For a few frantic seconds, Alejandro Garibay thought the only thing between him and the street 103 stories below was a pane of glass that was rapidly cracking as he sat in the clear box jutting out of the Willis Tower.
“I had my palms on the floor and I could feel it cracking,” said Garibay, who was posing for pictures on the skyscraper’s Ledge attraction Wednesday evening with his brother and two cousins. “Honestly, I was in shock, in disbelief. I was scared.”
But Willis Tower officials said on Thursday that he was never in any danger. Only a 6 millimeter thick protective coating cracked. Three half-inches of structural glass underneath the coating that are capable of holding five tons remained intact.
The thin coating’s “sole purpose is to protect the structural glass from being scratched,” said Mike Swanberg, president and CEO of MTH Industries, the glass and architectural firm that installed the boxes on the 103rd floor of the Willis Tower. “It allows people to walk on the Ledge and get the full effect without putting booties on.”
The Ledge consists of four glass boxes that extend a little more than four feet out from the skyscraper, about 1,350 feet above the ground.
Swanberg said the glass coating routinely gets scratched and is replaced every six to nine months. It doesn’t crack often — three times in the last five years — and usually only after incidents like when something is dropped on it.
On Thursday, inspectors with the city’s building department ordered that all four enclosures be closed. Three were reopened by late afternoon.
Workers with MPH pulled off the cracked layer of coating on Thursday and put in new glass and caulk. The enclosure is expected to reopen Friday morning after city inspectors check to “make sure all repairs have been completed according to city code,” said spokeswoman Mimi Simon.
Skydeck general manager Randy Stancik said the Ledge is entirely safe but, like a thill ride, is intended to offer “the illusion that it’s not safe.”
“We hid the railings, we hid the structural steel — we want to give the illusion that it’s a little bit, ‘Can I take these two steps out of the building?’ ” he said.
That goal was certainly reached for Garibay and his group Wednesday. Garibay, 23, said he and his brother had been visiting from Stockton, Calif. and were told by his cousin that they had to check out the Willis Tower’s sky deck.
“It was an awesome view,” Garibay said. “We were getting up and walking away and for some reason I thought it would be cool to get a picture of my cousins and brother.
”Then we started getting off and, as we push ourselves off, I could feel it cracking. It was completely shattering ... I was just thinking to myself, ‘This is not happening. This is not supposed to happen.’”
“One of the craziest feelings I had in my life,” said Garibay’s cousin Antonio Saldana. “I thought I was going to fall through.”
Saldana said he had been on the Ledge at least five times. “I told them this was one of the things they definitely had to check out,” he said. “They're giving me heck about it now.”