Jim Lonergan was standing along the Chicago River telling his high school students about a nearly 100-year-old disaster when a real one unfolded before their eyes.
Lonergan, an English teacher at Maine South High School in Park Ridge, said he was recounting the sinking of the SS Eastland. The ship was docked at the Clark Street bridge in 1915 when it rolled over, killing 844 passengers and crew.
“I was in the middle of my tale about the Eastland disaster when a guy jumped into the river,” Lonergan said.
“One of my students said, ‘Someone is standing on the rail of the bridge.’ I turned around and saw the splash.”
Lonergan said his students called 911 while he sprinted down the bridge looking for help for the man, who plunged into the Chicago River shortly after 10:30 a.m.
A city worker tossed the man a life-saving ring attached to one of the bridge houses.
Someone on a water taxi threw out another ring.
Lonergan said his 11 students and other passersby were on the bridge, “encouraging him to tread water.”
The man appeared to try to remove his coat before he slipped under the water. Scuba divers from the Chicago Police marine unit rescued the man and he was pulled onto a water taxi.
The students watched from above on Wacker Drive as fire officials gave the man CPR.
Some of the students sobbed as the man was rushed to Northwestern Memorial Hospital in an ambulance, where he died.
Lonergan, who has been teaching “Literature in Chicago” to seniors since 1972, said this was the 30th tour he has led in downtown Chicago. Lonergan, who also coaches volleyball and track, is retiring at the end of the school year.
“I couldn’t be prouder of my students,” Lonergan said. “They have to feel very good that they did everything they could to keep this troubled human soul with us.”