Thirty Seconds Too Late

It was the last day of the Smiths' family vacation in Bethel, Maine, two years ago. They planned to go downstairs, have breakfast, check out of the motel and drive home to Maryland. School was to start three days later. Jeff Smith, a pilot for Southwest Airlines who frequently flies to Houston, walked out of the hotel room and realized he had accidentally taken both room keys. His wife and ten-year-old daughter, Mara, were still in the room packing. While he was returning his wife's key, his eight-year-old twins, Tucker and Ellie, ran ahead. Tucker ran downstairs to the lobby and onto the old-fashioned swing-gate elevator beside the front desk. His plan was to ride to the second floor, jump out and surprise his dad. "He liked to race ahead and surprise you," Jeff Smith says. "I was about 30 seconds behind him."

Tucker started studying algebra in second grade and was enrolled in a Johns Hopkins University gifted-and-talented computer program. He built motorized Ferris wheels out of Legos, took eight-mile hikes with his dad, and played soccer, softball and hockey. Tucker memorized dinosaur books and Garfield cartoons.

Standing on the hotel elevator, Tucker had trouble opening the inside collapsible elevator gate. Upstairs, a maid called the elevator; the outside door closed, trapping 70-pound Tucker in the seven-and-a-half-inch gap between the outside door and the inside gate. The elevator moved upward and crushed the boy's skull.

"It's a guillotine," says Terry Garmey, the Smiths' Portland, Maine, attorney.

Both Jeff and his wife, Mary Smith, have mechanical engineering degrees. They wanted to know exactly what happened, and what went wrong on the elevator.

The police report said their son was playing on the elevator. But newspaper archives showed that nine children had recently died in the same type of elevator.

The Smiths' attorney discovered an article in a more-than-30-year-old elevator-industry magazine saying that kids were dying on these elevators, and presented a legal defense. "That got me suspicious," Garmey says.

Garmey contacted Newark, New Jersey, attorney Judith Rodner, who won a $300,000 settlement after nine-year-old Shakarr Andre Burwell died in the same kind of elevator in his father's apartment building.

In her basement, Rodner had dozens of boxes documenting that in eight years, almost 40 children had died. After her verdict, Rodner says, Otis destroyed the records. "The only one who had these records was me," Rodner says. "They could say they didn't know anything, because no one could prove them wrong. If you destroy all your records, you can deny any knowledge of anything."

Rodner also had the depositions of several Otis employees. "They all had experiences extricating bodies," Rodner says. Garmey calls these elevators "serial killers" and estimates that since the 1930s one child a year has died. "If we had a person in our community who year after year killed child after child, we'd get rid of them," Garmey says.

Fifteen years ago, engineers recommended installing a simple space guard into old-fashioned swing-gate elevators to prevent kids and small animals from being caught and crushed. When these elevators were originally built, an elevator attendant opened and closed the doors and helped prevent accidents. In 1995, Otis performed a notification effort, mailing more than 40,000 letters to owners of swing-gate elevators informing them that space guards should be installed. But after the notification effort, 19 more children were killed, Jeff Smith says, and no spacing units were ordered.

"In the past, after a child was killed, they'd go to court and say, 'This is an industrial property secret' and have the case sealed," Jeff Smith says. "So as other children were killed there was no way to know."

As part of the Smiths' $3 million settlement agreement, Otis was required to tell Tucker's story on its Web site, www.otis.com. The company also had to conduct a "meaningful notification campaign" and provide free space guards.

The campaign began last February. Otis authorities told the Smiths they expected to install about 100. So far, nearly 4,000 space guards have been ordered.

When asked to discuss Tucker's story, an Otis spokesperson referred the Houston Press to its Web site. And the attorney representing Otis asked not to be quoted.

Jeff and Mary Smith now have a seven-month-old baby, Spencer, who looks a little like Tucker. They keep a Garfield cartoon-of-the-day in the kitchen and have pictures of Tucker around the house and his drawings displayed. When they make dinner, his twin often says she thinks Tucker would have liked it.

The Smiths felt satisfied that they had fulfilled their moral obligation, worked with Otis and kept other kids alive -- until last month. A physician in Austria saw Tucker's Web site and e-mailed the Smiths. His son died the same death.

Now the Smiths are upset that they spoke to only Otis's North America office -- it didn't occur to them that it was a worldwide problem.

 
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