CHICAGO – An aspiring comedian was attempting to take a photo from atop the historic Intercontinental Hotel when he fell 22 feet down the building's smokestack and later died, authorities said Thursday.
It took rescue crews four hours to pull Nicholas Wieme, 23, a Pipestone, Minn., native who had been living in Chicago, from the angled portion of the smokestack where he was wedged. The fall happened in an area of the Michigan Avenue hotel that is closed off from the general public, officials said.
"We found the best way to get out him was to go about two floors below, and we had to cut the duct work for the chimney, which was made out of steel. And eventually we ended up sliding the victim down into the hole and removing him from the building," said Michael Fox, the Chicago Fire Department's special operations chief.
After the spot where he was wedged, the chimney is vertical for about 42 floors to the basement.
During the rescue operation, Wieme spoke to firefighters and used his cellphone to contact his girlfriend, who was on the roof with him and had called 911 after he fell. He apparently lost consciousness before he was pulled from the smokestack because he eventually stopped talking, authorities said.
Wieme was taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead early Thursday.
Wieme took up the hobby of stand-up comedy while in college at Minnesota State University in Moorhead, Minn., his family said in a statement. After graduating in 2011, he followed his dream to Chicago, where he switched from comedy to improv and found even more success.
"Those that watched him perform often attested that Nick had a way of unintentionally 'stealing the show,' " the family said. "Nick's amazing talents were only topped by fierce love and loyalty to his family and friends. Nick was truly a family man, a phenomenal friend (as literally hundreds would attest to), and would do anything to help anyone."
Wieme performed on a regular basis at various clubs, including iO Theater, one of Chicago's top comedy companies. His friends and colleagues gathered there to mourn his loss Thursday afternoon.
Wieme had been with iO for close to two years, said his coach, Matt Higbee. He won a spot on Higbee's team about eight months ago. Only about 10 percent of the students there make teams, so Wieme's selection was a testament to his talent, Higbee said.
"Nick was a tenacious artist. He always wanted to affect people with the work that he did in his art. He was not only a skilled improviser but a really great filmmaker and a fabulous storyteller above all. He just had really joyous energy, and approached his work in comedy and as well as life with complete playfulness," Higbee said.
The Cook County Medical Examiner's office said the cause of death will not be available until Friday afternoon.
In a statement Thursday, the hotel's general manager, Raymond Vermolen, said his staff is cooperating fully with authorities' investigation.