Loop Flood dampens world’s view of Chicago

The quirkiest and least lethal Chicago disaster, 30 years ago today, is not forgotten.

SHARE Loop Flood dampens world’s view of Chicago
J.J. Madia was a civil engineer who monitored the Loop tunnels to make sure they didn’t flood again. He retired last year, but the city promises that someone else is still keeping tabs on the tunnels.

J.J. Madia was a civil engineer who monitored the Loop tunnels to make sure they didn’t flood again. He retired last year, but the city promises that someone else is still keeping tabs on the tunnels.

Sun-Times file

Chicago is a city marked by disaster. Maybe even defined by it. Not only did the modern metropolis arise out of the ashes of the 1871 fire, but it then assembled a chain of terrible tragedies, such as the Iroquois Theatre fire in 1903 and the Eastland capsizing in 1915, the former the most lethal building fire in U.S. history (unless you consider 9/11 just a building fire, and I don’t), the latter among the deadliest maritime disasters ever.

There’s more. The Our Lady of the Angels School Fire. The first major aviation disaster in U.S. history was in Chicago, the Wingfoot Express, a hydrogen-filled Goodyear blimp that exploded over the Loop in 1919, crashing through the skylight of a bank building, killing 13 people.

Chicagoans tend to overlook them. To me, the 1992 Loop Flood, which occurred 30 years ago today, barely counts among the disasters mentioned above. A flood where not only nobody got hurt, but most people never saw floodwaters. How big of a deal could it be?

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Yet it is of global interest. Four years back, a British film crew from Discovery Channel UK came to town to shoot a Loop Flood episode for the first season of their very Britishly titled program, “Massive Engineering Mistakes.” The producers had read my 25th-anniversary story online. Would I mind talking to their cameras about the flood? Maybe down in the very freight tunnels under downtown? Well ....

On one hand, hours would be spent to benefit someone other than myself. Who’d ever know I was on British TV? Yet there is a siren allure to being on TV anywhere. Appearing on TV means something. It is significant, and British TV, double significant. They’re all so refined, the Brits.

True, I’d have to be at City Hall at 8:30 a.m. But heck, why not? Change of pace.

So I’m there, waiting by the bronze “CITY HALL” sign, bright-eyed, expectant. I get a text from the producer. Traffic. Running late. That happens! No worries! I slide over to Petra’s for a cup of coffee.

A half-hour and a $4 cup of coffee later, I’m still waiting for the TV crew. Eventually, they show. Handshakes all around, and down into the bowels of City Hall we go. Boots on, reflective vests, hard hats, we follow J.J. Madia, the civil engineer whose full-time job was to make sure those tunnels don’t flood again.

As one hour folded into two, me gamely slogging through the tunnels after them, it dawned on me: They aren’t talking to me, they are talking to Madia. I am just ... well, there, for no particular purpose, sloshing after them through the dank darkness 40 feet underground. My role had been to set it all up.

At 11:30 a.m. I decided I had enough. The crew was busily filming Madia expounding over some aspect of the tunnel. Screw 'em. I decided to go back myself. I turned on my heel and stamped off, confident I knew the way back to the City Hall sub-basement entrance.

Turns out I didn’t, which I learned when I came face-to-face with a steel bulkhead at a dead end I hadn’t seen before. Oh, gee ....

There are 39 miles of tunnels under the Loop. Getting lost would be bad. Heart pounding, I turned around, contemplating the possibility of becoming the first, belated casualty of the Loop Flood. An asterisk. “Yeah, there’s a body down there, supposedly. Some reporter ....” Hurrying back down the tunnel, I saw ahead of me in the blackness, Madia’s flashlight, way ahead of me at an intersection of tunnels.

Whew. The producer explained that she had put me down for 11:45. A miscommunication. They shot me standing at the corner of Randolph and LaSalle streets, talking about the flood. The producer handed me my fee: a dollar.

And here’s the thing: I hear from people who saw me on that show far more often than from anybody who read the article. TV means something. I finally watched it. Not bad. And I looked very — dare I say it — Chicago-y, in my newsboy’s cap and leather jacket, standing by City Hall. Not a clueless suburbanite at all. We Chicagoans, we like to see ourselves through others’ eyes.

Neil Steinberg talking about the Loop Flood on Discovery UK’s “Massive Engineering Disasters.”

Neil Steinberg talking about the Loop Flood on Discovery UK’s “Massive Engineering Mistakes.”

Courtesy of Discovery UK

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