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Cars Unable to Leave John Hancock Garage During Saturday Fire: Witness

By Joe Ward | November 22, 2015 3:38pm | Updated on November 23, 2015 10:59am
 A fire broke out in the 50th floor of the Downtown skyscraper Saturday afternoon.
A fire broke out in the 50th floor of the Downtown skyscraper Saturday afternoon.
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DNAinfo/Joe Ward; Twitter/bleiwueste

CHICAGO — One day after a fire inside Chicago's fourth-tallest building was quickly extinguished with minimal damage to people or property Saturday afternoon, tenants said lack of communication inside the building led to panic and confusion, especially in the parking garage where people were unable to leave with their cars.

Five people, including one police officer, suffered minor injuries in the fire that broke out on a residential floor of the Hancock Center, 175 E. Delaware Pl., around 2:30 p.m. Saturday. Though the Chicago Fire Department had the fire contained within a half hour, witnesses on residential and office levels of the building said a lack of communication made for a chaotic situation.

Kevin Lynch, a business tenant at the tower, said he was able to leave his 13th floor office and get to his car, only to see that the parking garage gates were down and the employees nowhere to be found.

"There was nobody in the office, nobody answering the phone," said Lynch, a 30-year tenant of the Hancock Center. "By the time you knew it, there were cars backed up probably a few floors."

Lynch was in the office Saturday because, after 30 years of housing his business in the tower, he is relocating. He was in his office when fire alarms went off, but then turned off shortly after, he said.

Lynch said he heard sirens from incoming emergency responders much louder and for longer than he heard smoke alarms. He confirmed through his wife that the building was on fire.

At that point he and his others took the fire exit, which led to the parking garage. But when he tried to pay for parking a leave the lot, Lynch said the machine would not accept payment and would not open the gates.

"If you're going to abandon ship, then leave the gates open," Lynch said. "You can probably do without a few parking fees."

Calls placed to the company that owns and manages the commercial space, as well as calls to the parking garage, were not returned Sunday.

An evacuation of the building was never ordered, fire department officials said at the scene Saturday. Firefighters checked all the staircases and fire exits, as well as swept the 50th floor as well as the floors immediately above and below the fire.

A residential tenant who lives on the 59th floor said he and his girlfriend noticed a strange smell in their apartment at around 2:40 p.m.

After a few minutes they could see smoke in their hallway. The tenant, 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.

"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:

'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.'

The residential floors of the Hancock Center do not have sprinklers, said a fire safety advocacy group, Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board.

"This fire is the perfect example of the flaws in Chicago's Life Safety Evaluation System which was engineered to allow as many buildings to pass evaluation without requiring fire sprinklers," said the group's executive director, Tom Lia.

Politico's Natasha Korecki posted this video she said is from inside the apartment.





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