Sunday, March 9, 2008

4 Minutes, 22 Seconds

Yesterday I was paid $250.00 by a focus group to be part of a mock jury. As I filled out a checklist beforehand regarding my familiarity with certain companies or law firms, I sensed what trial would be covered. Back in October of 2003, a fire broke out at 5 PM on a Friday. We listened to the prosecuting attorney (in abbreviated form) and the defense attorneys. We watched videos and we listened to 911 tapes. Six people died and twenty-two injured, all from smoke inhalation. The entire "event," including our "deliberation," took eight hours.

I have written about the Our Lady of Angels fire in 1958, the fireman Richard Scheidt in the photo lives only blocks away in Oak Lawn. I've read transcripts of calls made from the World Trade Center and seen images of falling bodies from both fires, the kids at the Catholic school jumping from the second floor. I've read transcipts of the phone calls from United 93, and of the people on the left aisle of Flight 175 talking to their families, and as the plane tilted enough they could see their target was the South Tower. But never were those calls heard in their entirety, only described, from FoxNews to Wikipedia. Much of the OLA fire was written up in LOOK magazine. More quotes, made distant by time.

Yesterday I listened to a 911 call made by a woman whose name I will always remember. She called from her cell phone while on the 12th floor of the burning building. The 911 call taker tried to keep her talking, keep her conscious. The call lasted for four minutes and twenty-two seconds. We heard the voices and saw the transcript via PowerPoint and a court reporter. The woman talked and prayed, her voice getting weaker. I always hate the phrase "fell unconscious" as if it is a conscious thing to do, or whatever I'm trying to say. This woman lost consciousness after almost four and a half minutes that the twelve of us listened to. And then she died. The fire started at 5:00, the first ladder truck arrived at 5:03. The woman's body, and five others, were found at 6:50 PM. I've heard that woman's voice for over twenty-four hours now.........Wayne


Lana Gramlich said...

This post was almost painful to read...

Charles Gramlich said...

This puts a human face (so to speak) on the tragedy. the one trial I sat on hit me like this. I still wince when I think of it.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if you saw the documentary WTTW did about the OLA fire, hosted by John Calloway. Usually Channel 11 drops the ball on stuff like that, but that one was pretty good. Growing up in Chicago at the time, many of my teachers would refer to the OLA fire, but rarely ever really spoke about it. They just mentioned it and shuddered. The whole city had a hard time talking about that fire. It traumatized everyone.

The 1950s are often thought of as some sort of Leave It to Beaver Neverland by people who are too young or who paint with far too broad a brush (to capture the shrinking attention spans). But as far as Chicago went there were the Peterson-Schuessler murders, the Grimes sisters murders (the two went to the Brighton on their last day alive) the Our Lady of the Angels fire, Emmett Till's open casket visitation ... I'm probably forgetting a lot of things, but the point is that it wasn't a pretty world.

Not that it's gotten any prettier in some respects. Evil just keeps changing tactics, though it's the same old nightmares.

-- Rich

Steve Malley said...


I don't know what else to say...

Lana Gramlich said...

BTW, if you get a chance, please vote for my drinking story; "My First & Last Experience with Scotch."

HemlockMan said...


They could have kept their $250 to keep something like that out of my head.

Of course one has no idea what one is walking into.

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

I'll be interested in seeing that piece on the fire in the county offices.

I remember that night pretty well. I was on my way to my nephew's first communion that night. My brother worked about a block away, in the old Title and Trust building. Pam works over on Wacker.

I remember that building when it was the Bank of Tokyo building back in the early '70s. It was part of the underground system I used to get around the Loop on rainy days. I could get from the Bank of Tokyo to the Randolph I.C. Station without a drop falling on me.

The ball was dropped in oh so many ways with that fire. I knew from the radio reports that something was going terribly wrong with the way that fire was handled, but with a building pretty much run by the county (and a firm that sweethearted the building's management) I couldn't expect much better.

If I'm not mistaken, I bought a copy of TO SLEEP WITH THE ANGELS for my brother a few Christmases ago. He's an architect who works with a lot of other architects and contractors to make sure their projects are up to code. He was an "expert witness" on a couple of the E Nightclub stampede investigations. TO SLEEP is a remarkably detailed book, very well researched.

-- Rich