Union Station is dangerous. The place is falling apart in chunks, showering debris on commuters hurrying through its dim, decaying bowels. People get hurt.
At least one person got hurt Tuesday. The Metra Milwaukee North line had just arrived on track 9 at 8:37 a.m. Passengers poured out to begin the loud, slow shuffle toward the Madison Street exit. Several pounds of concrete, blackened by soot, fell from the ceiling. A piece struck Hilda Piell, 48, of Northbrook, atop the head, fracturing her skull. She let out a cry and doubled over in pain.
A smaller chunk also struck my wife, Edie, standing in front of Piell. But it glanced off her back, and she wasn’t badly hurt.
“I thought somebody smashed me with their bag,” Edie said. “It was the debris that hit me, really hard. I turned around, thought maybe she had dropped her bag. There was still more stuff falling down.”
I was next to my wife, lost in the commuter bubble, wearing Bose noise-canceling headphones. But I felt a spray of gravel and noticed Edie was gone, so I turned to see a woman crying, my wife comforting her, commuters flowing around. I yanked off the headphones; the roar of the station turned to a howl.
Two other women stopped, one pulling out a pack of Kleenex to sop the blood. At first Piell wanted to continue to work — she’s chief human resources officer at the CME Group. But my wife pointed out that she was bleeding, a lot. Drops of blood spattered down on the platform concrete. While Piell was tended to by the two women, my wife ran for the conductor. Jonathan Sokolowski and I began collecting the big chunks that were scattered around. It seemed important to keep them.
“Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something black, I looked up, right before it hit the woman,” said Sokolowski, director of scientific strategy at Access Medical, who was behind Piell in line. “I saw her reaction; she put her hand to her head.”
“It was scary,” said Piell. “I had just gotten off the train and was standing in line to exit. I felt something hard and sharp hit the top of my head. It was forceful. I felt pain immediately, had no idea what hit me. I was a little disoriented. They convinced me to be seen by paramedics.”
She also spoke with Victor Flores from the Illinois Department of Transportation.
“I asked him if they had any other incidents of debris falling from the ceiling,” Piell said. “He said, yeah, they had, but it hadn’t hit anyone. I’m the first one to be hit by it.”
I called Flores to confirm this, but he never returned my call. Perhaps members of the public being clobbered by blocks of falling concrete is so routine it is beneath the level of official concern, their attention fully taken by their big plans to turn Union Station into some kind of shopping Xanadu. Perhaps if the cash they are spending to hire architects to design chi-chi shops for the 90-year-old station were redirected to keeping the ceiling from crashing down on passengers, Hilda Piell could have made it to work Tuesday.
Amtrak owns Union Station but not the part of it that fell, apparently, explaining “it is the responsibility of the building owners to maintain their property.” I’m not a lawyer, but I would think it becomes their responsibility when passengers hurrying through their station get bonked on the head.
Nor would Amtrak say how often this happens, though commuters on the south end of the station point to black netting there to catch something. In a statement, the railroad blamed “non-railroad structures built over the tracks” for causing “some material” to fall. It said it has closed three tracks around where the rubble fell from about 20 feet above the platform.
“The area is currently being assessed,” Amtrak said.
Piell initially was going to go to work anyway, but she “realized that going to work was not a great idea. I was literally covered in blood.”
So she went home instead and ended up at Glenbrook Hospital, being treated for a skull fracture.
She could be forgiven for feeling herself unfortunate, though it was only by luck — the size of the chunk that broke off — that Piell wasn’t severely injured or killed.
Lucky for her, lucky for Amtrak. But luck is no substitute for routine maintenance. The rubble hit two lawyers — my wife is an assistant attorney general; Piell used to be counsel at CME, both women worked together at Jenner & Block in the mid-1990s. If human decency doesn’t prod Amtrak to action, you’d think the baldest self-preservation would. But this is no big deal to them, apparently.
“The thing I found somewhat disturbing is the conductor came out, but there didn’t appear to be a whole lot of sense of urgency from anyone,” said Piell. “I didn’t see anyone rushing.”