On Friday, October 17, 2003, shortly after 5:00 p.m., six workers in a newer high-rise died while evacuating down a smoky stairwell. A fire on the twelfth floor was discovered and reported promptly, and the fire department responded immediately. Still, eight workers were seriously injured and six others died. The details of this incident and the painful lessons learned are addressed.
The building where the fire occurred, known as the Cook County Administration Building, was located at 69 West Washington Street, in the heart of Chicago's business district. The site was nominally 234 feet from east to west and 170 feet from north to south. Built in 1964, the building was 36 stories and 460 feet in height above grade level with an occupied basement (Concourse Level) that connected by pedestrian tunnel to the Daley Center, a government office building to the north. Adjoining the 36-story tower to its immediate south was a 9-story structure that was open on each floor to the main tower. To the west of the building was an open-air plaza that separated the building from a church on the same block. An alleyway adjoined the site to the south. The top floor of the tower was designated floor 37, since there was no floor designated 13.
The floor plan of the tower was nominally 112 feet by 168 feet, resulting in a gross floor area of approximately 18,800 square feet. The tower's stairs, passenger elevators, freight elevator, washrooms and utility chases were all contained in a central core that was symmetrically located and nominally 34 feet by 86 feet. The stairs in the tower were designated Stair 1, which was in the northwest corner of the core, and Stair 2, in the southwest corner. As built out, some floors were an open floor plan with access to all sides of the core from anywhere on the floor, while others had corridors that surrounded the core, intersected with cross-core corridors in an "H" configuration. The floor plan for the twelfth floor was a modified "H" configuration (see Exhibit 1). Most floors had private offices around the exterior perimeter with open plan work areas to the interior.
Unless the stair doors were arranged to lock, with the configuration of the floors and corridors, it would be possible to enter either of a stair on one floor and exit the stairs on another floor; in many cases directly into the workspace of another office or agency. For this security reason, all doors in Stairs 1 and 2 were arranged to lock on entry into the stairs and not permit reentry to a floor, except at the first floor where the doors were unlocked to the lobby.