Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Chicago Searches for Scapegoats in Heat Deaths

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Chicago Searches for Scapegoats in Heat Deaths

Article excerpt

In retrospect, an alarm did sound that death was on the way.

The alert came from Iowa, where ovenlike air was powerful enough to fell tens of thousands of cattle, turkeys, chickens and hogs. Their carcasses rotted swiftly in the sun.

"That should have been the tip-off," says Gary McCray, a physician specializing in geriatric care.

The brutal heat was headed for Chicago.

It arrived on July 12 and stayed for five days, including two consecutive days of triple-digit temperatures. At one point the thermometer at Midway Airport read 106 degrees.

Even so, no one figured that the sweltering summer of 1995 would claim the lives of more than 450 people in Cook County - most of them elderly, many of them poor, most of them living alone. No one expected fatalities on the scale of an airliner crash or the great fire that leveled the city in 1871 and killed 250.

"The city got blindsided," said one staffer with the Chicago Department of Aging. "We weren't ready."

Why the tally of the dead rose so high is a question with many answers. It has left the city divided between those who believe the tragedy was an unavoidable act of nature and those who say it could - and should - have been prevented.

The search for scapegoats is well under way.

The Illinois Commerce Commission is investigating Commonwealth Edison, the utility that lit up Wrigley Field for a Cubs night game while neighboring streets lost electricity.

Republicans in the state Senate have called for an investigation of Democratic Mayor Richard M. Daley's handling of the crisis. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will study the medical examiner's criteria for judging whether a death was linked to the heat. Daley is appointing a committee to investigate just about everything it can.

A lawyer has already filed the first class-action suit, against Commonwealth Edison.

The circumstances, they all will find, are complicated.

The combination of heat, humidity and a sky without cloud cover was unprecedented in Chicago. The center of the scorching air mass responsible for the misery across the Midwest and East Coast stalled directly over Chicago and Milwaukee, 81 miles to the north, which experienced a proportionally similar death rate.

When the heat persisted, "the red light should go on," said McCray. "Every degree above 98.6 (body temperature) is much more critical than every degree below it."

There was not even a chance for relief at night, when the thermometer hovered in the high 80s and low 90s - above the normal 84-degree daytime high for July.

***** `Act Of God'

To some people caught up in the crisis, it seemed there was little that could have been done to thwart nature's course.

"This is an act of God, a disaster akin to a hurricane or flood," Cook County Medical Examiner Edmund R. …

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