Skyfall: the Chicago 'scraper where elevator plunged 84 floors

When six people, including a pregnant woman, survived an 84-floor elevator plunge inside one of Chicago’s tallest skyscrapers it reminded MURRAY FORSETER of the times when he, too, rode that same elevator all the way down. And of the day he was trapped when a skyscraper elevator failed. . .

FOR SEVEN YEARS, FROM 1978 THROUGH 1986, I took the express elevator to the 95th floor of the John Hancock building in Chicago. From high above North Michigan Avenue on a clear night one could see for miles the straight-as-an-arrow grid street pattern of the Second City laid out below.
It was an exhilarating venue for the cocktail reception sponsored every year by the industry magazine I edited, Chain Store Age, during the annual National Housewares Show every January. 
So you can imagine how I felt when I read that an express elevator in that very building (no longer called the John Hancock) plummeted from the 95th floor to the 11th after two cables broke, traumatising its passengers with their near-death experience before coming to rest in the nick of time.
My experience was hardly comparable with such a terrifying fall: the elevator I was riding in a Manhattan skyscraper simply got stuck between the 13th and 14th floors but, heck, it was still scary. 
On that rainy work day about 30 years ago I decided not to venture outside to pick up lunch. Instead, as on numerous occasions, I chose to pass myself off as one of the lawyers working at Finley Kumble, a large legal firm with multiple floors in the building including a short-order staff cafeteria on the 14th floor.
I descended from my sixth floor office to the lobby and entered the neighbouring elevator bank that would take me to the 14th floor. Minutes later, lunchbag sandwich and soda in hand, I re-entered the elevator with two Finley Kumble associates unsuspecting of their fellow traveller’s interloper status.
The doors closed. We started our controlled descent. Suddenly, we stopped. Between floors. No panic. Building security quickly contacted us through the elevator telephone. They’d have us out in no time, they said.
‘No time’ dragged on for more than half-an-hour. It was now close to 1 pm. I was hungry. Okay, I had my lunch with me but I reasoned that if I broke out the goodies I’d be obliged to share it with my elevator companions. I was not, I’m embarrassed to say, in favour of that option, at least not at that point. Perhaps if hours went by and everyone had expressed hunger pains I’d be more forthcoming with my food. Right then I opted to hold out.
Almost an hour after our interrupted journey, building security advised that the elevator could not be restarted. To extract us from our vertical shell, they would have to line up another elevator next to ours, remove the side panels of both lifts and have us walk across the exposed elevator shafts to the working elevator. 
Trepidation, not yet panic, set in. We joked it would be like walking across a log over a stream. Of course, the ‘stream’ in this case would be about 10 or more storeys below. When the technicians entered our car, they cautioned us not to look down, to just walk naturally across the chasm into the adjacent elevator. 
In truth, the distance was probably no wider than two feet, a regular stride for me at least. Still, I was sufficiently repentant to believe Someone Up There was sending me a message that my not-so-moral use of the Finley Kumble cafeteria was not exactly kosher, if you get my drift. As a result, I never repeated my excursion to the Finley Kumble cafeteria.
Returning to the Chicago elevator mishap, when an elevator gets stuck between openings rescuers normally align another car next to it then unscrew the adjacent panels of the two cars to allow passengers to gingerly walk across the void to the safety of the functioning elevator. That’s what they did in ‘my’ elevator incident.
Rescuers break through to free six

In the Chicago case, extracting the passengers was not so easy. Rescuers had to cut a hole through the concrete wall of the shaft to pull the passengers out because it was an express elevator and there was no door in the shaft near the 11th floor where the car finally stopped its dramatic descent.

Will those six passengers ever again be able to comfortably ride in a high-rise elevator? Perhaps. After all, survivors of air crashes fly again. Car crashes don’t stop people from motoring again. Train wrecks don’t keep survivors off the rails. Still, I just wonder. . .



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