The heat wave of 1995 took the lives of over seven hundred people in Chicago, and probably scores of others that were unaccounted for. The homeless and the elderly bore the brunt of mother nature’s fury.
The weather was dry and hot reaching north of 100 degrees for days in a row. The blistering heat refused to subside even after the sun lowered.
The nightly temperatures, normally when people catch their collective breaths, were hotter than daytime temperatures of years past. The brick bungalows and concrete streets of Chicago held the heat like nothing seen before.
It was excruciatingly hot!
Roll calls were directed at identifying and assisting the most vulnerable citizens: the elderly and those others without the lifesaving air-conditioning.
Life and death decisions replaced everyday comforts. Homeless were swept up and transported to hastily made shelters. Lists of elderly were distributed to beat cars and the office crews were busy scrutinizing their data base to pinpoint others at risk.
Street officers were making house to house visits to roust the elderly. When I say roust, I truly mean roust! Attempting to force these old timers from their homes and apartments was nearly impossible.
Often visits revealed not only the absents of air-conditioning but closed and sealed windows of out fear of unwanted intruders. The thought of these self-reliant aged people accepting any belated charity form strangers never entered their minds.
Without a court order, forcibly removing them to an air-conditioned shelter without their permission was simply not going to happen. Life and death choices? They would invariably choose death in their homes before facing the unknown.
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The radio broadcast would send the beat car to a location of an elderly person not seen in days.
The officers would exit their squad cars and their eyes would automatically scan the front porch for the telltale signs of death: newspapers stacked up, mail overflowing form the mailbox, and the most evident sign of death, hundreds of flies inside the windows.
Absent these signs, once close enough to the front door, the smell of decaying body would fill the nostrils and the stench would linger on the nose hairs for hours, if not days.
Often the 911 call was precipitated by a late but carrying relative who eventually decided to check on this person’s wellbeing. If a key was available, entry was made as the relative was ordered to remain outside.
If no key, the fire department was summoned, and a forced entry was made. Generally, the second that door was open, the smell of death hit the offices in the face like a sledgehammer, never to be confused with any other obnoxious odor.
A cursory search revealed the body, usually in a state of decomposition, it was easily located. The bodies were often blackened, bloated and covered with maggots, fly larva, hence the unusually high number of flies on the windows in the house.
Absent any visual signs of foul play, notifications were made, and a wagon was called for transport to the overflowing morgue. The house was often turned over to the relative, if no direct relationship was evident, a coroner’s seal was placed on all the doors and future entry was left up to a judge.
The term ‘stacked like cord ‘became reality at the Cook County Morgue. Bodies were piled to the ceilings in the morgue’s hallways while all the coolers were full.
Black body bags were triple stacked, and the smell was nearly unbearable. Eventually the morgue was filled to capacity with decomposing heat related fatalities and simply overflowing.
The solution: the city rented numerous air-conditioned meat packing trucks and they occupied the morgue’s parking lot. Bodies were received, tagged and stacked in these temporary mortuaries. As the temperatures stabilized once again, the county morgue returned to normal.
The summer of 1995 will go down in history and those of us who worked through it will never forget that smell.