It Can't Happen Here

Wednesday, June 9, 1999 - 0815 hrs.It’s a sultry summer morning in Chicago, with temperatures already climbing towards 90 degrees, hot enough to make the rush hour a sticky one. Along with a couple hundred other passengers, I’m packed in the close quarters of the El - one of our city’s trademark elevated commuter trains -bound for the downtown Chicago Loop and another work day. The train trundles along, past Western Avenue, past Ashland, while its occupants doze in the steamy heat. But when we lurch to a stop just outside the Halsted Street station, the conductor makes an announcement that brings everyone to full attention.All passengers must exit the train at the south Roosevelt Road stop, we’re told. Due to police action in the Loop, no El trains are allowed to enter the downtown area at this time. Commuters will have to find alternate transportation to their final destination. This announcement triggers reactions that are mostly variations on a theme. Annoyance comes first. Finding ‘alternate transportation,’ presumably on overcrowded buses, will not only be a major hassle, but guarantees a late arrival at the workplace."Must be having another parade downtown," one disgruntled man observes. "Seems like they have parades - or some kind of rally- every other day in the summer." Not that it makes a difference. Whether a parade, or a political rally, the outcome is the same: everyone has to get off the train. As urban dwellers, we’re used to diversions beyond our control that complicate our lives, and meet most of them with a resigned acceptance. It’s not the parade, or a traffic jam from hell, or whatever the ‘police action’ is that concerns us as much as the personal inconvenience. This is Chicago, after all, where unusual and unexpected occurrences are a part of life. Later, we’d learn just how unexpected this one was.On that morning, on the north end of the Loop, Chicago Police struggled to contain frenzied citizens who crowded around barricades at the James R. Thompson Center, a landmark government building housing more than sixty state agencies and four thousand employees. A bomb scare and terrorist threat had brought local traffic to a standstill as police hurried to evacuate the building.At 0746 hours, Donald Delgade, a suburban man with a history of mental illness, drove his maroon Ford Escort over the curb, across the sidewalk, and through the Thompson Center’s handicap access door, finally crashing into the lobby’s information booth. Delgade then exited his vehicle and calmly announced to astonished witnesses, "I am a terrorist. I am a Smart bomb. God told me to do this."Delgade was immediately taken into custody by police on the scene, while building security officers proceeded to evacuate the building. Witnesses reported that the crash they heard at 0746 hours sounded like a bomb exploded. They also stated that the security officers were disorganized and obviously unfamiliar with - or unaware of a formalized emergency plan. No alarm was sounded after the crash. Chaos descended as panicked guards shouted from the lobby and lower floor levels to evacuate at once. Building occupants interviewed afterward described the efforts as disorganized, and potentially dangerous, had there been a real bomb.If Delgade had been carrying explosives, the Thompson Center Building was a strategically brilliant choice. In addition to housing most of the state’s government offices, the building is located across the street from City Hall, and diagonally from the Daley Center, a twenty-six floor building containing both municipal and state courtrooms, as well as many city government agencies. The building serves as a hub to the Chicago Transit Authority El trains (with train platforms attached to the north side of the building) and also links the city’s underground pedestrian walkways. In addition to the large number of offices, the building also has a large food court and many retail shops, and daily pedestrian traffic is estimated at ten thousand people.Considering these factors, and the government business conducted in this and other buildings, security measures presently implemented are surprisingly inadequate. Of the various government buildings, only the Daley Center has metal detectors - devices which may be circumvented by any uniformed person, or anyone claiming to be an officer of the court. Some of these buildings have large cement flower boxes near the entrances, but are more for aesthetics than security. The three state government buildings share a 42-person security force, none of whom are specifically trained in emergency procedures. A review of the sum total of the city’s ‘precautionary measures’ indicates a shocking complacency regarding security measures. In a large metropolitan city, such a laissez-faire approach to government safety is not only inexcusable, but a tragedy waiting to happen.Consider the following. The James R. Thompson Center is a glass-faced structure that gives the impression of being able to ‘see through’ the building. It boasts an airy, multi-leveled atrium lobby and, according to John Durbrow, representative of building architects Murphy/Jahn, was designed "with the goal of making it very accessible - very emblematic of open government." An accessibility that, in these times, might serve as an open invitation to terrorist activity. Although there are a number of granite pylons positioned at various points in the plaza around the building, they are decorative, and Delgade navigated around them easily when he drove into the building.Since that incident, the Chicago media has raised the question of how best to balance safety without turning government buildings into fortresses. Local architect Ross Barney suggested that a ‘stand-off’ method - installing barriers to block the access of vehicular traffic to protected structures -is possible, but difficult to implement in congested urban settings such as Chicago’s Loop. An alternate suggestion was offered: to position large concrete planter boxes, (similar to those that line the front of the Chicago Police Headquarters building) at government facility entrances to prevent further ‘drive-throughs.’ State Senator Kirk Dillard is one state official who has long recognized the need for increased security in government buildings. For the past four years, he’s tried - unsuccessfully - to get state legislation to approve a resolution to appoint a committee that would explore the need for further safety measures. Finally, in May of 1999, he obtained approval on a resolution that calls for legislators to meet with local and state law enforcement officials to convene a State Government Building Safety Commission and report back by the end of the year.But Chicago Mayor Richard Daley was dismissive of such measures. In a press conference following the Thompson Center incident, he stated that he saw no need for increased security, and instead suggested a stiff prison sentence for Delgade."Put him in jail for ten years," Daley huffed, when questioned by reporters. "I am NOT going to put in a twelve foot curb around these buildings. It would cost a fortune!" Media references to other terrorist acts in municipal areas, most notably the World Trade Center bombing and the Oklahoma City tragedy, did nothing to sway the mayor’s opinion. He feels that ‘it can’t happen here,’ an arrogant position that jeopardizes the safety of the entire city. As expressed to the media, Mayor Daley believes that the Thompson Center incident was an isolated one, and that further precautionary measures are unnecessary. Fortunately, there are others in our city government who don’t share his head-in-the-sand opinion. Terry Hillard, Chicago Police Superintendent, is fully aware of the consequences such complacency brings, and has chosen to prepare his troops to handle terrorist activity. This vigilance and foresight paid off during the Delgade incident, after which Hillard expressed pride in the exemplary actions of his officers on the scene. Because Chicago police are highly trained in the areas of terrorist and emergency situations, they were prepared to take action immediately. The bomb squad, the HBT (hostage/barricade/terrorist) teams, and both tactical and uniformed officers worked in synch to facilitate a seamless - and safe- police action. In a city where police activity is under constant, and critical scrutiny, both citizens and media offered praise for the quick and efficient actions of the police who know what the mayor apparently fails to realize - that anything can, and does happen, and preparation and anticipation are essential to preserve the safety of our city. Despite the mayor’s beliefs, it CAN happen here, a single devastating act that comes without warning.In the wake of terrorist action across the nation, our mayor would do well to follow the Chicago Police Department’s lead. Complacency regarding public safety, and the potential for further terrorist activity is not only foolish, but inexcusable. As a large city, with a swelling population and a high concentration of government offices, Chicago is a target. It’s time the mayor, and everyone else, understands what the police have known all along - that it can happen here, and our best defense is preparation, and protection.

Back to previous page