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John Hancock Center Fire Extinguished, 5 People Injured Downtown (VIDEO)

By Joe Ward | November 21, 2015 3:29pm | Updated on November 23, 2015 8:52am
 The fire reportedly started in the 50th floor of the Downtown skyscraper.
The fire reportedly started in the 50th floor of the Downtown skyscraper.
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DNAinfo/Joe Ward; Twitter/bleiwueste

CHICAGO — Five people were injured, including one police officer, in a fire that started in a 50th floor apartment in the John Hancock Center Downtown Saturday afternoon.

After the fire was extinguished, emergency crews on the scene rushed to clear off of Michigan Avenue for the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival parade which was scheduled to pass the site of the fire a little after 5:30 p.m.

Two of the injured were transported in good condition, and three were in "stable" condition, the Chicago Fire Department said. CFD Deputy Commissioner John McNicholas said that five total people had sustained minor injuries, mostly smoke inhalation and a twisted ankle, during the fire which broke out on the East side of the building around 2:30 p.m.

Though only about three floors worth of residents were evacuated from the building, one John Hancock resident said there was a lack of communication about what was happening and what residents should do during the fire. Building management later acknowledged that an "alarm panel prevented effective communication from the CFD" and that more details would be forthcoming about the issue.

The fire was contained within about half an hour, McNicholas said, then the department requested additional personnel to assist conducting wellness checks of building occupants.

By about 4 p.m., fire officials announced the fire was out.

Street closures in the busy shopping district caused major delays and traffic jams, especially as people flocked Downtown for the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival. Michigan Avenue was closed from about Erie Street to the scene of the fire. By the time the fire was out, people at ground level seemed unperturbed and continued about their business.

"Fire on floor 50 is essentially OUT but CFD conducting floor by floor searches of stairs and halls," the department tweeted at 3:40 p.m., adding that residents were advised to stay in units unless they are having smoke issues.

At a news conference after the fire, Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy said that the injured police officer had suffered minor smoke inhalation and was no longer at the hospital: "He's OK, he called his boss to tell him he was sorry for getting injured," McCarthy quipped.

As for the Lights Festival parade, the fire "screwed up traffic an dpedestrian setup but it will be resuming back to normal," McCarthy said. The area was mostly clear by the time the parade was scheduled to start.

The fire apparently started in a bedroom in a residential unit on the 50th floor, though the cause is still under investigation, McNicholas said. The fire was accidental.

The building, which contains residential and retail units in addition to the observatory and bar/restaurant, was not completely evacuated, though most people living on the 49th, 50th and 51st floor were asked to leave.

Residents on the 50th floor will be displaced, fire officials said.

Steve Brown was eating dinner with his family at Cheesecake Factory on the ground floor of the building when he heard sirens and an alarm: "We had a suspicion that something was going on, but [I thought] if it was major, I'm sure they will let us know."

He said the restaurant staff did not say what was happening but that he and his family stayed and enjoyed their meal and were ready to head off to the parade around 5 p.m.

A witness who lives on the 59th floor said he and his girlfriend noticed a strange smell in their apartment at 175 E. Delaware around 2:40 p.m. "My girlfriend asked me if we had our oven on, and I said no, but she smelled something," he said.

After a few minutes they could see smoke in their hallway. The witness, who asked not to be named, said he tried pressing elevator buttons but they did not work.

"Then I tried calling down to the front desk and couldn't reach anyone — no one was answering," he said.

When he went to the stairwell, it was full of black smoke. "You wouldn't — you couldn't — be able to go down, so that wasn't going to work," he said.

Not sure what to do, he went back to his room and checked his computer. "I saw a pic of the smoke and thought, aw crap. Then I looked out my window and saw debris flying straight up above my window," he said.

"There was smoldering debris flying around, and I didn't know what to do."

Then around 3:15 p.m., the witness said he saw a fireman in the stairwell and was told the fire started on the 50th floor and that it was extinguished. The fireman asked him and all other residents to stay inside their rooms.

"I heard multiple times to stay inside. ... People didn't know what to do because we couldn't get a hold of anyone. There wasn't an announcement, and I checked my email, no email," he said.

Many of the residents on his floor are elderly, he said: "People were kinda standing at their doorways waiting for direction or clarity on what to do."

Building management later acknowledged the lack of communication in a text message sent to residents:

'Management is on site and is beginning the process of evaluating the fire event that occurred on the 50th floor this afternoon. A more detailed message will be sent once the full details of the event have been ascertained. We are aware that the commercial entity's alarm panel prevented effective communication from the CFD & the commercial entity staff is currently working on their communication issue. Emergency restoration services are onsite to begin the clean up process.'

Story is developing, please refresh for updates.

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