Five Days of Hell (7-16-1995)

“Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody ever does anything about it.”

Mark Twain said that.  Ordinarily, Chicagoans would have laughed along with this famous bit of wisdom.  But after five days of  extreme temperatures, few people were in the mood for humor.  The situation was becoming serious.

Do you remember the hellish heat wave of twenty-five years ago?

It began on Wednesday, July 12.  That day the temperature at O’Hare reached 98.  On Thursday the high was 106, a new record.  Friday got to 102, and Saturday topped off at 99.  It was humid, too—none of that “dry heat” business like Phoenix or Vegas.

Now it was Sunday.  No rain in the forecast.  No cold front.  Would temperatures bounce back over 100 again?


Out in the neighborhoods people were dying.  The papers said the toll had already passed 300.  Most of the victims were elderly, and had no air-conditioning.

Chicago had suffered through a major heat wave in 1934.  There had been fewer deaths then.  And air-conditioning had been rare in those days.

But crime had been rare, too.  Sixty years before, people in stifling apartments could leave their windows open all night without fear.  Thousands had beaten the heat by sleeping in parks.  Those options weren’t practical in 1995.

One thing had not changed.  As soon as temperatures closed in on 100, private citizens began opening fire hydrants.  Once again, there were pictures of kids in bathing suits running through the spray—that was as much of a heat wave cliche as the man frying an egg on the sidewalk.


The city had set up eleven cooling stations.  Though the program had been widely publicized, few people were showing up.  Meanwhile, the county morgue was overwhelmed with heat-related deaths.  Refrigerated trailers were pressed into service to store the backlog of bodies.

Sunday, July 16.  The Mercury climbed to 94.  It hovered there, then slowly dropped.  Monday’s temperatures were in the 80s.  The worst of it was over.

The final death count was about 700—there was no way of getting an exact figure.  A few critics blasted the Daley administration for its response to the crisis, or ComEd for the widespread power outages.  But most Chicagoans were satisfied just to have cooler weather.



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