Editor’s note: Eighteen years ago, a Dave Matthews Band tour bus passing over the Chicago River unleashed a torrent of foul-smelling waste onto a tour boat and passengers below. At the time, nobody knew who was responsible for the dumping, but the Chicago Tribune was first to report it based on interviews with passengers, including a Tribune reporter, and the tour boat company. The incident would eventually be connected to the band, and criminal charges, apologies and at least one lawsuit would follow. Read the original story and see additional coverage below.
At the outset of a Chicago River boat tour Sunday, Capt. Sonja Lund deadpanned that passengers should not look up with their mouths open when passing under the city’s grated bridges, lest they get a true “taste of Chicago.”
About 15 minutes later, passengers got more than that. They got a deluge when the boat was doused with a foul “liquid substance” that appeared to drop from one or two charter buses as the boat passed under the Kinzie Street bridge, passengers and tour officials said.
Witnesses said they had just begun the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s 1 p.m. tour when they passed under the bridge and a cascade of a “brownish-yellow” substance rained on them. About two-thirds of the passengers seated on the upper deck of Chicago’s Little Lady were soaked. Passengers said they looked up to see at least one, possibly two charter buses rumbling above.
A volunteer tour guide at the boat’s helm reassured passengers that they had been splashed with water. But the foul smell prompted suspicion.
There was “stunned silence initially. Then sort of this horrible realization as they began to smell themselves as to what happened,” said Steedman Bass, 35, of Boston, who was a passenger on the boat but was not sprayed. “It was horrific.”
Passengers shouted that police should be called and demanded the boat be turned around. Within minutes, the tour headed back to the dock at Michigan Avenue and Lower Wacker Drive, speeding as “fast as the boat would go,” Lund said.
Some passengers became sick from the smell and made use of the boat’s lower-deck bathrooms, Bass said.
At the dock, the 120 passengers disembarked and were given refunds for the $25 tickets, exchanges or open-ended tickets for later tours. Some were given cab fare to get back to hotels and some passengers’ dry-cleaning bills will be paid, foundation officials said. The boat’s crew swabbed the deck clean and set off only slightly delayed for the 3 p.m. tour.
“We feel very badly for these people who have had this day’s event ruined,” said Bastiaan Bouma, vice president of marketing and tours for the foundation. In 50 years of operation, the tour has never experienced something like this, he said.
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“Obviously, this wasn’t our fault. But we were just trying to make it as comfortable for the passengers as possible.”
Bouma said that he was told that someone recorded license plate numbers from the bus or buses and reported the plates to police. He said he hoped to know the name of the company by Monday morning and would demand the company’s buses be inspected for defects.
“Tomorrow morning we’ll find out what buses were involved, and hopefully we’ll get some answers,” he said.
Police confirmed a report had been made, but said it was not being investigated as a crime.
A local tour bus company official said he had never heard of a bus unloading liquid waste into the river from a bridge. Charter bus companies typically contract with disposal companies to get rid of their waste or dump it at their own disposal sites, he said.
Passengers said they were shocked at the awful timing of the improbable hit.
“If you tried to orchestrate this, it would be an almost impossible scenario,” Bass said.
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