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Glass fell from the sky in downtown San Francisco—officials say no cause for alarm

A pedestrian looks at a boarded-up window (2nd column from left near the top) after the glass of the iconic Bank of America fell on Kearny Street during a severe wind storm on Tuesday, March 14. Another window cracked on the iconic Bank of America building: Wednesday, March 15, 2023, in San Francisco, Calif. | Paul Kuroda for The Standard | Source: Paul Kuroda/The Standard

A deluge of winter storms pummeled San Francisco with rain, hail, extreme wind and lightning—and glass shards falling from the sky.

A window on a Downtown skyscraper shattered and fell hundreds of feet on Tuesday, after 70 mph winds pummeled the Bay Area. Video footage captured glass falling from one broken window on the 43rd floor of 555 California St., a high-rise located in a bustling part of the Financial District. 

Another cracked window on the same floor also had to be secured at the 52-story building, formerly known as the Bank of America Center and now owned by the Trump Organization and Vornado Realty Trust.

Glass from the 43rd floor (boarded up at left) fell on Kearny Street during a severe wind storm on Tuesday, March 14, in San Francisco. | Paul Kuroda for The Standard
The broken window is seen on the 43rd floor of 555 California St. after high winds battered the Bay Area. | Courtesy SF DBI | Source: Courtesy of SFDBI

The falling glass prompted the city to issue a shelter-in-place order for the blocks surrounding 555 California St., and inspectors now want the broken and damaged windows replaced and inspected by a licensed architect. No injuries were reported. 

An Isolated Incident? 

High-rise window breakages such as this are relatively rare, according to city building inspection officials, but have spurred calls from some architects and lawmakers to consider revising glass safety standards for those buildings.

After glass rained down from 555 California this week, local Supervisor Aaron Peskin called for the city to inspect whether it was a freak incident or indicative of a widespread issue. 

Yellow tape to close off Kearny Street remains on a post after a glass window broke during a severe wind storm. | Paul Kuroda for The Standard

San Francisco high-rises have reported cracked windows and falling glass a handful of times over the last 10 years, sometimes due to structural issues and other times because of freak weather or construction incidents.

During the first spate of winter storms in January, the fire department issued a warning statement after huge panels of glass fell from Market Street’s Fox Plaza apartment complex.

A window being repaired at Rincon Tower fell 45 floors and shattered on Folsom Street in 2021, and inspectors found cracked windows at Salesforce Tower in 2019. Two years after the Millennium Tower began sinking and tilting in 2016, the beleaguered building added cracked windows to its list of ailments. 

Curtis Lum, an SF City Ambassador, looks at a boarded up window that broke during a severe wind storm on March 14. | Paul Kuroda for The Standard

And 555 California St. had a glass facade incident in 2008, when a 38th-floor window was accidentally broken by a construction worker and glass fell to the street below. 

Officials: New Window Retrofit Plan Not Necessary

However, city officials maintain that the most recent window breakages were not reflective of the overall state of Downtown San Francisco buildings. 

“At this point, we do not have any reason to believe a wider retrofit program centered around just windows is necessary,” said Department of Building Inspections spokesperson Patrick Hannan, adding that the city already has a "Façade Inspection program requiring all buildings that are five plus stories […] to be inspected by a licensed engineer or architect to make sure all exterior elements are safe and secure. This includes windows.”

Pedestrians walk near 555 California St. on March 16, 2023, where glass fell during high winds. It's a busy area with many passersby. | Morgan Ellis/The Standard

He said the city already requires routine inspections of taller buildings—including windows—every 10 years.

“Under this program, the building is required to submit their report by December 31, 2027,” said Hannan.

Repairs Underway but Delayed

Repairs for the building on California Street are already underway, but may be slightly delayed because of high winds causing unsafe conditions for workers, according to The Department of Building Inspection. 

The department recently issued a violation notice to the property, telling building managers to fix the broken glass as soon as possible. An architect or engineer will be required to inspect the building to “ensure all glass panels are secure” within two weeks.

A family takes a detour around sidewalk barriers along the Kearny St. side of 555 California St. after a storm on March 14, 2023. | Paul Kuroda for The Standard

The skyscraper was completed in 1969 and designed by architects at two SF-based firms. For now, the jury is still out on what caused the breakage, but according to a structural engineer who spoke to the San Francisco Business Times, high winds, prior damage to the windows and a phenomenon known as the “gust factor” could all be to blame.

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the architecture firm that co-designed 555 California St., did not respond for comment by time of publication.