Storm piles it on besieged O'Hare
Severe weather adds to a troubled summer

CLTV News report about Monday's storm and the passengers who were stranded at O'Hare International Airport. (56K users)

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Alex Rodriguez and Jon Hilkevitch
Tribune Staff Writers
September 12, 2000

Powered by lightning, wind gusts up to 50 m.p.h. and dangerous wind shear, a mid-afternoon thunderstorm rumbled through the Chicago area Monday, making an already miserable summer at O'Hare Airport even worse by forcing hundreds of cancellations and creating a runway logjam that at one point reached 50 planes.

The storm, described by a United Airlines official as the summer's worst, swept through the airport at the worst possible moment: a workday afternoon when the airport has its largest bank of flights readying to depart.

And it did more than congest: Lightning knocked out airport radar equipment, and wind shear forced several arriving planes to abort their landings. The planes circled and later landed safely.

At the storm's peak, about 53,000 homes and businesses throughout the Chicago area lost power. Midway Airport reported getting 2.75 inches of rain, according to the National Weather Service. Hail was reported in the north suburb of Crystal Lake and south suburban Harvey and Blue Island.

As of early Monday evening, the airlines had canceled 368 arrivals and departures at O'Hare, Chicago Department of Aviation spokeswoman Monique Bond said.

United Airlines alone canceled 246 O'Hare arrivals and departures as of 7:40 p.m., more than a quarter of its scheduled operations at the airport. The Aviation Department reported 25 canceled arrivals and departures at Midway.

Steve Scheuer, a United official who acts as an airline liaison with the Federal Aviation Administration's air traffic control operations, called Monday's storm the summer's worst at O'Hare.

"The storm actually hit the airport," Scheuer said. "Most of the summer, the weather in Chicago has been pretty good. We were fighting bad weather around us. This time, thunderstorms were actually on top of us."

The bad weather actually wrapped around the airport like a horseshoe, leaving just a single alley to the southwest that allowed a trickle of arrivals and departures.

"This is one of the worst I've seen all year," said Charlotte Happle, national operations manager at the FAA's air traffic system command center in Herndon, Va. "Usually the weather's on one side (of the airport) or the other. To have it surround the airport all day, this is one of the top five, for sure."

It's been a summer of teeth-grinding frustration for travelers at O'Hare, largely because of United Airlines' impasse with its pilots union. The Elk Grove Village-based airline had to cancel more than 23,000 flights since April, when the pilots' contract expired. Most of those cancellations were due to the growing number of pilots who called in sick or refused to work overtime.

United's on-time performance, meanwhile, plummeted to as little as 30 percent for August. The airline reached a tentative deal with its pilots in late August, and leaders of the pilots union Friday recommended approval of the agreement.

Monday, as many as 50 planes waiting to take off were queued up by 2 p.m. Then, about 2:50 p.m. a very bad day got worse: lightning struck fiber optic equipment feeding into O'Hare's main radar. A backup system based in Oak Forest kicked in, but because it provided radar coverage to the south, flights coming in and out of the north and northwest were affected, FAA officials said. The radar equipment was repaired by 6:30 p.m.

Wind shear, a sudden change in wind direction that can suddenly force a plane down or sideways, also posed problems for several planes, which were forced to abort their initial approach as they prepared to land. Flight delays throughout the day averaged two hours, though at least one flight, United 1271 from O'Hare to Omaha, was delayed four hours and seven minutes, United officials said.

Meanwhile, an all-too-familiar scene played out inside the terminals. Harried passengers worn down by long lines and canceled flights scrambled to find some way to their destinations, either by air or by road.

Adam Bleakney, 25, was on his way back to Downstate Bloomington after competing in a 10K wheelchair race in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. His flight from Wilkes-Barre to O'Hare was delayed, which made him miss his connection to Bloomington.

Pushing in front of him the wheelchair he uses in competition, Bleakney wended his way through the crowd as he tried to find a way home. All flights to Bloomington were canceled. His only hope was a shuttle bus, which as of early evening was filling up, leaving little room for a wheelchair-bound man and an extra wheelchair.

"I can't get any information," said Bleakney, an assistant coach of the track team at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "Not from anybody who seems to know anything. There's no way I'm spending the night here."

Elsewhere, Commonwealth Edison scrambled to restore power, especially in the southwest suburbs where 31,000 customers lost electricity.

The utility had 300 repair crews at work and had customer-service employees pulling double shifts Monday night, spokeswoman Judy Mitchell said.

High winds and hail swept through Blue Island at exactly 3 p.m., Police Chief Joe Kosman said. "It was a little crazy here for a while," Kosman said.

About a half-hour later, Orland Park activated its tornado sirens because of an unconfirmed report of a funnel cloud at 143rd Street and Southwest Highway, village spokeswoman Patty Vlazny said.

"The sky was green. It looked very bad," Vlazny said. "And as soon as those sirens sounded, everyone was in the basement."

Tribune Staff Writers Stephen Hedges, Evan Osnos, John Chase, Lisa Black, T. Shawn Taylor, Jennifer Peltz, James Janega and Helene Van Sickle and freelance writer Patricia Trebe contributed to this report.