CHICAGO - City workers struggled today to plug a hole in the Chicago River's retaining wall, hoping to stop floodwaters that kept the downtown of the nation's third-largest city virtually shut down for a second day.
Mayor Richard Daley said city employees knew days and possibly weeks ago about a leak that may have caused the breach in the wall. The break caused river water to flood old freight tunnels beneath downtown Chicago.
"These people will be held accountable," Daley warned.
The automobile-size hole sent millions of gallons of water into the basements of downtown buildings yesterday, shutting power, forcing thousands of workers to flee and flooding basements in 10 downtown high-rises, including the 110-story Sears Tower.
Despite reports last night that the hole had been sealed, Dave Mosena, Daley's chief of staff, said this morning that some water continued to flow into the tunnels. Workers were still pouring cement into the hole early today.
"We are not out of the water by any means," Mosena said. "We have no indication that the leak is completely secured."
Meanwhile, workers began a dramatic and unprecedented project to drain some 250 million gallons of water out of the tunnel system by connecting it to a larger tunnel - the Deep Tunnel, which can carry a billion gallons of water - through a vertical shaft.
The 50-mile long system of freight tunnels, opened in 1904 for moving supplies and garbage to and from office buildings in the crowded downtown area, is about 35 feet underground. The 35-mile-long Deep Tunnel, built during the last decade, is 225 feet below ground and was designed to handle flood water and pollution.
The project connecting the two tunnel systems will take eight days to construct, an official of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District said last night.
Plans have not yet been made for what may need to be done inside the tunnels - which now hold fiber-optic telephone lines and electrical cables crucial to downtown businesses - and to deal with water damage and possible pollutants left behind.
Commonwealth Edison Vice President Donald Petkus said that electricity could be out until tomorrow night in some areas of the downtown core.
Commonwealth Edison spokesman John Hogan said 500 to 600 workers had been tabbed to restore power once the basements of buildings had been pumped dry.
"We have a big job in front of us," Hogan said.
Experts said there was little danger that the downtown high-rise buildings would collapse because of the underground flooding. The concrete and steel foundations of downtown high-rises reach 80 feet below street level to bedrock.
The effort to plug the hole in the river began yesterday morning when the first of 65 truckloads of gravel and broken concrete was dumped into the river. As the day proceeded, the hole seemed to swallow all that was thrown at it until, in mid-afternoon, the whirlpool swirling into the break began to choke on the loads.
When the first loads of gravel failed to stem the floodwaters, many other ideas were considered, but discarded. At one point, a 6-foot by 10-foot steel plate was to be lowered into the water, but officials decided against it because it was unclear if it would work.
The most unusual idea was to try an old Navy trick, dumping mattresses that had been donated to the city into the water on the theory that they would be sucked into the hole. A barge loaded with green and white twin-size mattresses stood by throughout the day, but they were never pressed into service.
Work to plug the hole was hampered by a lack of information. Fire Department divers could not be sent into the water because they might be sucked into the tunnels, and underwater cameras were of little use because the water was too murky.
While workers struggled to stop up the hole, people around the downtown core found their lives disrupted by the onslaught of nature. And with ingenuity, anger and humor, they made do:
-- At 5:57 a.m. yesterday Bill McGing, the overnight boiler room engineer at the Merchandise Mart, knew something was very wrong. Water was inexplicably pouring into the third and deepest sub-basement of the building. McGing grabbed a nearby telephone and phoned the fire department, starting the alarm.
"He actually heard the sound of the water rushing in," said Thomas Kennedy, executive vice president for the Merchandise Mart.
City Police Superintendent Matt Rodriguez, whose appointment yesterday was overshadowed by the flood, also said he had an early clue that something was very wrong. "I knew there were big problems when we got reports of fish in basements," he said. "That's when the full brunt hit."
-- In the Marquette Restaurant, a group therapy session, already booted from its usual setting, was interrupted by an order to evacuate the building. Asked if the order came at a critical moment, one of the patients said, "When you're in therapy, they're all critical moments."
-- In the lobby of the darkened Palmer House Hilton hotel, about 20 visiting Sears executives circled their chairs campfire-style around a pile of chemically luminescent yellow glow sticks, grown men and women gathered around children's toys that the hotel kept on hand for just such an occasion.
"Do you have any hot dogs?" joked a voice from the darkness.
-- The world's tallest building, the Sears Tower, closed at about 12:45 p.m. Sears management informed its 5,000 workers via the company's public address system, and building officials notified employers of the other 7,000 office workers in the tower by telephone.
"They were all in pretty good spirits," said Dorreen Metzler, a guard in the 110-story building. "They were all able to use the elevators."
-- As the waters were rising in the sub-basements of the County Building, workers staged a gallant rescue. Much of what they were trying to save was irreplaceable - thousands of birth, death and marriage certificates, some dating back to the time of the Great Chicago Fire.
Working in the deep recesses of the building where few venture, they stacked dusty cartons and frayed volumes on top of desks, file cabinets or anything else that would keep the documents off the floor. And when the workers ran out of room, they piled the stuff haphazardly in the building's lobby, and then threw a tarp over it.
"It would have meant a lot of heartache," said Jessica Valencia, deputy director of the Bureau of Vital Statistics, reflecting on the disaster that was averted.
-- Johnny McKay sat in his wheelchair in the dark lobby of one downtown building, watching the commotion unfold around him.
It was noon, and McKay had been sitting in the lobby since about 10:30 a.m., when police officers and firefighters carried him down the stairs from the North Central Dialysis Centers on the 11th floor.
"Right now, I'm feeling pretty lousy," McKay said. "I just want to get out of this place. I can't stand all of this hogwash."
McKay was one of about a dozen kidney patients who were stuck on the 11th floor after the electricity was shut off. McKay, who has received dialysis treatment at the center for 20 years, only got two hours of a three-hour treatment session yesterday.
And although McKay was no longer stranded, the phone number for the person to drive him home was locked in the phone bank on the 11th floor. After police evacuated the building, they barred anyone from going back upstairs. He had to wait for his ride to arrive at 12:30 p.m.
"I'm starting to hurt," said McKay, whose kidneys have not functioned for years. "If only somebody could call my ride."
One small ray of sunshine came from the Internal Revenue Service, which gave Chicago taxpayers affected by the flood a week's extension on the April 15 filing deadline. Taxpayers were advised to write "Chicago flood" at the top of their return.
"We will accept the honor of the taxpayer signing the return," IRS spokesman Mike McGrail said.
-- Even as the river water continued to seep into the tunnels yesterday, legal experts were debating the inevitable legal question: Who will sue whom to pay for the mess.
Lawyers and insurance industry officials say it could take years to sort out responsibility and liability for the millions of dollars in losses from the flooding.
The catastrophe is expected to raise complicated questions about liability for maintaining turn-of-the-century tunnels, the specific language in thousands of insurance policies and how the courts will interpret provisions of a state law that gives municipalities immunity from damages under certain circumstances.
"This event has caused a tremendous economic loss," said Hugh Strawn, director of catastrophe services for the Property Loss Research Bureau of the Alliance of American Insurers. "We're talking multimillion dollars, but it is far too early to put a specific figure on it."
-- Compiled from Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and Associated Press.