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Operation Old Town

Sam Zell's birthday party sends the city ducking for cover.

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When Sam Zell throws a party, the whole city takes notice. He's long applied the bigger-is-better recipe to his birthday celebrations, entertaining guests with surprise performances by the likes of James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and the Beach Boys. The real estate mogul turned 60 this September 20 with a massive bash on Goose Island. The highlight was a fireworks display at ten o'clock.

"I thought we were being attacked," recalls Hillary Dietrich, who lives on Crilly Court just west of Wells. Her neighbors ran out to the street to see what was happening. Some sped away in their cars. "We could hear the explosions rumbling in the distance, but we couldn't see any fireworks. It was truly scary."

Goose Island is private property, and Zell had secured permission for his fireworks from the Chicago Fire Department. When reached for comment, fire department spokesman Kevin McGregor snapped, "It has nothing to do with the climate of the country. That's all I'm going to say about it."

Zell apparently didn't see a connection either. He's richer than bin Laden, and not quite as hostile. Queries to his office were answered with the sound of a slamming telephone.

911 spokesman Larry Langford says, "We did have a spike in calls. Typically between 4 PM and 12 midnight we might have 220 to 250 calls in a 15-minute segment. When the fireworks display took off, we peaked at just under 700 calls in that 15-minute period."

Holly Thomas performed at the party and thought it was a great success. "The mood was pretty much like, 'This is really amazing!' But not when we came back to shore and talked to people who live around the area. It was really disturbing for them. But they were fantastic fireworks!"

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