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Autopsy: Man who fell down hotel smokestack died of trauma

An autopsy today found that a man who plunged down a smokestack on the roof of a Michigan Avenue hotel died from injuries suffered in the fall, and his death has been ruled an accident.

Nicholas Wieme, 23, had climbed onto the roof of the InterContinental Chicago hotel, with its famed onion-shaped dome, on Wednesday night to take photographs when the night went terribly wrong.

Wieme fell about 20 feet down the smokestack and became wedged, beginning an elaborate, hourslong rescue attempt by firefighters that ultimately proved futile.

Friends and family mourned a young man they said was a creative force, an aspiring comedian and improv actor who had so impressed his coaches at iO Chicago, an improv theater, that they made him a regular on a team.

"He was a force to watch. He was a terrific artist," said Matt Higbee, Wieme's coach at iO Chicago for the last eight months.

Wieme, who lived on the North Side, had been dining with a friend at Michael Jordan's restaurant in the Michigan Avenue hotel when, police said, they decided to "explore" the building. Wieme and the woman took an elevator to the top floor and walked onto the rooftop deck, a restricted area, through an unsecured door, officials said.

Firefighters later learned that Wieme had fallen down the smokestack, according to Fire Department spokeswoman Meg Ahlheim.

Firefighters wrapped ropes around a structure in the roof dome and lowered a single man, a firefighter/paramedic, to Wierme's aid, and determined he was unconscious.

Crews used an electric handsaw to drill through the quarter-inch steel duct on the 39th floor, stirring up dust from insulation and soot from years of chimney buildup. They secured two wooden planks that would stop Wieme if he fell further, officials said.

"It turned very precarious because two feet after where we made the hole was a drop that would have went 42 floors to the basement," Special Operations Chief Michael Fox said. "So it took us a little time to cut the hole in the right spot and shore it up so when we brought him out he would not fall into the basement."

The paramedic in the chimney secured Wieme to a rescue board attached to a rope, and firefighters slowly lowered him to crews on the 39th floor. He was pulled out of the chimney just after 4:30 a.m. and taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital. There, he was pronounced dead at 5:15 a.m. An autopsy will be conducted Friday.

Raymond Vermolen, general manager of the hotel, released a statement saying InterContinental "holds the safety, comfort and well-being of our guests and employees as our top priority and concern. Our thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of the guest at this difficult time. The hotel staff will continue to cooperate fully with authorities in their investigation. All further questions should be directed to the Chicago Police Department."

Friends and family recalled Thursday how Wieme had long wanted to be a performer and later a director, and started making his own films when he was 16. Wieme grew up in Pipestone, Minn., a small town near the South Dakota border, the son of a radio announcer. There he worked in the town's movie theater.

"I think that's what sparked him," said his aunt, Linda Wieme, of Balaton, Minn.

Linda Wieme said his comedy reflected his character.

"He was a bubbly kid. I don't think I ever saw him upset," she said. "He always had some joke or something to lift your spirits. ... That's the reason he was a comedian, he was a very happy-go-lucky kid."

His brother Jamie Wieme said Nick "began taking up the hobby of stand-up comedy" while at Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Comedy led to acting, which led to Chicago and the improv scene, his brother said.

"Those that watched him perform often attested that Nick had a way of unintentionally stealing the show," his brother told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Wieme had fierce loyalty to his family and friends and would do anything for anyone, he said.

Higbee said he first noticed Wieme when he was affiliated with iO as a student and saw him earn a coveted spot there as a performer.

"He had such a joyousness," Higbee added, "and you couldn't help but watch him."

Wieme is survived by his parents, two brothers, a sister-in-law and a niece.

Tribune reporter Jeremy Gorner and Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter Paul Walsh contributed.

ehirst@tribune.com csadovi@tribune.com pnickeas@tribune.com

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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