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‘Cooked’: Edifying documentary sheds light on Chicago’s deadly ‘95 heat wave

Movie details how areas of minorities, the poor and the elderly suffered the most casualties.

Employees of the Cook County Medical Examiner load bodies into a refrigerated truck in the parking lot of the Chicago’s county morgue during the heat wave of 1995.
Sun-Times

Nearly 25 years later, the visuals and the stories are still shocking and horrific.

Refrigerated food trucks rolling in to serve as temporary containers for literally stacks of bodies, because the morgue couldn’t keep up.

The granddaughter of a victim recalling, “They just laid her on top of the other bodies, like she was a cord of wood.”

Bodies laid to rest in a mass grave some 160 feet long, 10 feet wide and six feet deep.

Government officials passing the buck, absolving themselves of blame — even attacking the medical examiner’s integrity.

These atrocities did not occur in a war zone, or in a developing country. This all happened in the city of Chicago, in the summer of 1995.

For those of us who were around for the Chicago Heat Wave of ’95 and were stunned and sickened as the death count rose deep into the hundreds, the new documentary “Cooked: Survival by Zip Code” is a jolting reminder of the tragedy, and a scathing indictment of the social conditions that allowed so many to die — with the overwhelming majority of victims being minorities, the elderly, the poor.

For those who don’t know the story: You need to see this movie.

Directed and produced by the brilliant, Peabody Award-winning Judith Helfand (adapting the invaluable “Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago” by Eric Klinenberg), “Cooked” starts off in curious (but eventually understandable) fashion, as Helfand takes a quick pass at natural calamities such as forest fires and hurricanes, and talks about disaster preparation efforts in general, before we land in Chicago and she begins to make the very convincing case the city was as ill-prepared to deal with the heat wave as New Orleans was to handle Katrina.

Especially in the most impoverished, most vulnerable communities.

“Heat waves kill more Americans than all of the other so-called natural disasters combined,” says Helfand. “[The tragedy of Chicago in 1995] should have seared itself into the mind and memory of every American, but it didn’t.”

On Thursday, July 13, 1995, the temperature in Chicago reached 104 — one of the highest marks on record. “Cooked” revisits the local TV news coverage of the time, and we see footage of Mayor Richard M. Daley, holding court in his usual affable if borderline incoherent manner.

“It’s very, very, very hot,” says the mayor. “We go to extremes in Chicago. And that’s why people love Chicago. We go to extremes.”

The mayor also referred to those succumbing to the heat as suffering “non-violent deaths,” to which Helfand replies in voice-over, “Being cooked to death behind closed doors seemed to me to be a pretty violent way to die.”

As the death toll continued to rise, eventually reaching nearly 800, Daley’s semi-joking tone gave way to defiant press opportunities, where he maintained “You can’t blame every death on the heat!” and questioned the findings of Cook County Medical Examiner Dr. Edmund Donoghue, who responded by inviting the mayor’s office to take a look at every single one of his findings.

Time and again, we’re reminded of the “two Chicagos,” sometimes in the same image, e.g., a number of victims of the heat were carried out of the Tokyo Hotel, an SRO right next door to a popular pizza joint where people wait for an hour or more to sample deep-dish delights.

We see charts and maps and diagrams making it clear the majority of victims were concentrated in neighborhoods where many people didn’t want to open their windows because they were afraid of intruders, couldn’t turn on the air conditioner because they didn’t have air conditioning — and were much more likely to be suffering from pre-existing conditions that were exacerbated by the heat because they didn’t have access to the quality of life and health care many of us take for granted.

And yet, as Helfnd points out again and again, while disaster preparation has become a thriving business in America, almost no one wants to talk about addressing underlying social conditions.

This point is brought home in a tragi-comic sequence where we see an elaborate tornado preparation drill in Englewood, courtesy of a $250,000 grant from the Dept. of Homeland Security. As fake victims cry out in pain while rescue personnel swoop in, the tableau is unfortunately super-realistic because it’s all taking place in an area that LOOKS as if it’s been rocked hard by a tornado.

Filmmaker Judith Helfand rides along on a federally funded, weeklong disaster preparation exercise.
Kartemquin Films

Helfand also spends time at a weeklong, seven-state disaster prep conference focusing on how to deal with the next major earthquake in the Midwest — even though the last major earthquake in that area took place in 1812.

As “Cooked” so eloquently and forcefully points out, we can pat ourselves on the back for being more prepared to respond to natural disasters than ever before — but we’ve done little if anything to address the conditions that led to nearly 800 people dying in Chicago in the summer of 1995.

For many, including yours truly, a 104-degree day was an adventure, a story we could tell, just like we talk about Chicago’s legendary cold waves and snowstorms. That’s because we could come in from the heat any time we wanted and bask in the cool comfort of our lives.

For others — our neighbors in the same city — that blast of heat was a death sentence.

Gratitude to Judith Helfand and her film for not letting us forget that.