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.

If a Texas elevator isn't inspected, it isn't sealed off or forced to stop running. The department doesn't issue that building a certificate. State law allows the department to fine building owners up to $5,000 per day, per safety code violation. But the fines don't seem to make a big difference. Looking at 169 pages of fines issued, in several instances elevators were not inspected for four to six years.

"The fine is cheaper than getting it inspected," Quackenbush says. "It's gonna cost $4,000 to get it fixed. And the fine is only $1,000. Well, I'll pay the $1,000 and maybe they won't catch me again for four or five years."

The department requires building owners to report accidents involving serious bodily injury within 48 hours, Ketchum says. Records are not thorough. The state has more than 300 elevator-related accident reports, which Ketchum says document all elevator fatalities and injuries in Texas for the last ten years. For Houston, the state has on file only 11 reports of minor accidents occurring at Foley's, the doctor's decapitation and an incident August 26 where 14 people spent an hour trapped in an elevator at IntraCare Hospital, a psychiatric facility in the Texas Medical Center. In the IntraCare elevator accident, a few people had broken bones, and most complained of neck and back pain. Not one of the many local personal injury lawsuits involving elevator accidents is on file at the department.

Nikaidoh's father and stepmother weren't going to sue 
until the ME's office called.
Mark Graham
Nikaidoh's father and stepmother weren't going to sue until the ME's office called.

Ketchum explains the dearth of documentation by saying that Houston is out of the state's jurisdiction, therefore Houston officials keep accident records. City officials say they don't keep accident reports, they send them to the state, because the state conducts accident investigations.

Houston employs only one elevator inspector, and he doesn't inspect elevators. Individual building owners hire private elevator inspection companies. The city inspector, Mike Dorosk, files annual inspection reports and ensures that the more than 8,200 elevators inside city limits get inspected. "If one goes overdue, we're gonna know. And it's not going to be six months or six years later," says Dan Pruitt, spokesperson for Houston's Code Enforcement division. "We go to greater lengths to ensure elevator safety than any other city in the state. The overwhelming majority of other cities around the state of Texas have no idea whether elevators are being inspected or not. They don't have any records whatsoever."

If the building owner fails to fix a code violation within ten days, the city can issue a citation that is a class B misdemeanor and carries a fine ranging from $800 to $2,000 a day. But that hasn't happened in the past six years, says Richard Vrana, chief inspector for the city's mechanical inspection section, which includes the elevator subsection. Most building owners voluntarily shut elevators down and promptly fix things, Vrana says.

"We're talking about a piece of equipment that you can't take any chances on," Pruitt says. "There's too much liability. You can't have spotty compliance."

If an elevator has only a minor code violation, it's given conditional approval to operate -- as in the case of the service elevator located in the downtown Beaconsfield condominiums. It had 26 code violations on its 1996 inspection, says Houston attorney Craig Keener. Although repairs weren't made after subsequent inspections, city officials allowed the elevator to continue operating.

"They don't follow up well," Keener says.

The building owner knew that the elevator, installed in 1911, was a "death trap," Keener wrote in his third amended original petition. For the past 25 years, the owner was told to replace the elevator, which stopped and started on its own, the petition says.

On August 30, 2000, the mesh-gate door on the eighth floor jammed and wouldn't close. Then the elevator stopped dead on the first floor. George Canales, the 54-year-old concierge, didn't want to leave an open gate into an empty elevator shaft, so he went to the eighth floor to fix it. While he was trying to pull the gate closed, Canales fell down the shaft.

He died five days later. The case was settled last week.

Colby Dillin, a first-grader at Trinity Valley School in Fort Worth, was vacationing at his best friend's beach house in Pensacola, Florida. It was spring break March 1998; the six-year-olds Jet Skied, jumped waves, and that morning they visited the Naval Air Museum so Colby could see the airplane exhibition. Colby loved airplanes. He was scheduled to fly home the next day.

Colby, his older sister and his best friend climbed onto the first-floor elevator inside the beach house. The door opened while the elevator was moving. Colby stuck his head out and peered over the edge. His head got caught and was crushed between the ceiling of the first floor and the elevator.

There were safety devices that could have saved Colby's life, says his father, Fort Worth orthopedic surgeon Linden Dillin. But they were optional. "This kid never should have died," Dillin says.

Dillin vowed to use the $5.7 million settlement he gained from the elevator company to create laws regulating private elevators. "In most states, there are no regulations related to elevators in private homes," he says. "There's not even any codes that are enforced. At the time Colby died there were no laws in Texas."

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