Whistleblower targets Children's Memorial Hospital's heliport
Anonymous letter says helicopter pilots fear landing at hospital's new pad
12/07/2011 10:00 PM
Opponents of the new Children’s Memorial Hospital’s heliport hope an anonymous whistleblower will force a second look at the controversial helicopter landing pad.
Last week, the neighborhood group Streeterville Organization of Active Residents announced that it had reached out to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s inspector general with an anonymous letter it had received.
The letter, SOAR said, warned of the potential safety risks posed by the helipad, slated to begin operations atop the hospital’s new Streeterville facility in 2012.
Children’s Memorial was recently granted operating rights for the helipad by the Illinois Department of Transportation following a series of public hearings and an agency-funded study looking at wind conditions and the viability of helicopter flight around the 22-story new Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago at 225 E. Chicago Ave.
The letter cited the alleged opinions of emergency helicopter pilots from the University of Chicago Medical Center, a group apparently responsible for most of the flights out of the hospital’s current location in Lincoln Park, saying they’ve alluded to fears that Children’s Memorial’s Streeterville helipad would be unsafe to approach and exit by air.
“They say there is nowhere to safely land in an emergency during landing and takeoff, and their helicopter does not have the power to successfully fly away on one engine, because of the nearness of the surrounding buildings,” read the letter, postmarked on Oct. 19.
The statement goes onto suggest that pilots at the university have been “prohibited from discussing this subject with anyone” because staff at U. of C. and the pilots’ employers “don’t want to lose revenues or cause problems for Children’s.”
Patty Frost, a board member of SOAR, said that the letter’s message shouldn’t be ignored.
“It’s clearly something that needs to be investigated, because if individuals with legitimate safety concerns were asked to keep quiet … that’s a very serious matter,” she said.
SOAR has been a leading opponent of the helipad since it was first proposed in 2007. The resident group has testified in a number of hearings focused on the helipad, and has paid wind and flight expects to conduct research on Children’s downtown site, which sits amongst a number of urban skyscrapers.
After receiving the anonymous message, the group filed the letter with the inspector general’s office around the beginning of November, and subsequently sent the statement to city and state officials and to U. of C.
“We wanted individuals who had the authority to conduct investigations and also really protect a whistleblower moving forward,” she said.
Frost said her group has had no contact with any helicopter pilots from the university and that the pilots had been “inconspicuously absent from the proceedings” regarding the helipad up to this point.
According to Frost, representatives from the inspector general’s office said they had begun an inquiry into the matter, and that the complaint for the case would be available in May, just one month before the helipad’s scheduled opening.
David Wonnenberg, a spokesman for the inspector general, declined to comment on the anonymous letter or the existence of an investigation into the matter at this time.
Frost said that SOAR had received confirmation from the inspector general that an investigation was underway, but was unable to provide a case number because it had been submitted confidentially.
Cheryl L. Reed, director of strategic communications for the U. of C. Medical Center, said that the institution was “willing to cooperate with any governmental inquiry.”
“The University of Chicago Medical Center has the only hospital-based helicopter response program in the greater Chicago area,” she wrote in an emailed statement on Tuesday. “The hospital, its staff and its pilots are dedicated to quality, safety, and patient care.”
Reed said that the medical center had first learned of the anonymous letter last week.
News of the letter and the inspector general’s involvement was first reported by ABC-7 News.
In a statement released by Children’s Memorial following news of the letter, the hospital said that the five-year evaluation that led to the approval of the helipad, which included studies and input from “the most respected experts in the field,” had served to address the concerns underlined by the anonymous author.
“The concerns addressed in the letter … were squarely addressed by expert testimony and documentation provided to IDOT,” the statement read.
Children’s Memorial spokeswoman Mary Kate Daly further noted that there had been no official confirmation from the inspector general’s office about the matter.
The letter may represent the last chance for SOAR to win footing in the fight to keep helicopters from flying in Streeterville.
IDOT recently denied the group’s request for a rehearing on the hospital’s operating rights for the helipad. In a Nov. 30 response letter, the agency stated that it had “conducted an open, thoughtful and unbiased analysis of CMH’s application.”
In light of the safety risks foretold in the anonymous letter, Frost said that Children’s Memorial would be wise to suspend its plans to conduct flight tests and ultimately open the heliport until the warnings are addressed.
“Given the federal inquiry and the concerns that were expressed in that letter, we’re hoping that they’ll refrain from that, because that would just defy common sense,” she said.