Christy Anderson had just left Wright-Way Rescue to attend a staff meeting Wednesday 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.”
Just before 1 p.m. Wednesday, a Chicago Public Schools bus crashed through the front of the building . Rubble from the brick structure rained down on top of the Alltown bus.
Tom Carlson was doing cleanup work for Wright-Way, 7135 W. Touhy Ave., when he heard a noise that sounded like “a truck’s squealing tires.”
“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 wasn’t carrying any students, and Carlson said he helped the 62-year-old driver and her 22-year-old assistant escape through the rear doors. Then he ran back around the other side of the shelter to help employees remove 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 turning east onto Touhy Avenue from southbound Harlem at the Niles-Chicago border when the driver lost control of the bus. It jumped a curb on the north side of Touhy and crashed into the animal shelter.
The driver and her assistant weren’t 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 and no animals were injured. But a cat named Bobbin was missing briefly after the crash.
Passersby, including Bogdan Wieczorek, jumped in to help — some just to hold the dogs until they could be moved 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.
“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 were 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.
“I’m still in shock. It’s unreal, truthfully,” Bergman said as she held a puppy, Shelby, in her arms and looked out over the rubble that used to be the shelter’s entrance.
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 owned by 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 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.”