closer to the street?”
     Actually, the signs, which multiplied after Booth was killed, are not put out for the benefit of pedestrians. They’re put out to provide legal cover for building management.
     “They’re way of trying to protect themselves from liability,” said Tom Demetrio, a partner at the Chicago personal injury law firm Corboy & Demetrio. “Sometimes you will even see buildings put out little ropes to make sure you don’t walk too close to the building.”
      Demetrio represented the Booth family in their lawsuit against Neiman Marcus and Olympia & York, the company that manages the building. He said that the law states “building owners owe a duty of care to pedestrians lawfully using the sidewalks.” They have to clear ice or at least warn of it.
     Neiman Marcus did neither. Not only didn’t the luxury retailer fail to put out signs, but the building, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, tended to collect ice and had a heating system designed to prevent ice build-up at the flip of a switch. But nobody flipped the switch. The department store and the building manager paid a $4.5 million settlement to the Booths in 1999.
     While that might sound like retire-to-Tahiti money, you have to remember that the lawyers get a third. Dwyer’s mother, who had already gone back to work, and between her two brothers, it’s more a chunk of cold comfort for the loss of their father.
     Dwyer graduated from the University of Wisconsin. For the past decade, she has worked as the national sales manager for Hostelling International USA, which has its second largest hostel in the country on Congress Parkway.
      “My dad would be proud that I came back and moved to Chicago and got on with my life,” she said. “I obviously think of him often.”
     She got married last year, to the comedian Pat Dwyer, and the couple is expecting their first child at the end of April.
“I wish he could be here to meet his first grandbaby,” she said. “I’m not a very religious person, but I know he’s there. I feel him, here and there.” 
     While the threat of death-by-ice weighs on Chicagoans’ minds, and people have been killed by other falling objects—plywood sheets, crane booms—nobody in Chicago has been killed by ice since.
     “I haven’t heard of a similar type tragedy in our Chicagaoand area,” Demetrio said. “The Neiman Marcus case was unique.”
     But just because a hazard is rare doesn’t mean it doesn’t mean people don’t worry.”
     Demetrio worries.
     “I always walk loser to the curb of the street,” he said. “They usually don’t fall out that far.”
      Dwyer tries not to let it bother her.
     “I just try to keep living,” she said. “I’m not going to avoid every big building because something might fall.”
     “I don’t shop or walk around Neiman Marcus,” she said. “I do not walk that block and will probably never walk that block.”
     Otherwise, she tries to use the memory of her father as a boost to get the most out of life. She studied abroad, in France, lived abroad, and credits her father’s influence.
      “I’m such a big traveller, and for me, that’s a big part of how I’m able to continue his legacy a bit,” she said. “A big part of this is try not to take any day for granted, I get mad at myself when I do, when I get caught up in silly, small things in life, as we all do. It made us all closer. I’m very thankful for my family, my mom, who is absolutely amazing, one of my best friends. I try to remember the bigger part: we’re here for a very short time.”

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