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Remembering Chicago’s deadly heat wave

Twenty years ago this week, Chicago sweltered in heat that would grow more intense for five searing days. It was one of the deadliest natural disasters in modern American history.

More than 700 people died. Most of them were elderly, poor and often from tough neighborhoods. They were vulnerable to the heat. Fear. They suffered from frail bonds with the community and slow response from city officials.

Those deaths and the city’s response remain the big picture story of that tragic week. Here is a smaller view: Personal stories from people who experienced Chicago’s heat wave in 1995.

Do you have a story from the 1995 heat wave you’d like to share? Email us or call 888-915-9945.

Morning Shift: What Chicago learned from the Heat Wave
On WBEZ's Morning Shift, host Tony Sarabia explores what Chicago learned from the deadly 1995 event. Features a conversation with Eric Klinenberg, author of Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago.
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Yvonne Simpson Robinson remembers working as sergeant for the Chicago Police Department during the 1995 heat wave. (WBEZ/Andrew Gill)
‘It’s sad to know they were shut in like this.’
During the 1995 heat wave, Yvonne Simpson Robinson was working as a Chicago Police Sergeant in a district with a lot of senior citizens. As the death toll climbed, she spent her shifts transporting bodies out of homes.
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Duane Rajkowski, 66, of Uptown lost a friend who was living in a single-room hotel during the heat wave. (WBEZ/Andrew Gill)
'What do you expect? It’s a matter of poor people and rich people.'
In the summer of 1995, Duane Rajkowski lost a good friend to the heat. They both lived in the Uptown neighborhood on the North Side. Rajkowski says a lot of the bars were air-conditioned. The same wasn’t true for low-rent housing.
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Valerie Brown recalls her relationship with her late grandmother. (WBEZ/Andrew Gill)
‘What would make her think putting a nail in the window would keep her safe?’
Valerie Brown works at WBEZ as a master control operator. During the severe heat in July 1995, she was keeping track of her grandmother, who lived in a different neighborhood. One day, her grandmother didn’t reply to phone calls or pounding on the door.
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John Kennedy was working on an ambulance during the Chicago heat wave of 1995. (WBEZ/Andrew Gill)
'Listen, doc, this is our fifth heat stroke victim. Something’s going on.'
Today, John Kennedy is 58 and retired from the Chicago Fire Department. In 1995, he was an experienced emergency medical worker with the Fire Department. As Chicago’s heat wave was intensifying, he headed to work. He describes that day as “controlled chaos.”