Sunday, June 20, 2010

A lesson from today's fire

Note: I'll proofread this and fix the tenses tomorrow. I get up at before sunrise, so this is quite late for me.


As I came back from my hike today, about 2 1/2 hours ago, I noticed that I was hearing a lot of sirens, more than I had ever heard before. Far more. Not being in the Fire Department, nor seeing any flames coming out of my building, I decided not to think about it for the moment, and went in to do my shopping.

A few minutes later, I found myself in the very short checkout line, listening to somebody talking about what was happening, and noticing that I was now hearing more sirens, not fewer. Not a good sign. I asked what was happening. The lady I was talking with said that smoke was pouring out of all of the subway grates from downtown and northward. This raised two possibilities, either of which would have been plausible.

1. The rumors were greatly exaggerated, the fire being nowhere close to being as large as people thought it was, and the city then responded with the level of fiscal restraint we've come to expect out it.

2. The rumors were not exaggerated.

Possibility one turned out to be correct, but I wouldn't know that until a few minutes ago. I'm visiting a member of my family, right now, and being in a mad rush to catch the train out to his place, I had to wait until I got out here before I could go online. That need for speed made possibility two much more interesting. Think about it, and you'll see why.

Go into the subway, when it's open again, and look around. What materials do you see? A lot of concrete, not quite as much steel, tile along the ceiling in some of the refurbished stops ... materials that aren't very flammable. There are those funny, stubby little half ties that could probably burn, especially since the ground under the tracks looks like it might have a few decades worth of oil dripping accumulated on it, but that's something one would expect to see as the fuel for a small fire, not something that stretched as far as some people were claiming it did, or would just such a massive and expensive response on the part of the fire department. What could produce that much fire and smoke, in such a relatively nonflammable environment. I could only think of one possibility offhand.

If somebody had firebombed the El while it was underground, the walls of the tunnel would have channeled the blast and the heat, allowing both to travel further. Certainly, such things have happened in allied countries in the not so distant past, as the people in Madrid know all too well. If this was the case, I thought, skipping the train ride today might not be a bad idea. Remember 911? Hitting multiple targets in rapid succession is somebody's style.

"A remote possibility", I think to myself, but as returning from the dead seems to be quite difficult, at the time I'm thinking that I might want to make a reasonable effort to be sure that the worst has not occured. If I find out that it has, I'll know to stay home and wait until everything calms down. Surely, I'm thinking, finding out whether or not it had happened shouldn't be too difficult. We're talking about the primary public transportation route right under our feet; if the place had turned into a crematorium, I'm thinking that the city or at least somebody in the city probably would notice that, so there should be no mystery on that point, right?

As I walk down the street toward the bus, I pass a Chicago police officer who has blocked off one lane on State Street, not really a good sign, especially on a day when the Cubs are playing, and the city wants to do what it can to keep traffic flowing smoothly. The lane she has her patrol car obstructing is the southbound lane, roughly in the direction of where trouble would be in a worst case scenario. I and somebody else ask her why State Street is being blocked off and what's going on.

She has no idea. Great.

So, I call ahead, and ask the family member to please check Google news, searching under "Chicago" and "Subway", which got me nowhere, because said family member stubbornly refused to understand the request, doing a Google web search under "Chicago", "Subway" and "News". But, he asked, since I didn't know one way or another, wouldn't it be a better idea for me to stay at my place until we cleared this up?

Well, no, actually it wouldn't, I tried to explain to him - if I ran away from every potential threat I encountered, in the absence of reliable information, I wouldn't be able to get through my day. This is the nature of life in a major city. One sees a certain number of things that might not be right, one does one's best to get timely information so one can make an informed choice, and then one muddles one's way though the calculated risks one ends up with. Plus, I thought to myself, everybody I've talked to, today, knows nothing, doesn't seem to be on the way to knowing anything, and seems immensely comfortable with this in a very self-satisfied kind of way, so when is the confusion going to end, anyway? Might as well keep going, which worked out fine.

But I was left with a few observations:

1. The fire department really over did it. 19 injuries, and then need more trucks for that, than can arrive during the half hour it took for me to buy and wolf down my dinner before departure? No, I wasn't there, but it does seem like a severe waste of the taxpayers' money. I also wonder what would have happened if a much larger and more serious blaze had broken out elsewhere, when so many of the city's engines were in that one place. Overkill doesn't just come at the expense of our budget, it comes at the expense of our safety.

2. The family member, who I'll leave unnamed, really needs to work on his listening skills. I mean, a lot. But then, I suppose I knew that.

3. If there ever is a terrorist incident in Chicago, we will not be ready for it, and the city needs to do something about that, today. The police are the front line people for dealing with the public during an emergency - a small one in this case (19 injured), but they're not always going to be small. If they don't have enough information to intelligently answer the question "is it a good idea to go this way, and why is the street blocked off", then during a real crisis, a lot of us are going to end up stumbling into places where we shouldn't be at the time.

How hard can it be, to just tell the beat officers, in general terms, what is happening? Even in the far less threatening situation that we did have, putting that knowledge in the officer's hands wouldn't have meant our knowing that visiting anywhere near Water Tower Place wouldn't have been our best choice at the moment. Which given our proximity to that location would have been useful information, information that could keep some of my neighbors from unintentionally stumbling into the way of people who have work to do.

3. Mentally, the people I ran into didn't seem to know what era they were in, expressing absolute assurance that a terrorist incident couldn't possibly happen here. Guys ... do you remember the little incident that began the Afghan war? You know, the one we're still in? Pair of really big office towers in New York, pair of airplanes slamming into them ... ring any bells? The Madrid subway bombings were only six years ago and ... oohh, looky, looky ... they came as coordinated attacks.

So, mentally, the people I encountered didn't even seem prepared for the concept, which would be an amazingly poor tribute to their judgement were we living in a safe place, but we are not. We never have been. Chicago's reputation for violence is not undeserved. One grows up with the idea that one peers around the corner ever so slightly before crossing an alley so one doesn't get grabbed at night, of taking the pedestrian bridge (with its long lines of sight) instead of the viaduct when in doubt - of travelling with one's eyes wide open, alert to what trouble might arise so that one can get out of its way, quickly, because if you wait until trouble arises before you look, it's too late. So, the idiocy that I witnessed today, on this point, was really quite mystifying. It was like running into a group of people from Alaska, who couldn't understand the notion of hypothermia.

We're talking about people living in a city that, not so long ago, was the murder capital of the United States, having more murders per year than New York. Note what I just said. Not more murders per capita. More murders period than a city that, at 8 million people, has well over twice our population and a fairly bad reputation of its own. So, where does this "gosh, you mean people could be mean" stuff come from?

4. At my earliest opportunity, as finances allow, I need to get myself a blackberry, so if the moment does come, I might be able to check with somebody who has a clue, and access to real information.

Mentally, at no point was I assigning the worst case scenario (the second) anything other than a very low probability, but walking in without looking when things are looking a little off is a very bad habit to get into, not good for one's longevity.

I'm going with lesson 4 as being the important one. Certainly, it's by far the easiest one to act on.