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Phillip D. Rios and Karen Rios, his wife of 42 years.

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Phillip D. Rios, sole survivor of 1981 Loop crane disaster that killed 5, has died at 67

A construction worker on the James R. Thompson Center in downtown Chicago, he and the others plummeted about 10 stories. He treasured his second chance at living.

Phillip D. Rios and Karen Rios, his wife of 42 years.
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Three days into a new construction job, Phillip D. Rios entered the metal bucket that would hoist him several stories in the air to work on what would become the James R. Thompson Center.

He was thrilled about becoming an apprentice oiler. At 28, he was married and had an 18-month old daughter, Sarah.

He’d discovered the crane-hoisted cage would do a stomach-churning drop before going back up. So each time he went up, he gripped the sides. Hard.

On Dec. 11, 1981, “He was waiting for it to come, that drop,” said his wife Karen. “It came, but it didn’t go back up. It broke free.”

The bucket fell, Mr. Rios recounted in a 1993 interview with the Chicago Tribune.

“I hear the wind. Everything is moving real fast. I’m focused on those beams,” he said. “I know I’m going to die. I’m thinking about my daughter ... and how my daughter is not going to remember me.”

The crash sent him plummeting about 100 feet — six stories above ground and four stories farther into a 40-feet-deep excavation pit.

“All the other men fell out of the cage,” his wife said.

Still gripping the sides of the basket, “He landed between these two huge bracings,” she said. “He was still hanging on.”

He said later he heard moaning and realized the moans were his own.

The five men riding with him were killed, and he was left with a fractured back, ruptured spleen, and arm and knee injuries.

But he lived. “A miracle, a total miracle,” his wife said.

When Gov. James Thompson visited him in the hospital that day, Mr. Rios told him, “Just get ahold of my wife and take care of her.”

In some ways, Karen Rios said, he started living that day: “God not only saved him in his physical life but saved him in his spiritual life. He would say he was born again in December of 1981.”

Karen Rios after the 1981 crane accident at the Thompson Center site that killed five workers and left her husband Phillip, the sole survivor, with severe injuries.
Karen Rios after the 1981 crane accident at the Thompson Center site that killed five workers and left her husband Phillip, the sole survivor, with severe injuries.
Sun-Times file

Every year, his daughter said, “We, as a family, celebrate the day of my dad’s accident and commemorate those who died and pray for their families.”

Mr. Rios recovered from his injuries and lived another 38 years. He and his wife had a second daughter, Kristen. And he got to see six grandchildren grow up.

“He was so thankful,” his wife said.

But in the first years after the accident, the sole survivor of one of Chicago’s deadliest worksite disasters “was questioning God,” she said. “He had fears.”

Mr. Rios thought about how close he’d come to death, how his eldest daughter almost grew up without him. He struggled with guilt, asking, “Why God? Why me? Why did these other men die?”

Sometimes, the memory was painfully strong. “Every time we would get on an elevator, you could just see the concern,” his wife said.

A decade after the accident, “He gave his life to Jesus Christ, and so did I,” she said. “Our faith became deeper.”

A successful lawsuit provided some money — enough to cover medical bills and help pay for their girls’ education.

“If the money had been astronomical,” she said they reasoned, “that might have taken over.”

Grateful for his second chance, they helped start a marriage ministry, promoting date nights and bringing couples to national marriage conferences.

Mr. Rios changed careers. He went back to college, studying at the University of Illinois to be an occupational therapist. His specialty was helping injured workers — some of them also suffering with PTSD and other trauma — heal and return to work.

On his office wall, he kept a newspaper picture of the 1981 accident.

The Chicago Sun-Times front page after Phillip D. Rios survived a 1981 Loop construction accident that took the lives of five other workers.
The Chicago Sun-Times front page after Phillip D. Rios survived a 1981 Loop construction accident that took the lives of five other workers.

“That was a great conversation starter, for the ability for him to say, ‘I know exactly what you’re going through,’” his wife said. “He was able to help them physically but emotionally as well.”

Mr. Rios, 67, a longtime Riverside resident, died Feb. 10 at the University of Chicago Medical Center of complications from leukemia. Doctors had removed one of his arms in a bid to fight an advancing infection.

Before he died, “He came back three times on the [operating] table,” his wife said. “He was a fighter. I think it was his Marine training.”

At his funeral, after about 1,300 people came to pay their respects, Woodlawn Funeral Home stopped counting.

Young Phillip grew up in Pilsen, the son of Robert, a National Lead Co. laborer who immigrated to America from the city of Torreon in the state of Coahuila, Mexico. His mother Mary, who was from Iowa, was a community services coordinator for the Urban Progress Center.

He attended St. Procopius grade school and played softball at Harrison Park but got into trouble when he got involved with a gang, his wife said. A judge gave him a choice: “It was either jail or the Marines.”

So, at 17, he found himself serving in Japan.

After the military, he returned to Chicago, where, attending a wedding, he recognized 16-year-old Karen Gonzales. She’d caught his eye at a previous wedding. He asked her out for a picnic.

“We had a wonderful time,” she said, “and when he dropped me off, he kissed me at the door. I went inside, shut the door and kind of slid down the door. And I knew he was the one.”

Phillip and Karen Rios on their wedding day.
Phillip and Karen Rios on their wedding day.

Three years later, they were married. They lived in Chicago, Woodridge and Cicero before settling in Riverside.

As an occupational therapist, he guided patients in clinics at MacNeal Hospital, WorkRight, HealthSouth, Accelerated and finally Athletico, according to his wife.

Larry B. Love, a co-worker, said, “Phil taught me through his conviction that peace outweighs any adversity or challenge.”

“He always challenged people to do the hard thing,” said Troy Okoniewski, a friend. “To love as we have been loved.”

Mr. Rios is also survived by his sisters Margaret Kalter, Irene Basurto and Josephine Sanchez and brothers Robert, Leonard and Edward.

Phillip and Karen Rios with their family.
Phillip and Karen Rios with their family.

Throughout his 42-year marriage, he and his wife always made time for date nights. They liked having dinner at Emilio’s Tapas. And his favorite movie was “The Last of the Mohicans.”

“He said to me, ‘Oh, Karen, you’re gonna love it because it’s a love story,’ ” she said.

When they would part, he sometimes quoted a famous line from the film: “You stay alive, no matter what occurs, I will find you.”

Phillip and Karen Rios loved dancing.
Phillip and Karen Rios loved dancing.

They enjoyed salsa dancing and the music of Celia Cruz, Marc Anthony and Ricky Martin. In the past year, Mr. Rios was studying videos to try to learn steppin.’

“We would move the furniture,” his wife said. “He would put on his bowling shoes that would make him slide better, and we would dance right here in our living room.”

Even near the end, at the hospital, while he was in his bed, they danced.

“On Sunday, the day before he died, I put on some music,” Karen Rios said. “ I grabbed his hands. We danced.”

Karen and Phillip D. Rios.
Karen and Phillip D. Rios.


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