Incident report for the storm occurrence on the Chicago River on July 1st, 2012
On July 1 2012, I was the lead guide in our second tour of the morning for Kayak Chicago. Our group consisted of 23 passengers and two other guides besides myself. We left our launch site at the North branch turning basin at approximately 10:30 am and proceeded to give our normal tour, making all usual stops until our turn around point at Veteran's Park on the main stem of the Chicago River. At approximately 12:10 pm, we were returning with our group from our final stop at Veterans Park. We crossed over to the North bank and began paddling west towards the confluence of the Chicago River. As I lead the group around Wolf Point, I radioed Todd who was navigating the third tour of the morning asking him if he wanted to join the two groups together as we paddled back towards our launch site. As we were paddling past Todd's group who were parked on the South side of Kinzie St. bridge, I noticed the grey clouds on the horizon. The time was approximately 12:20p.m.
As we were paddling our boats past the East Bank Club, up the North Branch, I pulled out my smart phone and checked the radar. As our group approached Erie Park, I radioed Ken, who was the other guide in Todd's group telling them the situation and that weather was forecasted to come into the area. At the time, conditions were calm and serene with no winds or rain in the area. Clouds had started to move in. By the time we rounded Erie Park with the majority of the group and approached Chicago Ave. bridge, the skies got dark with brief wind gusts. Our group was proceeding along the Montgomery Ward Administrative building just south of Chicago Ave. when the force of the wind hit us with driving rain. As we dug in and began padding, I instructed our group to continue paddling and to stay close to the wall to help shelter the force of the wind. As I looked across the bank, I noticed two of our renters were having difficulty paddling when one girl's kayak tipped over. I radioed to our two guides to continue on with the group and instructed the paddlers with me to continue paddling and stay close to the wall. There was a take-out point 100 yards ahead of us and I knew we could evacuate there. So I crossed the river and did a t-rescue for the renter and got her back into her boat. Once she was secured back into her boat, I led the two renters back to the other side of the river where they were able to paddle on their own towards the dock.
At this point, the wind is severe to the point of 60-90 mph gusts and the rain is driving. The waves are getting large white caps. The wind is lifting large amounts of water into the air. The large tour boat named Fort Dearborn had pulled under the Chicago Ave. bridge and began honking her air horn at full blast because there were two tandem rental boats directly in front of them battling the weather. The two tandems belonged to the Water Riders Kayak company and one boat contained a father in the back and daughter in the front and the other boat contained two children of a boy and girl in the back. I pushed the kids out of the way of the large tour boat and told the father and daughter do their best to paddle across as I escorted the kids across to the wall when I noticed two boats capsized in the water inside the turning basin at the southern tip of Goose Island. My first priority became rescuing whatever boaters had capsized their boats in the water while making sure the other boaters were safe against the wall as the rain and wind continued to pound relentlessly. I brought the kids to the East side of the river underneath the Chicago Ave. bridge and instructed them to hold on as I went off to inspect the two capsized boats to look for swimmers. As I approached the two boats, the owner of Water Riders approached in a boat which were located near the south tip, the owner informed me they were both empty and he was taking care of them when I saw three kayakers, (1 tandem and 1 single kayak) continue past the Montgomery Ward building and began paddling up the back channel. I took off after them paddling directly into the wind and eventually caught them at the end of the dock inside the back channel. They wanted to try and paddle for Kayak Chicago's dock, but I informed them there was lightning in the area and we needed to stay together and evac immediately. I instructed them to turn around to stay with the group. So they turned around and tried to make for the landing dock, but the wind was too great, so I instructed them to evacuate there at the large boat dock which they did and after they landed their boats, they went inside the Montgomery Ward building.
At this point, I turned around and headed south back towards the remainder of the group when I noticed the police boat had arrived along with fire trucks and police cars on the Chicago Ave. bridge. Several boats had blown off of Water Riders dock and were floating capsized in the river. As I paddled back into the turning basin, I radioed to my other guides to continue to shuffle guests and other kayakers towards the dock. I told Stephen, our guide to get on land and start collecting guests and getting a head count so we know everybody is accounted for. I return south into the turning basin and by now most guests are on the wall, holding on to the wall, or making their way hand over hand along the wall to water riders dock. I paddle to the back of the group and begin clipping in and paddling those who are furthest from the dock.
As I begin paddling guests back, I notice the fire department is leaning over the side rail and yelling at their boats, at the police boat, and each other. I notice they're yelling, and generally causing more chaos to an already chaotic scenario. They are yelling at frightened guests and their reaction to the situation seemed to make the guests even more frightened, especially the children. At one point, a firefighter jumped over the rail and tried to make a passenger, weary from paddling in the wind, to climb over his body and onto the platform, (the difference between the river level and the platform is probably ten feet or more. The guest is frightened and in shock as she is standing in her boat clinging onto the firefighter who is yelling and screaming at his counterparts to help. I did not want to interfere with whatever the firefighter was trying to do, but this was the most dangerous evac, I'd ever seen so I kept my eye on them as I went out to rescue more boaters.
Finally, I came to a tandem full of two scared children, a boy in the back and a girl up front. They were clinging to the East side underneath Chicago Ave. As I approached them, I could tell they were frightened by the weather, but more so by the ruckus the authorities were making. So as I paddled up to them I asked how they were doing with a grin and asked if they wanted to go on our afternoon tour today. The girl said she did not. Her brother smiled and said he did at which point both of them started laughing. As I clipped into the front of their boat, the firemen on the side began yelling instructions at me telling me to do this and do that and go there. When their smaller boat pulled up behind me, all of the firefighters yelled at me to get the kids into their boat. So I did as they asked. This boat of tandems and the person clinging to the fire fighter leaning over the side were the only to rescues I saw the police and the fire department do during this day. All other rescues were done by Kayak Chicago or Water Riders staff.
As the weather finally died down and all guests were now off of the water, Tony, our other guide, and myself began collecting capsized boats and shuffling them to the dock. From what I witnessed, the majority of the boaters in the turning basin were either rescued by Kayak Chicago staff or Water Riders staff. Most guests were able to either hold onto a wall until we were able to get to them or work their way over to the dock hand over hand.
As the storm died, I was in contact with Stephen via radio as he tallied the guests. Our count was 25 and I began calling our office to get final numbers for renters and passengers alike to see if we had other people on the river. This is when I finally got out of my boat and began communicating on land with our home office, our owners, the police, and our other group to get a full and final tally of our guests and renters. All guests and renters were accounted for.
In closing, I will say this. In the four years I have been a guide on the Chicago River I have never seen a storm move into the area as quickly and severely as this one did. Being from Chicago, I understand how quickly storms can move in; however this one set in faster and more violently than I have ever seen, as evidenced by the immense storm damage in and around the Chicagoland area. If you look at the amount of damage going on in the area, you can tell that the severity of the wind gusts rendered any sort of kayak control virtually ineffective by novice kayakers. The conditions on the water were some of the most extreme I have ever experienced in my 15 years as a kayaker. From the time clouds began moving into the area to the time the storm hit, there were no evacuation points on the river that we had access to. The nearest evac point was Water Riders dock at the northern tip of the Montgomery Ward building. We were perhaps 75 yards from that dock when the storm hit and blew everyone everywhere.