DOWNTOWN — A man whose family said he was a talented actor on Chicago's improv scene died after he fell down a chimney shaft at a Magnificent Mile hotel Thursday morning, officials said.
The man, identified by the Cook County medical examiner's office as 23-year-old Nicholas Wieme, of the 4800 block of North Albany Avenue, had gone up to the roof of the Intercontinental Hotel with his girlfriend to explore the observation area and found it unlocked, Chicago Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford said.
"The assumption is he was able to get through the roof by just pulling on the door," Langford said.
Rescuers were called at 1:09 a.m., initially thinking a person had threatened to jump off the hotel at 505 N. Michigan Ave., according to Michael Fox, chief of the Fire Department's special operations.
Firefighters arrived and realized Wieme fell about 20 feet down the chimney, Fox said. Firefighters then attempted a "confined space" rescue.
Firefighters initially rappelled down the chimney, only to realize they would not be able to rescue the man from that direction, Fox said. The victim appeared to be unconscious when firefighters responded, and they were not able to communicate with him, Langford said.
Crews of more than 125 firefighters and paramedics cut through duct work and into the chimney from two floors below where the man landed in order to extricate him.
It was treacherous work, Fox said, as the space the Wieme fell on was thick with silt, and a false move could have sent him falling.
The 23-year-old was taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital in "severely critical condition," Fox said. He was pronounced dead at 5:15 a.m., according to the medical examiner's office.
A budding film director, comedian and improv actor who grew up in Pipeline, Minn., he moved to Chicago after graduating from Minnesota State University Moorhead, his brother Jamie Wieme, 30, said.
"Everything he's ever done, he's been really good at," his oldest brother said. "Everything he touched turned to gold."
Improv was his brother's latest obsession, and one he was successfully pursuing in Chicago, he brother said.
"Nick is as good as they come, period," Jamie Weime said. "He's phenomenal."
He was on improv team "Villain" at the prestigous iO theater, which boasts alumni such as Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Mike Meyers, among others. The theater selects only about 10 percent of those who audition for each team, said Matt Higbee, the "Villain" team coach.
"Nick was an extremely talented improviser," said Higbee, who said Wieme was one of 10 players chosen among more than 60 who tried out for a spot. "[He was] a tenacious artist, and he approached his art and his life with a lot of playfulness and fun.
"The only thing he loved more than his art was his family," Higbee added.
He kept close ties to his family, who live throughout the Midwest, including his mother, father and another brother, age 26. He had "throngs and throngs of friends" in Chicago, his oldest brother said.
"The only thing he took seriously was his family and friends, who he was fiercely loyal to," Jamie Weime said. "He'd do anything for anybody."
"I think we're going to have to put his funeral in a stadium," he added.
Wieme was a fun-loving, kind guy who threw plenty of parties at his Albany Park home with his housemates, including a recent Christmas party, neighbor Norma Rodriguez said.
"I can't believe it was him," Rodriguez said. "That's so sad."
Wieme reportedly was trying to take photos when he fell, according to the Chicago Tribune. He was able to communicate with his girlfriend via text messages or calls until about 3:15 a.m., the Tribune reported.
There was no grating on the top of the chimney that could have prevented the fall,
Most rescuers had left the scene by 5:30 a.m.
The hotel issued an email statement Thursday morning.
"The InterContinental Magnificent Mile holds the safety, comfort and well-being of our guests and employees as our top priority and concern," said Raymond Vermolen, general manager for the hotel. "Our thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of the guest at this difficult time. The hotel staff will continue to cooperate fully with authorities in their investigation. All further questions should be directed to the Chicago Police Department."
In a November interview, hotel spokesman Dan Egan said the rooftop of the Intercontinental, including the observation deck inside the dome, are privately owned and "not publicly accessible."