Feds may investigate helipad at children's hospital

November 30, 2011 (CHICAGO)

The proposed helipad is in the city's Streeterville neighborhood on the Near North Side. That helipad has been opposed by some area residents but was approved by the state.

The US Department of Transportation is looking into concerns written in an anonymous letter that questions the safety of the helipad.

After a summer of hearings, in mid-October the Illinois Department of Transportation okayed the hospital's proposed rooftop helipad, an assent that took into account the prior approvals of the City of Chicago and the Federal Aviation Administration. The letter they received is now the subject of federal questions.

Twenty-two stories up is where Lurie Children's Hospital officials say lives will be saved: A heliport to receive urgent medical cases. But opponents recently received an anonymous letter, supposedly on behalf of four University of Chicago medical helicopter pilots who fly to the existing Children's Memorial Hospital in Lincoln Park who think the new setup is dangerous.

"There is nowhere to safely land in an emergency during landing or takeoff," the letter says. The pilots think the kind of helicopter used "does not have the power to successfully fly away on one engine, because of the nearness of surrounding buildings."

The letter goes on to say the pilots brought up their fears to superiors but have been "absolutely" told to keep quiet.

"It is obviously from a concerned citizen who is trying to find a path to share safety concerns," said Patty Frost, Streeterville Organization of Active Residents (SOAR).

SOAR favors medical flights landing a mile away at the Coast Guard station on Navy Pier, a plan the hospital would employ when the weather won't allow a rooftop landing.

"The city municipal code outlines specific areas for what emergency landing areas can be and not be, and there aren't any in that neighborhood," Frost said.

SOAR sent the anonymous letter to the federal transportation department, which said its inspector general's office had assigned a case number to the matter. A department official would neither confirm nor deny an investigation had started, but said a case number is a sign the matter -- among the thousands of requests it receives -- will be followed up.

As for Lurie, the fact that the letter had instigated a federal response was news. Still, the hospital, which will open in June, stands by its helipad. In a statement, it said the helipad hearings were "the result of five years of detailed studies...the concerns addressed in the letter...were squarely addressed by expert testimony and documentation provided to IDOT."

The Illinois Department of Transportation says they stand by their findings that the hospital is a safe location to operate a helipad.

The federal response, whatever it may turn out to be, may not be known for six months, and a Freedom of Information request has to be sent to Washington to get what their official response to this letter might turn out to be.

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