Catching Elevators

Elevator number 14 on the second floor of Christus St. Joseph Hospital's George W. Strake building was closed for four days. Since the elevator was being repaired, physician's assistant Karin Leah Steinau took the stairs on Thursday and Friday. On a mid-August Saturday, around 9:30 a.m., the elevator's out-of-order sign was gone, so Steinau pressed the call button.

A few yards away, surgery resident Hitoshi Christopher Nikaidoh was waiting for an elevator beside the doctor's lounge. Steinau moved to join him. Since the hospital elevators are slow, she usually waits midway between the two for whichever comes first.

The elevator nearer Steinau arrived. She stepped onto the double-wide elevator with faux wood walls, and pressed six, Steinau told Houston Police Department officers in a taped interview the next day.

"Is it working today?" Nikaidoh asked.

"I hope so," she replied.

As Nikaidoh stepped onto the elevator, the doors closed, pinning his shoulders. "He tried to pull back and he couldn't," Steinau told HPD officers. "The doors wouldn't open."

She wasn't able to find the Door Open button before the elevator started moving upward. "When you get on an elevator, if it closes on you, it's supposed to open back up," she told officers. "There wasn't any of that. There was no hesitation. The doors shut and it went."

Nikaidoh struggled, trying to shrug out of the elevator, or possibly pull himself inside, she said, but the elevator kept moving upward. The ceiling sliced off most of his head. His left ear, lower lip, teeth and jaw were still attached to his body, which fell to the bottom of the elevator shaft, as the elevator continued moving upward.

Steinau frantically pushed every button; the elevator stopped four feet below the fifth floor. She was trapped inside the elevator with his head for more than an hour.

"I just keep seeing the look in his eyes," she told officers.

People trust elevators to be safe. But Nikaidoh's decapitation is not necessarily a freak accident. It's not even the first elevator decapitation in Texas. On a mid-April afternoon four years ago, a 19-year-old Dallas construction worker stuck his head in a shaft to see where the elevator was, according to an accident investigation report by the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation. The descending elevator was just above him.

And the month before Nikaidoh's death, 76-year-old L.A. Brown, a retired railroad and construction worker, was crushed and killed on a hospital elevator outside New Orleans. Brown was about to have exploratory surgery for a tumor above his colon. As he was being wheeled off the elevator, it suddenly dropped, killing him, The Times-Picayune reported.

In fact, as it turns out, this isn't the first time questions have been raised about the elevators at St. Joseph. A Houston Press review of Harris County court records revealed that nearly ten years ago, two lawsuits accused St. Joseph Hospital and Otis Elevators of knowing in 1994 that the hospital's elevators were dangerous, defective and unsafe. The suits alleged that the elevators were not properly inspected or maintained.

In September 1994, 40-year-old Pamela Scott slipped in an elevator that was not level with the floor and twisted her left knee. Scott's Houston attorney, Donald DeSimone, went to the scene to examine the elevator with an expert. DeSimone remembers seeing sparks fly from the elevator. "It was in such bad shape that he ordered it shut down," DeSimone says.

Two months after Scott's accident, 61-year-old Cecil Wilcox was injured in an elevator while visiting her husband, a patient in the hospital. When Wilcox stepped onto a second-floor elevator, the cab was about six inches lower than the floor. She fell, injuring her back, knee and shoulder, says her Carrizo Springs attorney, John Petry. Wilcox's accident occurred in elevator 15, directly beside the elevator on which Nikaidoh died. Elevator 14 was also tested extensively during that lawsuit.

When Nikaidoh died, elevator 14 was one month past its annual inspection due date. The state's chief elevator inspector, Ron Steele, recently documented 22 code violations ranging from dirty, oil-soaked rags in the elevator machine room to open connections and a missing generator guard.

Steele's investigation report states that the elevator operated with the doors open, and notes burned resistors, loose and unmarked wires, and excessive wear on brushes and contacts. The report concludes that misconnected wires most likely caused the elevator safety system to fail. Because two wires were placed in one connector, the elevator believed that the doors were closed when they weren't.

There were 256 elevator- and escalator-related accidents in Texas last year, according to the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation. Over the past four years, the department has records of four elevator-related deaths: the two decapitations, and two elevator maintenance workers who each died while working on top of elevator cabs. In the first, a maintenance man was working on top of an elevator in Fort Worth when the cab started moving; he became stuck between the elevator and the hoistway, according to Kevin Ketchum, spokesperson for the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation. In the second, a man was working on top of an elevator in San Antonio; he was stepping on top of another elevator when one of the cabs began moving. His body was jammed between the moving cab and the bar between elevators in the shaft, Ketchum says.

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Wendy Grossman
Contact: Wendy Grossman