After grabbing drinks on the 96th floor of the former John Hancock Center, Phil Bird, his wife, sister and her fiance got into an elevator with nine other people and headed to the ground floor.
They almost made it.
Around the second floor, the elevator suddenly dropped a foot or two and stopped. Debris crashed against the roof and it sounded like the elevator was “caving in,” Bird said. “It went down seemingly fine,” said Bird, 37. Then the elevator “felt like it dropped suddenly about a foot or so.”
After several calls to building security and finally police, fire crews pried open the elevator’s door and helped the people get out through a 4-foot gap. “It shook us up,” said Bird, who lives in Ravenswood with his wife. “It put a damper on the whole thing.”
The incident on July 21 was one of two involving elevators in the building that weekend. Friday night into Saturday, five people were stuck in an elevator when the door would not open, building officials said.
No one was injured in either incident at the building, now known by its address 875 North Michigan Avenue. Building officials said they all had been inspected last month.
Neither appeared to be as dramatic as one in November, when a cable on an express elevator broke and it dropped about nine floors before stopping. Firefighters broke through a brick wall from the parking garage to get to the six passengers. No one was injured in that incident either. That elevator was not involved in the problems experienced recently, according to Gregg Cunningham, a spokesman for the Buildings Department.
Building and city officials said the elevators were repaired and put back into service.
“The elevators traveled appropriately and came to controlled stops,” the Hearn Company, which manages the building, said in a statement. “Both groups of passengers were released safely and in a timely manner after elevator engineers diagnosed the issue and opened the doors.”
“These stoppages are often triggered by mechanical or electronic issues,” the company said in another statement. “We understand that elevator stoppages can be concerning to passengers. This is why security personnel maintain contact with the passengers throughout the response.”
The first incident was caused by a malfunction in a device that keeps elevator doors closed while moving, according to the building management. In the second incident, there was an issue with “selector tape” involved in the movement of the car in the shaft.
Buildings in the Central Business District, including the former Hancock Center, are inspected annually by state-licensed companies, Cunningham said. The results are submitted to the Buildings Department. Officials said follow-up inspections at the building this week showed no code violations.
Bird said he and the others were stuck for about 20 minutes. When they pressed a button to contact security, a guard asked them if everything was OK. They told him what had happened. They pressed the button a second time and he told them to stand by. The third time he told the group someone was on the way.
Some of the people in the elevator started to cry. Some had panic attacks, Bird said. As the elevator grew hotter and the air became harder to breathe, the group — which included two older individuals — decided to call 911.
“I understand things happen,” said Bird, adding he was more concerned about how the situation was handled.
“It’s one of those things where it’s the boy who cried wolf or something. ... I don’t know what they have to do with their elevator system.”
Chicago has had a history of not inspecting elevators. A Tribune series in 2012 found that a majority of Chicago’s elevators had not received their required annual inspections despite a reform program launched in 2009 to reduce a massive backlog of examinations.
Robert Shepherd, executive director of National Association of Elevator Safety Authorities International, which certifies elevator inspectors, said he did not know about the most recent incidents but is familiar with the building. “Usually things run really well,” he said.
Elevators are, generally speaking, safe, Shepherd said. “Elevator travel is the safest mode of travel,” he said. “The frequency of people getting entrapped is rare.”