Police Blamed Courier for Fatal Crash; Witnesses Say Bus Driver Ran Stoplight

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Blaine Klingenberg and Maja Perez at her brother’s wedding in March. Photo courtesy of Perez

[Last year the Chicago Reader launched a weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. This partnership allows Streetsblog to extend the reach of our livable streets advocacy. We syndicate a portion of the column after it comes out online; you can read the remainder on the Reader’s website or in print. The paper hits the streets on Thursdays.]

The intersection of Michigan and Oak, at the north end of the Magnificent Mile, is a complex and intimidating junction. Here, Michigan is a massive seven-lane boulevard, while Oak is a broad, two-lane street with turn lanes, lined with pricey boutiques and luxury high-rises. To the north are on- and off-ramps for Lake Shore Drive as well as curving roadways leading to and from Inner Lake Shore Drive. At the northeast corner there’s an underpass leading to the Lakefront Trail and Oak Street Beach. As such, this crossroads is often filled with a chaotic mix of pedestrians, bike riders, private cars, taxis, and buses.

Bike courier Blaine “Beezy” Klingenberg, 29, lost his life in the daunting intersection of Michigan and Oak on Wednesday, June 15, after being run over and dragged by a double-decker tour bus at the height of the evening rush. Described by employers and colleagues as a hard-working, likable, and safety-minded messenger, Klingenberg has been posthumously reduced to a poster boy for irresponsible urban cycling.

The driver, 51-year-old Charla A. Henry, is employed by Chicago Trolley & Double Decker Co. She was the second company employee to fatally strike a vulnerable road user on Michigan Avenue within the last seven months.

The Chicago Police Department along with major news outlets, reported that Klingenberg brought on his own death by pedaling through a red light. But in exclusive interviews with the Reader, two witnesses say they’re convinced the bus driver was at least partly responsible for Klingenberg’s death because she entered the intersection after the light turned red.

Klingenberg, a native of Bakersfield, California, worked for Advanced Messenger Service, delivering envelopes and packages via a large, yellow, Danish-style cargo bike.

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As of Friday night, a white-painted bike wheel hung on a pole at the crash site as a memorial to Klingenberg. Photo: John Greenfield

On June 15, while he was finishing up the day’s runs, he posted on Facebook, “Who’s down for the lake?” According to friends, he planned to meet up with other couriers after work at Oak Street Beach.

Here’s the CPD’s account of the fatal collision from the crash report: Around 5:30 PM Klingenberg was riding his cargo bike north on Michigan. Meanwhile, the bus driver was heading westbound on Oak, east of Michigan (where Oak is officially called East Lake Shore Drive).

“The victim disregarded the light at Oak and turned into the bus, causing the collision,” the crash report stated, laying the blame squarely on Klingenberg.

Henry ran over Klingenberg, who was dragged and pinned under the bus’s middle-right side. Firefighters had to use large airbags to lift the bus off him. Klingenberg was rushed to Northwestern Memorial Hospital and pronounced dead on arrival.

Henry has not been issued traffic citations or charged with a crime.

Initial reports by CBS 2, ABC 7, DNAinfo, and Chicagoist essentially took the police version at face value.

At least two eyewitnesses tell a different story.

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Aerial view of Michigan and Oak. At the top of the image, from left to right: southbound Inner Lake Shore Drive (including off-ramp from southbound outer LSD), northbound Inner LSD, northbound onramp to outer LSD, path leading to Oak Street Beach underpass (to the left of Divvy station).

Nursing student Amy Ione Jones, 35, was driving from her nanny job in Bridgeport to her boyfriend’s house in the Gold Coast. As she drove west on Oak, she entered the Michigan intersection at the tail end of a yellow light.

To her left she saw the westbound tour bus stopped behind a line of drivers waiting to turn left on Michigan. The bus’s front wheels were either on or just past the crosswalk, Jones says. She then turned right onto Inner Lake Shore Drive.

After traveling two or three car lengths, Jones heard someone scream “No!” and stopped her car. Although Jones did not see the initial impact, she looked left and saw that the bus driver had run over a cyclist. She ran over to the “horrific” crash site to try to help, she says.

Since Jones couldn’t reach Klingenberg’s arm to take his pulse, she ripped off one of his shoes and socks to search for a pulse on his foot. “I sat with Blaine’s foot in my hand until the fire department arrived,” she says. “I knew that he had passed before they arrived, but was in total shock and did not want him to be alone as he left this world.”

Jones says that she herself had narrowly avoided entering the intersection on a red. Since the bus was stopped when she passed it, she’s convinced Henry must have blown the stoplight.

“This is totally the bus driver’s fault,” Jones says. “But the police and the media automatically blamed the bicyclist.”

Read the rest of the article on the Reader’s website.

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