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.

In July, the much-touted self-funded Illinois elevator program went into effect, requiring elevator inspectors to obtain a state license. The problem is, the license doesn't exist. The Illinois Fire Marshal's Office reports that the license will be available in October 2004.

January 14, 1993, was Andy Gomez's 17th wedding anniversary. Formerly University of Houston vice president of Academic Affairs, Gomez was serving as the Massachusetts undersecretary of education. He ate breakfast with his wife before giving a friend a ride to work.

Houston's chief inspector, Mike Dorosk, doesn't 
inspect elevators.
Daniel Kramer
Houston's chief inspector, Mike Dorosk, doesn't inspect elevators.
Safety devices that could have saved Colby Dillin's life 
were not installed in the private elevator.
Courtesy of the Dillin family
Safety devices that could have saved Colby Dillin's life were not installed in the private elevator.

Driving the gray Buick Century he bought at a River Oaks dealership, Gomez dropped his friend off at the front steps of Boston's executive building because she walked with crutches.

Normally, he took the three flights of stairs from the parking garage to the lobby, and then rode the elevator to his office on the 14th floor. But that day, he was loaded down with his bags, and his friend's bags, and since it was snowing, he was wearing heavy boots and carrying his dress shoes.

He stepped into the parking garage elevator, but before he was all the way inside, the doors closed and shot upward, throwing him to the floor. He noticed huge gashes in both his head and his elbow -- then he realized his leg was trapped outside the door. "I can remember my leg just basically exploding," he says. Bones and blood burst through his pants and winter coat. "My whole left leg was crushed," he says. "My heart stopped. I was clinically dead."

Blood streamed down the outside of the elevator doors in the lobby. The building nurse fell backward when he saw Gomez. A surgeon arrived at the scene to amputate the leg. Instead, Gomez was lifted out of the elevator with flotation devices, the way sunken submarines are raised.

Gomez was hospitalized for a month and had eight surgeries to save his leg, which is held together with rods and screws. He lost half the muscle in his leg and can't feel anything from his knee to his groin.

After his accident, the Boston Globe reported that despite existing state laws, only half the elevators in Massachusetts were inspected. Because Gomez was a public official, his story was used to illustrate the need for elevator safety laws to be strengthened and enforced. They were.

Gomez was unable to work for a year and a half. He left Boston and returned to his native Miami, where he served as dean of the University of Miami's School of International Studies. Currently, he is the special assistant to the provost. Had he not been in the elevator accident, Gomez believes, he would have become a university president, as he had planned. But now he says he isn't physically capable.

Gomez is 49 years old, and when he travels he has to wear support hose. Because he's had a couple of bouts of phlebitis, he injects anticoagulants into his leg to prevent blood clots. He can't sit still for long periods of time, and some days he has to walk with a cane. The accident caused herniated and slipped discs in his back, but doctors say they can't operate because they might damage his leg.

If he hears a strange noise or feels an out-of-the-ordinary movement when he's on an elevator, Gomez panics. The nightmares where he's back on the elevator reliving the accident occur less and less. Still, some days he can't get on an elevator at all. "My mind just won't let me," he says.

Around the same time as Gomez's accident, Texas created an elevator safety advisory board. But the state didn't have any power to enforce elevator inspections.

Two years ago, Representative Charlie Geren, a Republican from Fort Worth, authored House Bill 656 to amend the Texas Health and Safety Code, and require elevators to be annually inspected. "Some building owners had never had their elevators inspected at all," Geren says.

Geren's legislation failed. This year the bill passed in the Texas House but wasn't signed. However, in June, Senate Bill 279, which incorporated most of Geren's bill, was signed into law. "Mine was more powerful," Geren says.

The number of Texas elevators inspected has more than doubled in the last three years, from about 15,000 in 2000 to nearly 33,000 the department registered this past fiscal year. This excludes elevators in federal buildings, says the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation's Ketchum, because state law isn't applicable to U.S. property. It also excludes buildings in Houston, which are exempt from state law. State law also grants exemptions to other buildings such as factories, where elevators are mostly used by employees only.

Before the new law went into effect, about a month ago on September 1, Texas elevator inspectors were inspecting elevators with the outdated 1994 Society of Mechanical Engineers elevator code book. Currently, inspectors use the 2002 edition.

In other states, elevator inspectors report having shut down thousands of unsafe elevators. Texas inspectors don't do that, says Ketchum. The department doesn't have any records of a Texas elevator being shut down.

However, if an elevator provides an immediate danger to the public, or the elevator hasn't been inspected for more than two years -- and the building owner has been repeatedly notified that it needs to be inspected and repaired -- the state can issue an emergency order to shut the elevator down. But that hasn't happened either, Ketchum says.

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