By Dave Savini, Michele Youngerman, and Christopher Hacker
CHICAGO (CBS) — On Nov. 21, 2019, Maya Kirk was walking back to her office after lunch. It was, as far as she knew, a normal Thursday afternoon. But as she passed alongside the State of Illinois’ James R. Thompson Center, around 161 N. LaSalle St. in Chicago’s loop, everything changed.
Unbeknownst to Kirk, a nearby light pole had been quietly decaying — its base rusting in the elements. Without warning, it finally gave way, landing directly on Kirk.
“I had no idea what hit me,” she said.
Dazed, Kirk struggled to make sense of what had just happened. Passersby rushed to help, but the damage had already been done.
Her femur was shattered, along with her knee. Both required surgery. She suffered a concussion and was bleeding from a cut on her head.
“I think I was in so much pain at the time not a lot was registering at that moment,” Kirk said. “But I was just thinking: ‘That fell on me. How am I still here?’”
While recovering in the hospital, a friend showed Kirk a series of stories by CBS 2 investigating Chicago’s poorly-maintained light poles — A series we first reported five years ago. It was then she realized she wasn’t the only one.
“It’s going to take one death for them to do something about it, but they have the opportunity to do something about it now,” said India Cooley, whose car was hit by a light pole in 2017 on the city’s south side.
A year before Cooley, Lauren Lammy’s car was struck as well — also on LaSalle, about a mile north of where Kirk was injured.
Lammy wasn’t in her car at the time, but, she said, “if that happened in the middle of rush hour, who knows what would’ve happened to someone?”
That’s exactly what happened to Hector Martinez on Stony Island in 2019, when a rusted traffic light pole fell on his car — just a week before Kirk was struck in the loop.
Another girl was hit by a light pole in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood in 2016. And years before that, in 2007, 13-year-old Noni Brown suffered a fractured neck when a light pole fell on her outside her school during recess.
The CBS 2 Investigators analyzed the most recent city data available on light pole complaints dating back to 2014.
We found more than 7,800 complaints of leaning and fallen poles between 2014 and 2018. During that time, 75 of those incidents caused injuries, the data showed.
The areas with the most reported leaning and fallen poles were on Chicago’s South and West sides — some of the city’s lowest-income areas.
The worst was 28th ward, which includes Chicago’s Garfield Park, South Austin, Tri-Taylor and University Village neighborhoods. Between 2014 and 2018, 579 fallen or leaning poles were reported there, causing six injuries and 21 incidents of property damage.
Stil recovering from her injuries, Maya Kirk reached out to CBS 2 weeks after her injury. She was moved by the stories of the other people hurt — especially 13-year-old Noni Brown.
“It broke my heart to see that,” Kirk said. “For a little kid to have to go through that — and I’m sure she’s got some trauma just from that experience.”
Kirk — still using a wheelchair months after the incident — has trauma of her own.
“I mean now I’m even coming back downtown today I was kind of looking around and going, ‘is something going to fall on me again, or — I didn’t know,’” she said.
Kirk said she’s also angry the city didn’t do something sooner.
“I knew that was something that could have been prevented,” she said.
Kirk’s attorney, Michael Demetrio, agrees. A partner at Corboy and Demetrio, he told CBS 2 they plan to force the city to hand over every document involving the pole that hit Kirk from the day it was purchased to the day it failed. They also plan to have the pole itself meticulously inspected to detemine why it fell.
“I would never use the term accident here,” Demetrio said. “This is clear neglect on the city of Chicago’s part.”
A Missed Opportunity
CBS 2 also found evidence the city missed an opportunity to address the problem.
Over the last few years, the city has converted over 100,000 streetlights to more energy-efficient LED lights. Crews had to climb each light pole to replace the bulbs, but many of the often rusted-out bases were left untouched.
In at least one case, a badly-rusted base of one light pole was simply painted over.
“That’s a waste of paint, waste of time, waste of resources,” said Dr. Sammy Tin, a metalurgical engineer at the Illinois Institute of Technology. “In actuality, that will accelerate corrosion.”
Many of these poles “are in desperate need of being replaced or maintained,” Tin said — far more than just a fresh coat of paint.
Plenty of Warning
Data shows the city was warned about damaged poles in a three-block radius around where Kirk was hurt months before she was injured.
Meanwhile, the problem still persists. CBS 2 analyzed 311 complaints and found the city was warned a dozen times about more damaged light poles within just three blocks of where Kirk was injured in the year leading up to her incident.
“The thing is, these poles can kill somebody,” Kirk said. “I’m just — I’m just lucky to be alive but I’m really disturbed nothing’s been done about it.”
Late Friday, the city Department of Transportation released a statement saying it has been assessing the condition of light poles when replacing the lights themselves.
“The Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) has completed over half of the Chicago Smart Lighting Program (CSLP) – a four year project to modernize the city’s streetlight fixtures and replace more than 270,000 outdated and inefficient High Pressure Sodium streetlights with energy efficient LED light fixtures. While the project was primarily designed to improve the reliability and quality of Chicago’s outdoor lighting, as part of the process, CDOT has also been assessing the condition of streetlight poles and wiring to make targeted repairs and replace poles and wiring where it’s needed.”
CDOT said replacing all poles and wiring would be cost-prohibitive, to the tune of $2 billion. But CDOT also said it had already replaced numerous ornamental light poles specifically on LaSalle Street downtown:
“CDOT inspected a total of 125 ornamental light poles on La Salle Street from Jackson to Wacker. Those light poles were installed at the same time and have the same design as the pole at Lake and La Salle. CDOT identified 32 light poles that were removed and replaced – and we plan to replace the remainder of the 125 poles later this year.”
The CBS 2 Investigators will continue to report on problems with the city’s infrastructure. If you or someone you know has been hurt by falling light poles or other damaged infrastructure, contact us by filling out the form below.