In Steven McNichols’ line of work, training, a steady hand and the bad guy’s stupidity are often what get him out alive.
But in March, McNichols, shielded in a 100-pound protective suit, entered a seventh-floor Streeterville apartment and encountered the handiwork of Theodore Hilk — a brilliant but troubled graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“I don’t know his motives, but I’m afraid that if he wanted to do bad, he could have very easily done bad,” said McNichols, an explosives technician with the Chicago Police Department’s Bomb Squad.
The volatile and highly explosive white powder found in a beaker inside Hilk’s refrigerator didn’t “do bad” that day because of Nichols’ bravery: He carried it out of the apartment in his hands.
“In my career, it was the single bravest thing I think I’ve seen demonstrated to me firsthand,” said Sean Loughran, CPD’s commander of special functions, as McNichols and colleague James Wynn were handed July Officer of the Month awards at a ceremony in the West Loop Tuesday. “Steve stepped up and, without hesitation, said: ‘I’ll put on the suit. It has to be done by hand,’ knowing full well that if something went wrong, that would have been fatal for him.”
Hilk had been found dead in his one-bedroom apartment March 24 after his concerned father drove up from Kansas and asked police to check on him. Hilk, 30, died from lidocaine and monoethylglycinexylidide toxicity, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office. His death was ruled accidental. Lidocaine is a local anesthetic used to relieve pain and is available in an injectable form, which is commonly used in dental procedures. It also comes as a gel, cream, patch, spray or eye drop.
Wayne Hilk told the Chicago Sun-Times in March that his son had “no malice in his heart for anyone or anything” and that he in addition to wanting to “cure cancer,” he “loved tools.”
McNichols and Wynn found a lot of tools in Hilk’s apartment, but they also found “chemicals on top of chemicals,” including, on the top shelf of the refrigerator, about 4 pounds of lead azide, cradled in an ice bath.
Lead azide — the size of a baby aspirin — is an ingredient used to inflate car airbags.
The bomb squad has remote-controlled robots that can be used to safely remove explosives, but Hilk’s apartment was filled with clutter, and the officers feared any sudden, jarring movement would lead to an explosion.
So after three floors of the apartment building were evacuated, McNichols reached into the refrigerator, being extremely careful not to shake the beaker.
“You just want to clear your mind. It’s weird — you just get into that state where you just have one task and that’s pretty much all your mind is thinking of,” McNichols said.
He carried the lead azide out of the apartment and gently lowered it into a basket hooked to a waiting robot. The material was later safely destroyed in a downtown parking lot.
McNichols joked that picking up explosives is like playing the children’s game “Operation,” but a lot more “dramatic.”
The police operation made the news and McNichols worried his wife, who’d recently had a baby, would hear all of the details.
“I just wanted to know how I could lie to my wife without her catching the news,” McNichols said. “I usually like to edit what she gets, but this one was going to be in the news, and there is only a few of us in the city and I was working. So she would have put two and two together.”
Ashley McNichols said she only learned about the extent of the danger her husband faced a few months after the incident.
McNichols described her husband as the most “courageous, honest, humble guy I’ve ever met.”
And what would she think if her son decided he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps?
“I already know he probably will,” she said. “How do you live with a hero every day when you’re a little boy and not want to do that?”