Christy Anderson had just left Wright-Way Rescue to attend a staff meeting when the frantic telephone call came in.
“They were just screaming,” she said of her employees at the Niles no-kill animal shelter she opened nearly five years ago. “I was trying to find out if everyone was OK — and they didn’t know.”
It was just before 1 p.m., Oct. 2, and a Chicago Public Schools bus had just crashed through the front of the building, the front of the vehicle wedged well inside the entryway. Rubble from the brick structure rained down on top of the Alltown bus and the walkway below.
Tom Carlson was doing clean-up work for Wright-Way, 7135 W. Touhy Ave., when he heard a noise that sounded like “a truck’s squealing tires.”
“I looked out the side of the building and I saw the yellow bus sitting there,” he said. “I realized the bus was a little too close the building, so I ran to the front and saw it was a school bus. I opened the back door and told the driver, ‘You’ve got to get out of here.’”
The bus didn’t have any students, and Carlson said he helped the 62-year-old driver and her 22-year-old assistant escape through the rear doors. He then ran back around the other side of the shelter to help employees remove the 15 to 20 animals that were inside.
“Once everybody got out, I went back in and starting getting the dogs out of their crates, getting them away from the rubble,” he said.
Niles Police Sgt. Robert Tornabene said the bus was heading south on Harlem Avenue and making a left turn onto eastbound Touhy Avenue at the Niles-Chicago border when the driver told police that she lost control of the bus. The vehicle jumped a curb on the north side of Touhy and crashed into Wright-Way.
The driver and her assistant were checked out at the scene by paramedics, but were not injured, Tornabene said. The driver was ticketed for failure to reduce speed to avoid an accident and was undergoing drug and alcohol testing as required by her employer, he said.
No one inside the building, human or animals, was injured, though a cat named Bobbin was missing briefly after its cage reportedly turned over due to the impact of the crash.
Passersby, like Bogdan Wieczorek, jumped in to help, some just to hold the dogs until they could move to temporary shelters.
Kim Bergman, a kennel technician, said all employees were at the rear of the building when the bus crashed through the front. She recalled hearing what, at first, sounded like a “drilling” noise.
“I just heard everything crash down and I ran out and I just stood there for a second,” she recalled. “I stood there and froze; it was like I was dreaming.”
Cats were quickly placed in carriers and dogs put on leashes or in cages. A refrigerator containing medication was removed from the shelter and plugged in next door at Golf Mill Medical Center. Toys were brought out to keep the dogs calm in the aftermath.
“I’m still in shock. It’s unreal, truthfully,” Bergman said as she held puppy Shelby in her arms and looked out over the rubble that used to be the entrance to Wright-Way.
Dave Drehobl, CEO of Georgia Nut Company in Skokie and a member of the Wright-Way Board of Directors, agreed to temporarily house the displaced animals in a building belonging to his company until a longer-term solution can be found.
“Every Friday we bring in 50 to 70 cats and dogs,” he explained. “If it was a Friday, this would be a devastation and somebody would have gotten killed.”
Anderson, the founder and director of Wright-Way, said 75 animals ready for adoption were expected to be brought to the shelter on Oct. 4 from an admission and care center in southern Illinois.
She is not sure what the future now holds for her organization.
“We don’t have the finances to rebuild and it’s a rented building,” Anderson said. “We need a new home.”
The nonprofit organization was on track to rescue about 5,000 animals this year, she added.
“For two years consecutively, we have placed more dogs than any no-kill shelter in the state of Illinois on about 10 percent of the budget of similarly-sized organizations,” she said. “So we don’t have a fund we can dip into.”
Renovation work to the building had also recently been done, explained Carlson and volunteer Sue Linse, who hurried over from Des Plaines when her sister told her about the accident.
“We just made so many improvements in the last few months,” she said. “This is really tragic.”