Falling Elevators and Other Unforeseen Apartment Catastrophes

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Apartment buildings, much like human bodies, contain a lot of complex things that most people do not understand hidden beneath a thin covering. Most of us only understand how to work with that covering, decorating it and accessorizing, while trusting a handful of highly trained specialists to keep the rest of the system running smoothly. In both cases, sometimes regular visits to these specialists can detect hidden problems before they become major catastrophes.

But sometimes coincidences and outside forces sneak up on us in ways we don’t expect and things rapidly spiral out of control. We put too much sudden strain on a bone and it breaks. Our office has a round of layoffs and we start getting stress headaches. Our kids go back to school and bring home new viruses, causing the entire family to get the sniffles. Engineers at a skyscraper replace connecting hardware in an elevator, perhaps slightly different from the old hardware, perhaps slightly out of alignment, and three years later the rope breaks causing the elevator to fall with people trapped inside.

Chicago was the scene of two major catastrophes this past week. There’s nothing we can really say about the incident at the Mercy Hospital emergency room. While horrible and tragic, it’s beyond our sphere. But we can talk about the one at the building formerly known as the Hancock, where a hoist rope in an express elevator broke on November 16 causing the car to fall 84 stories. You’ve probably seen the coverage by now about the firefighters who struggled to find the car in the blind shaft but eventually rescued the six passengers.

When we read of the incident at the Hancock (and we’re still going to call it that because this is Chicago and we don’t let go of most of our named landmark buildings) we did what you’d expect of RentConfident. We went to check the data on the building violations and the permits.

The Hancock tower has a lot of elevators. We found no violations for that particular elevator, car #2, although car #26 has had a few complaints. We did, however, find two work permits for car #2. The first one was issued in September of 2015 for replacement of the “suspension means,” the hardware that connects the car to the ropes. Estimated replacement cost was $35,000. The other, submitted on November 21 after the fall, was for replacement of the broken hoist rope. Estimated replacement cost is $39,600. There’s no telling how much more money the building will lose from having its express elevators out of service on a holiday weekend and from tourists avoiding the building altogether in response to the coverage of the rescue.

Without engineering reports we can’t be sure that the replacement of the suspension means two years ago led to the rope breaking. But if it did, it wouldn’t be the first time that improper installation of suspension means caused a rope or cable to break at a major tourist attraction. A tram cable at the famous Gateway Arch in St. Louis fell 500 feet in the summer of 2008. In that case engineering reports after the fact found faulty suspension means to be the cause.

The Hancock has multiple express elevator cars but only car #2 had its suspension means replaced in 2015 and only car #2 fell in 2018. But we cannot rule out wear and tear. This is a holiday week with lots of people visiting from out of town. Tourism numbers in Chicago have been steadily growing over the past few years. The Hancock express elevators were probably under higher loads than they normally see.

The whole thing brings to mind two incidents from my own past. In the first I was a tenant, in the second I was on the management side.

In 2003 I was renting in a vintage Rogers Park walkup building. It was Thanksgiving weekend. An abnormally large number of people had company visiting from out of town, as is often the case on holiday weekends. Kitchens were pumping out food, and a cold snap was pushing the steam radiators to their limit. The water system was under heavy load. In some respects it was not surprisng that the water heater failed on Thursday morning. No hot water for the entire building, for the entire holiday weekend.

It was Sunday night before things were fixed. It was my first experience with getting the city involved in a life essential services failure. In retrospect the management did everything they could. It was a holiday weekend and repairmen were probably in high demand given the weather and circumstances. They probably paid double overtime to the workers who fixed the water heater and probably had to wait in a long queue for service. They did get things up and running by the end of the 72 hour deadline mandated by city law. But it was a miserable Thanksgiving weekend for all of us and you can bet we took it out on the management office with a slew of nasty calls and threats.

There is no doubt that the managers had properly maintained the water heaters given that it was a steam heated building. Pretty much every vintage building in Chicago has regular maintenance of their steam boilers in preparation for the winter season. Repairs had probably been performed in August or September, and some faulty repair had not been pushed to its breaking point until the extra people and extra cooking put a heavier than normal load on it.

The bad karma I built up for all those nasty calls to the landlord and the city over the water heater incident came back to bite me in 2008. I was handling leasing for another vintage building in Lakeview. In the summer the city had done some work on the water lines in front of the building, causing a day long shutoff. They hadn’t warned us it was coming and we bore the brunt of the anger from our tenants over the unforeseen outage. Fortunately water service was restored by the end of the day. Everything was fine, or so we thought, until February. It was a nasty cold day when the repaired water main burst after a series of freeze/thaw cycles. This time the city wasn’t on hand immediately, although we did get them out on site as fast as we could. It took them 2 days to fix the problem.

Faced with a second water outage in six months, the tenants were furious. While the first outage had been met with some understanding and patience, the second one in so short a time frame had to be our fault, or so they assumed. Plus, while a summertime water outage in a vintage building is somewhat annoying, a wintertime outage means no water and no steam heat.

This time there were no nasty phone calls. Instead, when our workers arrived to meet the city diggers they were pelted with items and buckets of ice thrown from upper level windows by angry tenants. There was major screaming match in the center of the courtyard between my 70 year old boss and a couple of the more vocal tenants. The majority of the building’s tenants moved out over the course of the next year. While we didn’t have to pay a huge sum of money for the broken water main as the city was as fault, we took a five figure loss on the building in the next twelve months in turnover costs.

Sometimes good faith efforts to keep a system running lead to major catastrophes later on when they’re put under stress, and none of us can predict which fixes will be successful and which will fail. As the operations manager in the St. Louis tram incident said, “the main goal was to fix it, not to point fingers.” When things like this happen you can’t really blame your landlord for faulty maintenance unless there was a history of violations leading up to the incident. All that matters is how well and quickly they fix things afterwards.

Three hours can seem like forever when you’re stuck in an elevator but once you’re out safely the incident is rapidly forgotten or relegated to a funny story you can tell at parties. Three days can seem like forever when you don’t have water in your apartment, but it’s within the city law and likewise forgotten afterwards.

When humans are placed in such stressful situations they can easily wind up taking out their anger on innocent parties who aren’t at fault, middlemen who need to focus on getting things fixed without fearing for their own safety as well. The best thing to do in an apartment building crisis is to report the problem and then do whatever you can to be patient and take care of yourself until things are repaired. It’s only after the fix is complete that you should note down your experiences and follow up if the resolution was unacceptable.

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Kay Cleaves

Founder and owner of RentConfident. She's the primary developer of the website and research engine code. She's spent over 10 years working in the Chicago rental industry and has assisted with over 1200 leases.