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.

Dillin and his now-14-year-old daughter, who was in the elevator with Colby, testified in both Tallahassee and Austin. The argument he met was that the government shouldn't control what happens inside private homes. "We're going to value the absolute right to run things in our house over the right of other people to come into our house and be safe," Dillin says. "The state needs to step into people's houses and say, 'No. You don't rule here.' "

Despite the Dillins' efforts, Texas laws are fairly lax. In Houston, a private elevator has to be inspected when it's installed -- but never again after that. While acknowledging that recommending homeowners regularly maintain and inspect elevators is akin to telling people it's a good idea to check the batteries in smoke detectors, Pruitt still says that what happens inside a private home is not within the city's jurisdiction. "It's not our business."

The state requires only that contractors inform homeowners that having an elevator inspected is a good idea. But it's left to the homeowner's discretion.

Hitoshi Nikaidoh and father Hisashi were both doctors.
Courtesy of the Nikaidoh family
Hitoshi Nikaidoh and father Hisashi were both doctors.
Four safety systems completely failed in the St. 
Joseph elevator, says attorney Howard Nations.
Daniel Kramer
Four safety systems completely failed in the St. Joseph elevator, says attorney Howard Nations.

"There should be inspections for everyone -- regardless of where you're at," says Elie Graustein, a partner at Lone Star Elevator Company, which installs 60 to 70 private elevators in Houston each year. "There's a lot of people installing elevators that are not really elevators."

For example, Graustein says, a Galveston man used to install homemade elevators that didn't have any safety devices -- they were just attached to a chain hoist on the ceiling. "He called them dumbwaiters," Graustein says. "But they were big enough to ride in. If there were inspections for stuff like that, that would not have been allowed to be installed."

Another problem is that many do-it-yourself homeowners try to fix their own elevators, Marchal says. "We can't stop them," he says. "No more than anyone can stop you from going to work on your air conditioner. It's in your house. If you want to work on it, have at it."

Home elevators usually have an outside door to make the elevator look like a closet, in addition to a gate that rides up and down with the elevator. Many homeowners remove the inside gate because it's a hassle to open and close. But that violates safety codes -- and often makes the elevator safety device kick in and stop the elevator. If a homeowner decides he wants the elevator to run, despite safety issues, most local repair companies the Press interviewed say they refuse -- because if they work on an elevator and it doesn't meet the safety code and someone later gets hurt, they can get sued.

"We always say, 'Look, if you want us to work on it, we're gonna put it back,' " Graustein says. Still, he adds: "We have no control over what they do after we leave."

As part of the Dillins' settlement agreement, the manufacturer of the elevator on which Colby died was required to send Linden Dillin a letter documenting exactly what safety changes the company has implemented since Colby's death.

"I still haven't received that letter," Dillin says. "They sent us some brochures."

Both elevators 14 and 15 at St. Joseph are now boarded up, covered in peach-painted plywood, which blends into the hospital's peach walls. Black duct tape covers the call button. A pink-and-purple sign directs visitors to the elevator down the hall.

Nikaidoh, 35, made sushi with the youth group at St. Vincent de Paul and volunteered on Sunday mornings giving free health care to the homeless. He ran marathons, competed in triathlons, played violin and memorized opera scores at the library.

His stepmother was hosting a yard sale the morning he died. His father, a Dallas pediatric cardiovascular surgeon, was at the office doing paperwork. The couple never considered suing, says his stepmother, Lynn Nikaidoh, until they received a call from the medical examiner's office. She says her husband was informed that alcohol was found in his son's blood, and if the family planned to sue, it was going to look bad.

Four nurses and the priest who worked with Nikaidoh in the intensive care unit until 30 minutes before he died told the family they didn't see any evidence Nikaidoh was intoxicated.

Regardless, plaintiffs' attorney Nations says it doesn't matter if Nikaidoh was drinking. "He wasn't driving the elevator," he says.

HPD officers received a statement conflicting with Steinau's from a physician who had just finished his morning rounds and stepped off a nearby elevator. The doctor, Canaan Harris, told officers in a taped interview that the elevator doors did not crush Nikaidoh, as Steinau claims. The physician says Nikaidoh forced the closing elevator doors open, and as the elevator moved upward, Nikaidoh tried to climb onto it. That's how his head got cut off, Harris told officers.

Nations says Harris is mistaken. He argues that Steinau's account is the most likely because she was standing on the elevator watching it happen, whereas Harris was walking down the hall in the opposite direction.

The weekend after Nikaidoh's death, a memorial service was held in the chapel directly beside the elevator in which he died.

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