By Peter Nickeas
12:50 PM CDT, July 17, 2014
Standing on Exchange Avenue at 81st Street, looking up at the police helicopter, was the first time I didn't feel like I was in Chicago.
When a helicopter is straight overhead, you can hear it thump. There's a grinding buzz as it approaches, but when it's hovering or moving slowly above, you can hear each rotation.
It was the end of the Fourth of July weekend and Exchange was lit up. Police in green coveralls and black flak jackets patrolled with civilianized rifles made for war. SUVs packed with more firepower were driven into a three-block-by-three-block perimeter.
The air was heavy. Everyone had a glaze over his or her skin. Pants and shirts, duty belts, bulletproof vests. Rifles or handguns. Tasers. Sweaty hairlines.
Soupy air. Mosquitoes. Chicago sits low next to the lake, and overgrown thickets fill vacant lots that dot the South Chicago neighborhood.
Streetlights were out in places and blocked by trees elsewhere. Neighbors walked the sidewalks where the dirty yellow light did not reach, asking what the hell was going on. Officers scanned the ground with LED flashlights, casting a bluish pall as they moved toward the perimeter line.
And with all this weaponry and manpower — enough to take over an airport or maybe even a city center — someone shot up a house two blocks away. The gunfire sent officers scattering, some clutching their belts with one hand as they ran.
I travel to crime scenes; it's what I do. I fly around the city, from point A to point B, getting better at making sense of what I see.
In a little more than two years while working overnight at the Chicago Tribune, I've been to more than 450 scenes. I see cops chasing people, people chasing each other, people fighting each other. I hear gunfire. Sometimes I see it.
But it was the drumbeat of the helicopter and the large-scale manhunt that finally did it for me.
In no more than a minute or two, three people were shot.
Two people walked out of a store on Exchange and someone started shooting. Nothing unique there. The shooter even hit his targets: a 25-year-old man and a 19-year-old woman.
The man was taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital with a head wound.
"He's dead, but he don't know it yet," a supervisor said at the scene.
He died the next day. The woman was in better shape, with a thigh wound, but also taken to a trauma center.
While the shooter was firing, a couple of other guys started chasing him and trading gunfire with him as they ran from near Exchange toward Escanaba Avenue, a short block west.
They missed each other, but their volley of bullets wounded a 48-year-old man standing on a porch. Another unlucky noncombatant, but lucky enough to have only an ankle wound.
Eight minutes after police arrived, they heard more gunfire and screamed "10-1" into their radios, code for "officer in distress." Someone had fired from a porch a few blocks away while the cops were swarming the neighborhood. Police found only a cluster of shell casings on a porch and took no one into custody.
This scene on Exchange played out during a 13-hour stretch when 30 people were shot in Chicago. The escalation of force from basic patrol to infantry tactics made sense. Standing there, I thought, this all makes sense.
It shouldn't, but that's the way it is. And that's the essence of covering crime in Chicago. Of working overnights. Of covering more than 80 people shot in a holiday weekend. Of living here.
As reporters we can use these scenes to explain what's happening to a neighborhood in a city of neighborhoods. But none of the observations captures how it feels to cover this night after night.
In short, it feels bad. We're paid observers of human misery. We go toward bad things, watch people during the worst moments of their lives and hope they'll talk to us.
It needs to be done. I think our work adds to the public conversation. But it's stressful, it's exhausting, it's never-ending. Things that shouldn't be normal become so, to the point where it's almost comical. We get slap-happy. We argue. Gallows humor creeps into our talk.
Before we went to the scene on Exchange, photographer E. Jason Wambsgans and I were standing outside a murder scene in the West Pullman neighborhood. The victim had been taken away, and we were standing near our cars a few houses away from a lone squad car.
We heard a few shots, then a "zing." It sounded like a ricochet, like a round had bounced off a piece of metal nearby.
A few seconds later — it can be difficult to judge time when you're in the middle of something stressful — there was another shot that sounded like it came from a different gun.
We looked at each other, like, OK, it's gunfire. We heard it, we're OK, no point in ducking now. Let's call it in because they're shooting up the block.
While I called 911, Wambsgans tapped on the police car's window and told the officer what we saw and heard. Which wasn't much, given the night: gunfire and one or two guys ducking between cars.
So we stood there. It was three or four minutes after I called that officers were dispatched. A couple of unmarked cars rolled by, no blue lights. 911 calls had come from a couple blocks east too. A guy turned up at Roseland Community Hospital a few blocks away, shot in the side.
It wasn't the first time either of us had been within a block or two of a shooting.
Wambsgans watched some kids creep up between cars and let off a few shots into a restaurant in Little Village. I drove toward a shots-fired call and found at least one person in the street shooting before everyone jumped into cars and raced past me and then rammed each other.
They disappeared into the Back of the Yards neighborhood and, a few minutes later, a cop shouldered a rifle and trained it on the front of the car as his partner crept close on the driver side with her hand on a pistol.
That's what it's like to cover violence in this city. Quiet. Then gunfire. Short, to-the-point bursts of violence.
But the July Fourth weekend was different. More intense, gunfire often erupting after police arrived, sometimes aimed at police.
If someone is willing to shoot with hundreds of officers around, how's it going to be when they're not there? Getting between scenes is the most dangerous part of the job and what makes me most nervous.
Then there's the heartbreak. We've been to dozens of scenes where a parent struggles with the sight of his or her dead child, arms and legs twisted on the pavement, maybe a sheet covering him up.
It doesn't matter that the kid was armed or that he would have returned fire if he'd had the chance. It doesn't matter that he was a stone-cold gangbanger, a leader of young men, a shooter for the gang, a dope dealer. These are things worth exploring, but at that moment, a parent's grief is real. And it matters.
The screaming is the worst part. It's like going to a wake for someone you don't know. Except it's only been minutes since the loved one died. Not just dead, but dead on a dirty street, surrounded by crime tape.
As reporters we can't numb ourselves to this because being able to feel makes us good.
The job has changed me, and I've accepted that. It has started to wear on me. It's OK because I think it makes me more sensitive to what the people are going through.
I don't like surprises. Sudden noises — my dogs barking, a pan dropping — make me jump. I get angry a lot easier. I don't like large crowds where people drink because I know how it leads to conflict, even gunfire. I try to let off steam by running or lifting weights or jumping around to the point of exhaustion.
What I tell myself — at every scene — is that people live here. By choice or not, they make their homes here, so that's where we should be.
There are combatants among the onlookers. Some are resigned to the violence; some accept it if the alternative is cooperating with police.
But everywhere we go, we encounter families. They like their neighbors, they wish the schools were better, but they live in a community. People know each other.
We talked to a woman in Englewood who was trying to get her parents out of their home.
"They shoot out here every day," she explained. "They may not hit nobody, but they're shooting."
She wants her parents somewhere away from the city, but they don't want to go. Her father doesn't want to be run off by gangbangers.
After we heard the shooting in West Pullman, we left the neighborhood. We went to the next shooting in South Chicago. Then we went somewhere else. To the people we met, gun violence is not an abstraction they read about. It's what they live with.
That's why the job is important.
Peter Nickeas is a Tribune reporter.
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