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.

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.

  • Pat

    (OEMC denied a FOIA request to access the footage, arguing that allowing a civilian to see which parts of the intersection are visible to the camera would undermine efforts to prevent terrorism and other crimes.)

    Give me a break.

  • cjlane

    “As she drove west on Oak”

    OK, this took me a bit to figure out what the facts were, because Oak Street does NOT exist east of Michigan. That street is East Lake Shore.

    Check out streetview and the street sign on the south side of the intersection (for south bound Inner Drive traffic)–it has an arrow pointing east identifying East Lake Shore, and the arrow pointing west is Oak Street–pretty definitive.

    SB-Chi is far from alone in not correctly describing the streets involved, but it makes it really hard to parse what happened–until this description, I thought the tour bus was west of Michigan, and was baffled at how the collision occurred without pretty clear (primary) fault, given that Klingenberg was headed north on the eastern side of Michigan.

    NOTE: As described here, it seems to me that both individuals exercised bad judgment about the safety of proceeding into the intersection, but one of them paid with his life, and the other seems to be on the cusp of being fully absolved by the powers that be. Which sucks.

  • Pat

    All the residents with the exclusive E. Lake Shore Drive addresses are going to be dismayed that everyone thinks they just live on Oak St.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    “Meanwhile, the bus driver was heading westbound on Oak, east of Michigan (where Oak is officially called East Lake Shore Drive).” ELSD is basically a vanity address, so we opted to refer to it as Oak in the article, which we thought would make it easier to understand the movements at this complicated intersection. Sorry if that caused any confusion.

  • cjlane

    “ELSD is basically a vanity address”

    So? It’s the *legal* address. The only “vanity” part of ELSD is the *east* part; that block has always been Lake Shore Drive, and never (ever!!) Oak.

    You look in the Polk Directory, Oak’s eastern terminus is Michigan Ave., and the ELSD buildings have the “out of order” numbering–correct for an E-W street, but bonkers for the (“true”) N-S of the street.

    Do you also say “Eighth Avenue” instead of Central Park West?

    EDIT: If you want to call it Inner LSD, rather than East LSD, I’m all for that, but, trying to describe movement thru that intersection, I think that creates a different type of confusion.

  • BrownBrown

    If they both ran the red, equal blame must not given to both parties. It is usually the case that law-breaking cyclists annoy people rather than endanger them. Law-breaking vehicle operators, on the other hand, very often injure and kill, and this constant threat affects more than crash victims; it creates a dangerous, fragmented and unpleasant urban environment that we must all live with and respond to, whether we are conscious of it or not. Until robots drive for us, we must hold all vehicle operators to much higher standards.

  • I with John here. Most people will assume it is still called Oak street east of Michigan. John’s approach, imho, as he intended, aids understanding for most people.

  • Most non-residents don’t think about it one way or the other. I bet many residents have already had to often explain that it is no longer called Oak Street at their address, and those residents will not be dismayed at all.

  • cjlane

    “Most people will assume it is still called Oak street east of Michigan”

    Oh, OK, so giving in to ignorance is fine.

    That assumption is WRONG, even if every single person (aside from me) believes that that is Oak Street, and describing the bus as traveling westbound on Oak before the crash is also WRONG.

    No one is entitled to their own facts.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    You are correct. The street in question is officially called East Lake Shore Drive. Now that that is established, let’s shift the discussion back to this important case, which has ramifications for everybody who walks in bikes in Chicago.

  • Why are we not entitled to our our facts? I think it is a beneficial practice. You never know when your own created fact may turn out to become universally accepted.

    John’s goal is to communicate his thoughts. If he were in the fact distribution business he would write for Wikipedia. As for giving in to ignorance, well sometimes you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

  • That corner needs an underground plaza for distributing pedestrian and bicycle traffic to each of the corners and completely separated from motorists. Pedestrian and bike infrastructure budgets are way underfunded. That corner should be in the same priority list as Lower Wacker and the Jane Byrne interchange. And we aren’t even dealing with the BRT needs for that corner.

    I get that after three months the summer pedestrian traffic peters out for the rest of the year, but with the increasing use of bikes on the LFT, especially with the need to avoid the ice curve to the east, more attention is needed there.

  • Peter

    “She was the second company employee to fatally strike a vulnerable road user on Michigan Avenue ”

    She didn’t strike the biker, he got himself struck. Difference.

  • cjlane

    When there is a issue of interpretation, or something perhaps not firmly established, sure. Completely with you there.

    But asserting that “east” Lake Shore Drive is not really LSD, but rather Oak Street is absolutely the same as claiming that the earth is flat and the sun is Apollo’s chariot–it is incontrovertibly false.

    I do enjoy your implicit defense of 9-11 truthers and holocaust deniers.

  • Bebop

    The bus was moving, it struck him. Put your mouth over a tail pipe if you want to blame the victim.

  • Andrew Petersen

    So the cyclist blew the light…but let’s blame the bus driver.

    Streetsblog logic fail

  • Or we could just not have streets so wide and dangerous that we require underground passageways to navigate them. All of Michigan Ave needs a squeeze; it is treated as a thru roadway when there is a highway just a few blocks away, and its primary purpose is a retail shopping street. Too bad IDOT controls it.

  • Anne A

    Sounds bogus to me.

  • Anne A

    Thank you. Enough hair splitting in this point, which is of minimal importance in the grand scheme of things.

  • Pat

    If you actually read the full article at the Reader, you would have read that John clearly states both are to blame.

    His issue is that most media outlets were quick to blame the biker as the sole person responsible for his death when in fact the driver also contributed to it.

  • A lot of people will always want to use that intersection no matter the street size or the allotments to various users. When horizontal geometry is constrained then one must either discourage use or resort to vertical geometry. I like your idea of squeezing out the cars. But even with eliminating the cars there is likely to come a point that separation of bikes and pedestrians becomes necessary or elimination of bikes.

    I say separate them all at that point. Separate motor users from gear users from foot users.

  • First no one is asserting that the formal name is Oak Street. Second comparing a social convention to a geometric reality is not the same thing.

    As for 9-11 truthers and holocaust deniers, again, if your goal is to change their thinking then you likely need to get them to feel that you all belong to the same tribe.

    Like you and I. We both belong to the Streetsblog commentors tribe, right? Or have you a better idea?

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Please keep the conversation civil. Thanks.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Whether or not the bus driver was to blame for striking the bike rider, she struck him.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Folks, seriously, can we stop bickering over this issue? It’s really not that relevant to the overall discussion. Further comments along these lines will be deleted as off-topic. Thanks.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    To clarify, I don’t actually state that either party is to blame — I wasn’t there to witness the incident. But, yes, Boyer states that he definitely saw Klingenberg run the red, and he’s convinced Henry did as well.

  • Linda

    Who cares about what the streets are called! My nephew is still dead! All of this is disgraceful!!

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Linda, I’m very sorry for the loss of you nephew. While I didn’t know Blaine, I’ve talked to several of his friends and coworkers about him, and they all described him as a terrific person. We’ll do what we can at Streetsblog to make sure that Blaine’s story gets told fairly, and we’ll continue to report on his case in the hope that justice will be served.

  • I am very sorry for your loss. To lose someone so young is especially heart-rending. That they die doing something they love is little consolation. And now with internet blogs being able to present to the grieving a range and breadth of thoughts and comments, profound and facile, that in the past would have been self-censored in their presence must be uniquely painful. For the callous to suggest that one not read them ignores the great need of the afflicted for solace, understanding and comfort. May your grieving bring you peace and courage to face the future.

  • Anne A

    I am sorry for your loss. Bickering over a street name is disrespectful to Blaine and his family and friends. It’s not appropriate here.

  • dr

    I think we need to start consistently framing accidents in terms of “potential harm” in addition to “negligence.” One of the extremely frustrating things about a case like this is that there is a lack of acknowledgement the potential harm of negligent decisions is incredibly one-sided.

    When we get caught up discussing who was negligent, or how much each party is at fault, we cede the potential harm side of the discussion, which should be modifying our attitudes every step of the way.

    In the case of an accident, negligence x potential harm = real fault.
    In the case of risky behavior that doesn’t result in a accident, negligence x potential harm = real risk

    This approach appropriately puts greater responsibility on actors capable of causing death. Cyclists solely responsible for causing accidents are still 100% at fault, and cyclists partially responsible for accidents still bear some fault, but a reduced portion of it, as their actions were fundamentally less risky. When a bus and a bike both red lights, only one party is realistically endangering the lives of other people.

    Whether blowing red lights and stop signs constitutes legitimate negligence is another discussion… one I think we have too often. I think we will make more progress as advocates for fair treatment if we consistently turn the discussion to potential harm rather than rehashing negligence, which is a topic we are unlikely to make progress on given the calcification of attitudes. It’s time to move the field of battle. I for one am going to start using “potential harm,” “real fault,” and “real risk” in all conversations I have regarding bike behavior and accidents. I think unified vocabulary has the potential to radically reorient the public discourse.

  • cjlane

    “As for 9-11 truthers and holocaust deniers, again, if your goal is to change their thinking then you likely need to get them to feel that you all belong to the same tribe.”

    I do NOT want to make them feel anything other than ostracized, diminished and ridiculed. Which is what they should be.

  • neroden

    This is a completely bogus claim. Whoever claimed this should be thrown in prison for obstruction of justice.