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‘I thought we were going to die’: A Chicago elevator fell 84 floors with 6 people aboard

  • Author: Hannah Leone, Rosemary Sobol, Chicago Tribune
  • Updated: November 19
  • Published November 19

Chicago fire crews rescued six people who had been trapped in an elevator early Friday morning, Nov. 16, in a downtown Chicago skyscraper formerly called the John Hancock Center. (Hanna Leone/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

CHICAGO -- Firefighters had a pretty good idea of how they would rescue six people trapped in an elevator at the former John Hancock Center early Friday. But first, they had to find the elevator.

The not-so-express elevator was stuck somewhere between the 95th floor and the lobby of Chicago's fourth-tallest building, one of several cables holding it having broken. It was in a "blind shaft" with no openings firefighters could use to inspect it or reach the trapped -- among them tourists from Mexico who had taken it from the Signature Room shortly after midnight.

The passengers, not knowing which of the 95 floors they had landed on, would wait nearly three hours for the rescue.

Two of them were Northwestern University law students who had just ridden up to the Signature Lounge for the first time and were turned away because it was a few minutes past closing time. On the return trip, the elevator started going down faster than they were expecting, said one of the students, who didn't want her name used for privacy reasons.

"It was really bumpy -- it felt like a flight into Chicago," she said.

Married couple Jaime and Maña Montemayor of Mexico City were on a business trip and had just finished dinner with a large group. After getting in the elevator they suddenly heard a loud "clack clack clack clack clack," said Jaime Montemayor, 50.

Then dust particles began seeping into the elevator, and they panicked. "I knew something wasn't OK," said Maña Montemayor, 49.

Jaime Montemayor said they held onto each other, putting their arms around one another, and at some point began praying. “I thought we were going to die,” he said.

Strangers just seconds before, everyone on the elevator "started freaking out," one of the law students said. Some people screamed. Some cried. Someone pressed the elevator's emergency call button.

After about 45 minutes, when the Fire Department got involved, the students realized the solution was not going to be simple. Firefighters kept the group looped into their progress through the speaker.

"They couldn't find us," the student said. "We thought we only fell a few floors, but we ended up falling 84."

The other law student, a 27-year-old woman, said it was the second time this year she'd been stuck in an elevator in Chicago for hours."That was my first thought. I was like, this is statistically impossible. There's no way. But I guess lightning does strike twice."

She said at first they were grateful when the elevator stopped. People were smiling still. "I don't know if it registered immediately. We just thought, 'OK, we just have to press main lobby again." '

She and her friend tried to stay calm, but "everyone" at some point began thinking the worst.

The students and tourists started introducing themselves, but they were in a state of panic, so they mostly just talked to the Fire Department, the first student said. Someone led a prayer circle. They had no snacks or water, but the lack of a bathroom didn't become an issue either, the student said.

Friends consoled the Montemayors through text messages, and finally they heard the voices of firefighters.

"They said everything is going to be OK," Jaime Montemayor said.

The first fire crews on the scene had checked the building's electronic system to get "a rough idea" of where the elevator was -- somewhere near the 11th floor of a parking garage, Chicago Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford said. They drilled a small hole in the concrete wall and inserted a tiny camera on a "goose neck" wire to look around and find exactly where it was, Langford said. "Once they did that, they knew which walls to break."

As the rescue unfolded, friends of the tourists trapped in the elevator sat on the polished floor with their backs to the wall, their heads leaning down or buried in phones. Nash Mena and Luis Vazquez, from Mexico City, had been in Chicago for about a week, staying at the Loews Hotel about a mile away. They were messaging two friends -- the Montemayors -- in the elevator.

They had all been at the Signature Room bar -- "It's a beautiful view" -- and had taken separate elevators down, Vazquez said. "They were the last ones to come back."

Seconds after his friends' elevator took off, they heard a "bang," Vazquez said. They messaged him on WhatsApp.

Vazquez, a civil engineer, said he couldn't believe the situation playing out in one of the most notable buildings in the country.

"This is the second-most important building in Chicago? And this is the third-most important city in the United States?" he said. "In the 98 floors, they have no place to open any door? That is the craziest thing."

Firefighters cut open a hole about 5 feet by 5 feet. They could see the top half of the elevator.

"They put struts up to make sure it can't drop anymore, if anything were to happen," Langford said. "Once they had the shoring and bracings in, they forced the elevator door open and placed a small ladder into the elevator."

One firefighter went down first, checked the passengers and helped them up the ladder and through the door. One person was suffering from anxiety from being in a confined space, but there were no serious injuries, Langford said.

"We don't like to have to go through walls unless it's absolutely necessary," he said. "The only other way to get to the elevator would have been ropes from the 97th floor, and that would not be safe. We don't come down like Batman so we must go through the wall."

The firefighters put helmets on the Montemayors and cautiously got the couple, who have four daughters, to safety.

"When they opened the door, the feeling was, 'Thanks, bud!' " Jaime Montemayor said of seeing the firefighters.

Shortly before 3 a.m., word rippled through the lobby that the group from Mexico City would soon be reunited. The friends gathered outside the elevator banks, lining a pathway. When the first of the rescue crews emerged from the elevators, the crowd clapped loudly and continued applauding as firefighters walked though, carrying sledgehammers, long metal planks, rope and other tools.

The friends realized the six were being led out the north entrance and walked through the building to meet them. The group hugged and laughed on the sidewalk until a private bus arrived to take them to their hotel. Those rescued needed to rest before they were ready to talk about their experience, friends said.

"It felt great to get out and tell everyone we were safe," one of the law students said. "We could go to sleep."

When firefighters were about to give a televised news conference on the sidewalk, an employee of the building told the group to get off the property. They moved to the public street, setting up again in front of a parked Chicago police car.

City Buildings Department spokesman Gregg Cunningham said the elevator was last inspected in July. The cause of the malfunction remained under investigation, but Cunningham said a "hoist rope," or cable, connected to elevator car 2 failed shortly after midnight.

"That rope is one of several that are connected to the elevator, and, even with this one failing, there's a redundancy in place," he said. "Specifics of how it failed, and what type of failure, is still under investigation."

The elevator and two others next to it will be closed to the public until repairs are made and the maintenance company figures out what happened. Those elevators share a "common hoistway space," Cunningham said. "It has to be determined that it's safe to operate these other adjacent cars."

By Friday night, Jaime Montemayor was feeling better about things.

“It’s an awesome city, the firefighters are awesome people, and we are thankful to be here.” he said.

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