By Bridget Doyle
9:29 PM EDT, April 2, 2013
Barbara Laken last talked with her 80-year-old mother Saturday evening, when they chatted over the phone about where they would go for Easter brunch and what they would wear.
When Laken arrived at her mother's 17th-floor Gold Coast home the next morning, the door was ajar and her mother, Florence Banta, was nowhere to be found. There was no sign she had gone out — her purse and wallet were still inside the condo unit. The family called police.
On Tuesday, Laken was still shaken by what followed. Her mother's body was found Monday morning at the bottom of a trash chute in the building on the 1500 block of North Astor Street. Oddly, it was just more than a year ago that a teenager with Down syndrome and autism fell to his death down a trash chute in the same building.
Laken said the way her mother died was "horrifying."
"My mother was such a clean and neat woman — she was like a Martha Stewart," she said. "Every hair on her head was always in place. The thought of her landing in garbage is unthinkable."
Police said they were still investigating, but preliminary indications were that Banta's death was an accident. The Cook County medical examiner's office said Tuesday afternoon that the cause of death awaited further investigation.
"My mother was so cautious — she was risk-averse," Laken said. "It's hard for me to even imagine how this happened."
Banta's husband, Roger, died in July 2011 at 81, Laken said. The widow was planning to move out of the Astor Street building later this spring and into a building at Delaware Place and State Street that was closer to her hair salon and favorite shopping spots.
"She was excited about the move and excited for the future," Laken said. "After my dad died, she wanted a fresh start."
Elena Lugo, spokeswoman for the 1555 Astor Condominium Association, emailed a statement to the Tribune in which she offered condolences to Banta's family and said the condominium management company has been cooperating with law enforcement officers.
Fire safety experts said fatalities involving trash chutes are rare. But in February 2012, Charlie Manley, 16, died after falling 46 floors through a trash chute in the same 48-story Astor Street building. His death was ruled an accident.
Chicago's building code requires that "the minimum inside dimensions" of trash and laundry chutes be 18 inches, while there is no maximum size, said Susan Massel, spokeswoman for the Chicago Department of Buildings. The chutes also must be protected with self-closing doors that can prevent the spread of fire for at least 90 minutes.
Massel said garbage chutes are not included in annual building inspections, although the city looks at them "when buildings are being built."
A building could be cited for trash chutes that do not meet city code, she said, but the guidelines relate almost entirely to fire safety. The most common reasons a city inspector would be called to look at a building's trash chute would be if a chute door wasn't working or if there were odor issues, Massel said.
"The (Department of Buildings) has vent inspectors, air-conditioning inspectors — we don't have trash chute inspectors," she said.
Several fire safety experts said that preventing the spread of fire through garbage chutes is the primary safety concern when designing the system because instances of people falling down the chutes are so uncommon.
A Chicago high-rise resident herself, Laken said she thought the trash chute in her mother's building was "abnormally large."
"It's 4 feet off the ground and very, very wide. You could fit a grown man's body through it," she said.
Laken said she and her husband spent three hours Saturday helping her mother start to pack and decide which furniture to keep when she moved. Banta was looking forward to going out with family on Easter.
"She decided on a nice suit," Laken said through tears. "Before we got off the phone, I told her I loved her and she told me she loved me back."
Tribune reporter Adam Sege contributed.
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