Emails: CDOT trucker injured SAFE Ambassador on bike, but she was home the next day

CDOT SAFE Ambassador Whitney R. Warner.
CDOT SAFE Ambassador Whitney R. Warner.

Update 10/1/20, 1:45 PM: Seth Solomonow responded to Streetsblog with an explanation of why he was involved with CDOT’s messaging in the wake of the Whitney Warner crash, although he doesn’t actually work for the department. “Since [Janette Sadik-Khan and I] left NYC DOT in 2013, we’ve been with Bloomberg Associates. We’re pro bono and work with mayors across the U.S. and around the world. We’re engaged in Chicago, the transportation team and I have been working with CDOT.”

Documents and online evidence strongly indicated that the 31-year-old woman who was struck and injured on her bike in June in Avondale, by the driver of a truck owned by the Chicago Department of Transportation worked for CDOT as a SAFE (Streets Are For Everybody) Ambassador. While department officials did not confirm that or provide an update on the victim’s condition, city emails recently obtained by Streetsblog show that the victim was, in fact, SAFE Ambassador Whitney R. Warner.

The good news is that, while the Chicago Police Department initially stated that the victim was hospitalized in critical condition, and later upgraded to serious-but-stable, the emails show that Warner was actually sent home from the hospital the day after the crash. Presumably her injuries were not actually as serious as the CPD first reported, and hopefully she is largely and or even completely recovered by now.

On Tuesday, June 23, Warner was biking northwest on Milwaukee Avenue and then turned right, eastbound, on Belmont Avenue. Truck driver Eric O. Carrasquillo, 48, who was also heading northwest on Milwaukee, turned east on Belmont at the same time as the cyclist.

Carrasquillo ran over Warner, trapping her underneath the vehicle and dragging her, only coming to a stop after witnesses flagged him down. The truck was equipped with side guards, safety gear that may have prevented the cyclist from being crushed under the wheels. A witness stated that she was conscious after the crash and gave a “thumbs-up” as she was being taken away in a stretcher.

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Still from security footage showing the CDOT trucker dragging Warner, who is blurred in the image.

Crash report info, obtained by Streetsblog via a Freedom of Information Act request, listed Warner and Carrasquillo as the involved parties.

A LinkedIn profile for Whitney Warner states that she began working as a SAFE Ambassador last June. She worked as an intern for CDOT’s Vision Zero program from last October to last May. Prior to that, Warner worked as a CDOT Bicycle Ambassador from August through September of 2019.

CDOT emails Streetsblog obtained via another FOIA request show that on July 1, department spokesman Mike Claffey emailed 11 other city officials, including Law Department personnel and Hali Levandoski, then-deputy press secretary to Mayor Lori Lightfoot. “I wanted to let you know Streetsblog has obtained the ID of the bike rider in this case,” Claffey wrote. “Greenfield was asking for confirmation… I’ve discussed with Hali, and she was thinking we should not comment on her status. Is there a downside in your view?” Claffey shared the following draft of a reply to Streetsblog’s inquiry about Warner, suggested by Levandoski:

The safety of everyone on Chicago’s streets is CDOT’s top priority. The department is currently conducting a robust review of this event to better understand what occurred and prevent future incidents moving forward.

“It would be preferable not to comment on anything other than the question about whether the bike rider worked as a [SAFE] Ambassador, if even that,” responded Law Department attorney Mary Ruether to Claffey’s email. “The draft statement might generate more questions like ‘What is the robust review and how could this have been prevented?’ and/or ‘Was there something unsafe about the street?'”

“If Law approves, we can confirm [Warner was the victim and worked as a SAFE Ambassador] and leave it at that,” Levandoski wrote.

But later that day Law Department spokesperson Kathy Fieweger wrote Claffey to say that she had talked to Ruether. What exactly it was Fieweger discussed with Ruether was redacted from the email CDOT provided as part of its FOIA response.

But apparently Claffey was told he couldn’t even confirm Warner’s identity, because when I followed up with him a week later, he responded, “I will check and see if we have anything to say yet,” but never actually provided a statement.

The trove of emails provided by CDOT also includes a message from department commissioner Gia Biagi to Claffey sent the day of the crash. “I’d like to craft a statement to send to the five news outlets that reported on the crash at Milwaukee and Belmont that does in fact express some acknowledgment and sympathy. Please work with Seth [Solomonow] on putting something together on this tonight.”

Solomonow previously worked as a press secretary for Janette Sadik-Khan when she was NYC transportation chief, although it’s not clear in what capacity he was working with CDOT this summer, and he declined to tell me when I contacted him today. Writing from a non-city email address on the day of the collision, Solomonow told Claffey he could draft a statement “pending Gia’s visit to the hospital” asked Claffey for info on the SAFE Ambassadors program.

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The day after the crash, Solomonow wrote Claffey, “Any follow up today or update on Whitney’s condition? Any inquiries?”

“She was discharged today,” Claffey responded.

“That’s great news!” Solomonow exclaimed. “Yesterday she was reportedly critical, now she’s home. Very glad to hear that. Does Gia know and do you know if she made contact with Whitney?”

“Yes, I think critical was not necessarily a medical term — but press shorthand for pretty serious and strapped to a stretcher!” Claffey wrote. Again, it was the police department, not the press, that initially stated that Warner’s condition was critical. “[Deputy CDOT commissioner Sean Wiedel, who oversees the SAFE Ambassadors program] said Gia was informed. But he was not aware if they had spoken yet. Huge relief that [she] was discharged… [Biagi] asked me to sit on your statement for now and not forward to the Mayors Press Office just yet.”

Apparently CDOT never wound up issuing the statement Solomonow drafted. But the important thing is that the exchange indicates that Warner probably didn’t suffer any life-changing injuries. She did not respond to a message sent to her Twitter account today.

But obviously it’s a terrible irony that a trucker, working for the department tasked with creating safer conditions for people on bikes, failed to exercise due care before making a turn, injuring a cyclist. It appear that Carrasquillo wasn’t even ticketed for his actions — contacted today, the police department had no update on the case. The fact that the victim was a person hired by that same department to promote bike safety just makes the irony that much more vicious.

“Whitney, like other SAFE Ambassadors, has been performing crucial work, making our streets safer for everyone, particularly for people walking and biking,” noted Active Transportation Alliance spokesman Ted Villaire. “Whitney and the countless others who are hit by drivers while walking and biking are a reminder of how far our region still has to go before people of all ages and abilities are able to enjoy the benefits of safe streets. We have long had the knowledge necessary to create streets that are truly safe, but tragedies continue to happen because our elected leaders and public officials haven’t made the needed policy changes and infrastructure improvements.”

The SAFE in SAFE Ambassadors is an acronym for “Streets Are For Everyone.” But until the city of Chicago makes those necessary policy changes and infrastructure upgrades, that slogan will continue to ring hollow.

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