Catching Elevators

Dr. Hitoshi Nikaidoh stepped on a St. Joseph Hospital elevator and died. His death was gruesome and horrifying. But it wasn't unique.

Nationally, elevators and escalators kill about 30 people a year and seriously injure 17,100, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Houston is the only city in Texas that is exempt from Texas elevator safety laws, because for the past 30 years, the city has had more stringent rules than the state. Still, there are more than 300 lawsuits on file at the county courthouse against four of the biggest names in the elevator industry. Since 1978, nearly 200 lawsuits have been filed against Otis Elevators; approximately 100 suits against Schindler Elevators since 1983; around 20 against ThyssenKrup Elevators since 2000; and about a dozen against Kone Inc. since 1998. The majority of locally owned and operated elevator service companies are not facing any lawsuits.

One case concerns a condominium concierge who died five days after falling down an elevator shaft at the historic Beaconsfield condominiums, located in downtown Houston at 1700 Main. There is also a case detailing an instance where a pharmaceutical technician at Texas Children's Hospital was squashed between elevator doors for three hours. Another suit says an electrician replacing lights inside an elevator shaft was injured when the elevator fell, crushing the ladder he was standing on, wedging him between the elevator and the wall in the Millennium Tower on Richmond. "No one understands why he wasn't killed," says Houston attorney Steve Kamel. The electrician, Joseph Fortner, has had two knee surgeries since the accident on January 17, 2002.

Two wires were connected to controller stud C-105. 
One should have been connected to C-103.
Two wires were connected to controller stud C-105. One should have been connected to C-103.
Former UH vice president Andy Gomez has had eight 
operations since his elevator accident.
Courtesy of the University of Miami
Former UH vice president Andy Gomez has had eight operations since his elevator accident.

"When elevators go wrong, they go very wrong," says Howard Nations, the Houston attorney representing Nikaidoh's family in the wrongful death lawsuit filed August 28.

The majority of elevator accidents involve someone tripping when getting off an elevator not level with the ground, or passengers scraping a hand when a door closes. "Many accidents that people attribute to elevators have absolutely nothing to do with the equipment" itself, says Edward Donoghue, code and safety consultant for the National Elevator Industry Inc., based in Salem, New York. If someone riding an elevator reaches into a bag of glass and cuts his finger, it counts as an elevator accident, Donoghue says.

Donoghue and other members of the elevator industry maintain that elevators are the safest way to travel. Elevators make 12 billion trips every year, carrying people 100 million miles, Donoghue says. Considering how far they travel, the number of accidents is minuscule, he insists. More Americans are injured in garage door accidents than in elevators, according to data from the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

"The safety record of the elevator industry is beyond reproach, by anyone and any standard," says Ron Marchal, owner of Houston's Marchal/Stevenson Elevator Inc., who says only one lawsuit has been filed against him in 25 years. "The elevator fell a little bit, nobody got hurt," he says.

John Quackenbush, a North Carolina-based elevator consultant who campaigns nationally for elevator safety laws, begs to differ. The elevator industry has spent too many years believing its own public relations campaign, Quackenbush says. "If it was the safest form of transportation, why would all these people be getting killed or getting hurt? Codes are not being enforced. Safety slips, and people are getting killed. This is needless; it doesn't have to happen."

In April, Otis Elevators celebrated the 150th anniversary of the modern elevator. Primitive elevators have existed since the building of the pyramids. However, in early models, it was common for the cord carrying the cab to break and kill people. This year, the company re-enacted Elisha Graves Otis's safety demonstration at P.T. Barnum's 1853 Crystal Palace Exhibition in New York City. Otis rode a platform in an open shaft and had the cables cut, but instead of his falling, safety gears kicked in and held him. Otis installed the first commercial passenger elevator on March 23, 1857, at a New York City department store. By the 1870s there were 2,000 Otis elevators in service.

There are no federal mandates on elevator safety. The U.S. government doesn't require elevators to be inspected, or that elevator inspectors know what they're doing. It's up to individual states.

Over the past five years, there has been a national movement to strengthen state elevator safety laws. Most states didn't have or didn't enforce rules and regulations regarding elevator inspection and repair, Quackenbush says. Many states also didn't require elevator-related accidents or fatalities to be reported, he says.

Quackenbush wrote the model elevator safety legislation in use in several states. He based it on elevator safety laws Denmark enacted in 1971. Because Denmark has national health insurance, every elevator accident and death is reported, so the problem is more noticeable there than in the United States, where only employee deaths are documented. Denmark's law requires elevator mechanics to be licensed and enforces mandatory maintenance. The country has had only two elevator fatalities in more than 30 years.

Recently, Indiana, Alabama and California made major improvements in state elevator laws, Quackenbush says. Three years ago, he says, Vermont didn't have any elevator safety rules; now it does. Today, most states have some degree of enforcement, Quackenbush says, except for North and South Dakota, Mississippi and Oklahoma. He says he would be very wary getting onto an elevator in those states.

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