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.
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.
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.”
Another witness who did see the moment of impact also believes Henry ran the red light. Bruce Boyer, a 55-year-old law professor at Loyola University, commutes regularly by bike from his Edgewater home to Loyola’s downtown campus via the Lakefront Trail and the Oak Street underpass.
At the time of the crash, Boyer was standing at the southeast corner of the intersection by the Drake Hotel, waiting to cross north to the beach underpass with his bike. From there he was able to watch the entire incident unfold.
Klingenberg was riding north on Michigan past vehicles that were stopped at the red light, Boyer says. “The biker just passed all of that stopped traffic and went into the intersection,” he recalls, adding that he definitely saw the courier go through the red.
However, like Jones, Boyer is convinced Henry also ran a red.
“I cannot say with certainty that I saw the color of the [bus driver’s] light as she entered the intersection,” he says in an e-mail. “But I can attest that when the collision occurred, traffic on southbound Lake Shore Drive had the right of way.” He says he knows this because he saw several eastbound cars on Oak clear the intersection, while drivers behind them had to stop because their light went red.
“I then looked [north] to Lake Shore Drive to watch for the traffic turning in front of me,” he says. “It was after I did this that I saw the biker coming towards the intersection, and then the bus start moving. I know the bus driver had no right of way because she did not start moving until seconds after the east-bound Oak Street traffic cleared.”
“I’m confident that she went into the intersection after the light turned red,” Boyer says. He added that the driver did not seem to hit the brakes until after she struck the cyclist.
“It’s important to me that if anyone’s passing judgment, whether it’s in a court, criminal or civil, or just in the court of public opinion, people should understand what actually happened,” he adds.
We have no way of knowing what Klingenberg was thinking as he approached the junction, or why he decided to proceed through the intersection the way he did, but a couple of possibilities come to mind. He may have incorrectly assumed he was about to get a green light—although Klingenberg’s girlfriend, 28-year-old Maja Perez, and others who knew him say that, as a professional bicyclist familiar with the city’s streetlight patterns, it’s unlikely he made that mistake.
Alternately, he may have known that traffic from the drive was about to get a turn signal, so he shouldn’t have had to worry about east-west traffic on Oak, although he would have had to watch out for vehicles turning north onto the drive from Oak on his way to the beach underpass.
Regardless, running the stoplight might not have cost Klingenberg his life if Henry had chosen to wait for her next green instead of proceeding through the intersection.
Chicago police detectives have reviewed video of the crash taken from an Office of Emergency Management and Communications camera at the southwest corner of Oak and Michigan, according to a statement from News Affairs, but have not determined whether or not the bus driver was at fault. (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.)
“Chicago Trolley is fully cooperating with the authorities with their investigation,” the company said in a statement. “Chicago Trolley takes safety as our top priority. Our thoughts and prayers go out to all involved.”
Attorney Jim Freeman from the bike-focused firm FK Law (a Streetsblog sponsor) says his firm plans to file a wrongful death lawsuit this week against Chicago Trolley and the bus driver on behalf of Blaine’s father, Walter Klingenberg.
“I have seen instances time and time again in which [the Chicago Police Department] blames a cyclist for a collision when it wasn’t their fault,” Freeman posted on Facebook a few days after the crash. “I guarantee when the truth comes out it won’t be as simple as ‘the cyclist blew the red.'”
Perez, who works at nonprofit community bike shops, says she’s currently focusing on ways to honor her boyfriend and ensure that his short life has a lasting legacy.
On the Friday after the crash, couriers gathered at the southwest corner of Oak and Michigan to offer a makeshift memorial, including candles, flowers, and a placard signed by dozens of Klingenberg’s friends and colleagues.
The sign includes the epitaph “RIP RYB”—short for the hashtag #RideYoBike. Perez taped to the pole a single-serving container of Frosted Flakes, one of Klingenberg’s favorite prework meals, and wrote on the box, “For you my love—Sorry I didn’t bring the milk.”
As of late Friday night, the memorial had been taken down, its contents placed by a nearby recycling bin. But someone had locked a ghostly white-painted bicycle wheel to the pole with Klingenberg’s nickname, “Beezy,” written on the hub.
Perez hopes that as the truth comes out about what happened to Klingenberg, his name will be cleared and he’ll no longer be viewed as a bicyclist who foolishly bombed an intersection and paid for it with his life.
After Klingenberg died, Perez’s relatives informed her that, during her brother’s wedding last March in Bakersfield, the courier told them he wanted to propose marriage and asked for their blessing.
“It’s unfair Blaine was taken from us so early and by such a terrible fate,” Perez says. “But I will make sure his death will change people’s views on street equality and spark a revolution towards safer streets.” v
John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.