I-Team: Half-million visitors to Hancock Building go unscreened yearly

August 8, 2013 (CHICAGO)

For anyone who walks into the Hancock, the absence of expected building security is especially conspicuous right now, as the nation is on alert and there are new government travel warnings.

It has been obvious to those who work and live there for some time.

The I-Team began asking questions of security after one of our news photographers took his family to the top of the Hancock and was astounded at what he did not see.

The security not seen by hundreds of thousands of tourists and visitors to the Hancock is personal scrutiny.

Unlike Chicago's other tower attraction, the Willis Tower across the Loop, where you'll find airport-style metal detectors and x-ray bag scanners.

New York's high-rise tourist stop, The Empire State Building, has the same.

But not at the Hancock.

After taking the world's fastest elevator, what you see from the observatory and restaurant is spectacular-but what you don't see on the ground floor raises questions of security.

"Our security presence is visible, you see them walking around the building," said Nichole Williamson, GM, John Hancock Observatory. Certainly, I don't think the absence of x-ray machines and metal detectors doesn't mean that our guests aren't secure."

Right after 9/11, getting into most hi rises became a security ordeal.

At the Willis Tower, delivery vehicle searches are evident.

But at the Hancock's public parking garage, car trunks that used to be checked are no longer. Even though barricades still surround the building, the Hancock's tenants include two Middle Eastern airlines, three foreign consulates and hosts antennas from major broadcasters including ABC7, the U.S. Secret service and the FBI.

"I think we look at the recent threats that are going around the world right now, I think we have to be more cognoscente of that and develop physical protection systems that will lend themselves to keep people safe but also not to have too much intrusion in their personal lives," said ABC7 security consultant Jody Weis.

Since 9/11, law enforcement has considered the Hancock a terrorist target.

As the I-Team first reported three years ago, al Qaeda prominently featured the building for an article instructing would-be jihadists on how to wage suicide attacks in American cities.

But even after that and with this week's renewed al Qaeda threat to America, security wasn't upgraded.

At the Empire State Building people wait in line for hours to get through tight security. That reflects this 2009 New York City building security guideline that states:

  • At high risk buildings, "'outsiders' should pass through magnetometers and their bags should be x-rayed."

  • "Manual searches may be needed".

  • And vehicles should be screened.

Chicago does not have such guidelines.

After the I-Team began questioning security, one of the Hancock's new owners said they were considering changes.

"No final decisions have been made but we are really considering everything, any enhancements we can bring in to enhance security in the building," Williamson said.

A few days after this interview, the Paris-based company that bought the Hancock Observatory last year said in a statement that they will begin checking the bags of observatory visitors in the next few weeks.

The observatory is one part of the Hancock equation.

The signature room restaurant and bar on the 95th floor has different owners, as does Hancock office space that was bought by Hearn Corporation in June.

In a letter to tenants this week, Hearn indicates some Hancock procedures were neglected "for many years" and there hasn't been a security assessment in a decade-but that one is planned soon.

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