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Officials Investigating Cause of Water Tank Plunge from Landmark Building

By DNAinfo Staff | July 31, 2013 10:26am | Updated on July 31, 2013 4:29pm

 The Chicago Fire Department said a water tower fell and left three people hurt.
Water Tank Plunges to Ground
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LAKEVIEW — A wooden water tank atop a landmark, 120-year-old Lakeview building plunged nine stories to the ground Wednesday morning, hurting three people, one severely, and sending water gushing into a nearby day-care center, witnesses and officials said.

The building that housed the water tank failed a February 2010 inspection, according to a report from the city's Department of Buildings. The report notes an issue with the water-tank bands, stating: "Relocate steel bands to original position on water tank."

The report also notes exposed metal somewhere on the building and called for a structural engineering report about the water tank.

Mayoral spokesman Bill McCaffrey said Wednesday that the building had been inspected several times since, but did not specifically address whether the repairs had been confirmed as up to code.

"In order to come into compliance with the building code, the owners submitted a report from a licensed structural engineer that deemed that the water tank and its support structure were in a safe condition," McCaffrey said in an email. "Pursuant to the structural engineer’s report, the building scraped and painted the exposed members as recommended."

McCaffrey said such confirmation is standard operating procedure with city inspections, as iron inspections occur approximately every five years.

The approximately 15-foot-tall tank, which was filled with water, fell from the historic Brewster building at 2800 N. Pine Grove Ave. just before 10 a.m. The building's penthouse was once home to Charlie Chaplin, and the building has been used by Hollywood for film shoots.

Wednesday's accident was Hollywoodesque in its drama.

According to Chicago Fire Department officials and witnesses, the tank toppled some 100 feet to the ground, spraying debris around and splashing out thousands of gallons of water. The debris badly injured a woman in her 20s, who was literally knocked out of her shoes.

Meanwhile, the tank's water gushed out, rushing into a nearby preschool and knocking down a teacher, witnesses said.

"She got the impact of it when it fell," said Priscilla Morales, a fellow teacher at We Care day-care center. "As she opened the door she got hit. The wood and stuff, everything came in."

The tank could hold more than 5,000 gallons. Fire Department officials said it was full.

"It sounded like a bomb went off. I literally thought a bomb went off," said Kathy Rawley, a 24-year-old next-door neighbor of the severely injured woman. "It was so scary."

The badly injured woman was moving out of the building and loading a U-Haul when the 8-foot-across tank plunged, crumpling on the ground and crushing a car, according to witnesses.

The woman was seriously injured by debris and unconscious at first. She regained consciousness but was bleeding from her head and leg, according to a witness.

Rawley also was moving out and was packing up a U-Haul in the same back alley when the tower fell.

"I literally thought she died," Rawley said. "She was not moving at first. She was all bruised and cut up."

The critically injured victim, who was moving with her boyfriend, was upside down on a set of stairs near the tower when Rawley found her.

"The guy starts screaming, 'Call 911!'" Rawley said.

Emmanuel Sims, 26, who lives in an apartment building across the alley, saw the aftermath.

"She was laying on the ground, and her shoe was on the stairs. She got knocked out of her shoes," Sims said of the victim.

"She was going in and out of consciousness. She was putting stuff in her car, and the thing fell. After that, it was chaos."

Witnesses said the injuries of the other two people appeared to be minor. The Fire Department listed one person in serious-to-critical condition, and two in fair-to-serious condition.

Fire Department Special Operations Chief Michael Fox said investigators don't know why the tank toppled.

"At this point, it's still under investigation why it fell," Fox said. "There was nobody working on it at the time."

"While there have been building-code violations, the number and extent of violations do not suggest that this building is neglected or poorly maintained," McCaffrey said. He added that there are more than 150 rooftop water tanks regularly inspected by the city.

Fox said it wasn't yet clear what hit the victims.

"At this point, we're not sure what fell on them, but the water tank was full of water, and it did wash one of the victims around," he said.

As the water tower was falling, a teacher at the We Care day-care center was opening the back door into the alley.

An explosion of water and debris struck the teacher, who is in her 50s, and knocked her to the ground, according to Morales, who also teaches at We Care.

Water and pieces of the wooden barrel gushed into the day-care center.

The teacher was able to limp from the room, but her knee was injured, according to Morales.

"She had a lot of pain," Morales said.

The teacher was taken to an area hospital by ambulance. The impact of the water also shattered a back window of the day-care center near an area where children were playing, according to Morales.

None of the children was close to the window, and the teacher was the only one injured.

Right after the fall, We Care contacted the parents of the children and had them picked up for the day.

The 91-unit building sits on the northwest corner of Diversey Parkway and Pine Grove Avenue, on the Lakeview side of the Lincoln Park-Lakeview border.

The building's penthouse once was home to Chaplin while he worked in Chicago, according to American Architecture. The building also was featured in the 1986 Billy Crystal movie "Running Scared," and in the 1988 horror flick "Child's Play."

Fire Department photos show the crumpled black tank smashed on the ground of a parking lot, near two U-Hauls trucks.

Christa Yan, who lives in the building, said she had never even noticed the water tower before. She said after the tower fell, building management told residents to drink bottled water, since the accident knocked out water service to the building.

"I tried to run the sink water and no water came out," she said.

Yan said she was on her way to buy water, and wasn't sure when the service would be restored.

"I didn't know we even had a water tower," she said.

Satellite images of the building show the water tank was fixed on the back of the building, over the building's back parking lot.

Rooftop water tanks were developed after the 1871 Great Chicago Fire as a way to give buildings their own firefighting resource, but were also used to increase high-rise water pressure.

The Brewster was originally known as Lincoln Park Palace, according to Access Guide to Chicago. It was built in 1893 and designated a Chicago landmark on Oct. 6, 1982.

Larry W. Green, author of "Water Tanks of Chicago: A Vanishing Urban Legacy," said such tanks used to provide water pressure for taller buildings. Even as late as the mid-20th Century, there were probably 5,000 across the city, he said.

"Even though I love them, there has to be a way to make sure the ones we have left are safe," said Green, adding, "it's cheaper to tear them down than to renovate them."

A 2006 preservationist movement mandated a 90-day delay for the demolition of any Chicago rooftop water tank.

Though Green said he was not aware of the specifics of the Brewster tank, he said, too many landowners "let them go."

With many made of oak or cedar and over time they can rot, he said. Whether active or not, many tanks are kept full to minimize rust and rot.

A 1999 Sun-Times story said the tanks are inspected by the city every two years. The water from still-functioning water tanks can be used for fire sprinklers or drinking fountains.

City officials continue to review the building's history, including its history of inspections.

Gail Filkowski, a vice president with First Community Management, which manages the condo building, was on the scene by late Wednesday morning and said the company was still "gathering information at this point."

According to city landmarks information, "The principles of skeleton-frame construction, which made possible tall commercial skyscrapers at the end of the 19th century, were used [at the Brewster] for an early high-rise apartment building that originally was known as the 'Lincoln Park Palace.'

"Behind its heavy masonry walls is an exceptionally innovative interior, a light-and-airy construction of cast-iron stairs, elevator cages, bridge walkways paved with glass blocks, and a massive skylight."

According to Access Guide to Chicago, the structure was commissioned in 1893 by E. H. Turnock and renovated in 1972 by Mieki Hayano. It has been designated a Chicago landmark for its excellent early application on a residential building of the principles of metal-frame construction, in which the use of an iron or steel frame made it possible to erect higher buildings.

"The exterior is faced in rusticated stone; the upper stories are banded by a large terra-cotta frieze with details in the style of Louis Sullivan, and the terra-cotta cornice features lion heads. The entryway on North Pine Grove Avenue, originally the ladies' entrance, is flanked by four polished jasper colonettes inset with windows," the Access Guide notes.

"Make a friend in the building so that you can see the interior, which boasts one of the most fabulous remaining 19th century atriums in the city. Patterns of the intertwined tendrils and oak leaves adorn the lobby moldings, and open-case elevators, elevators, staircases, and bridges are all woven in extraordinary cast-iron latticework," the guide says.