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Looking for Higher Ground

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Kristie Lee Tautenhahn, 42, worked as a proofreader at a downtown Houston law firm. Her normal shift at Mayer, Brown & Platt was from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Because the streets were flooding as Tropical Storm Allison raged, employees decided it would be safer to stay the night in the Bank of America Building at 700 Louisiana than to drive home through waist-deep water.

Near dawn, a security guard noticed water coming through the walls in the parking garage. The guard rode the elevator down to the subbasement, inspected the area, then told stranded employees they should move their cars to higher ground. Tautenhahn was the type of woman who did what people in uniforms told her to do, says her mother, Bertie Tautenhahn, who lives in Corpus Christi.

After Tautenhahn was inside the elevator, the guard revised the plan and ordered people to walk back up. "But Kristie was by herself," her mother says. "She didn't hear him."

The water short-circuited the electronics in the elevator. In the four-floor underground garage, the elevator stopped one level from the bottom.

The emergency phone didn't work. And Sprint had just turned off cellular service, Bertie Tautenhahn says, so her daughter's cell phone couldn't get a signal. The basement flooded all the way up to street level.

"Someone thought they heard her yelling," Bertie Tautenhahn says.

There wasn't an engineer on duty that night, she says. "There was nobody there that knew how to open the elevator."

The next morning, an experienced elevator maintenance person was called to the scene and cranked up the elevator by hand. Tautenhahn was found on the floor, her cell phone beside her, the emergency phone off the hook.

The elevator's security camera and the autopsy showed her parents that Tautenhahn was alive and fully conscious as the elevator filled with water. "She knew what was happening," Bertie Tautenhahn says.

After her daughter's death, Bertie Tautenhahn started a foundation in her name. But she hasn't received much money. She wants the city to conduct a study of accidents that occur in elevators during emergencies. Most buildings have signs telling people that in case of a fire, take the stairs. Bertie Tautenhahn would like the city to create a set of standard elevator emergency operation procedures that would basically shut down all elevators in a case of any emergency -- not just a fire. She also wants to ensure that trained engineers who know how to rescue people from a stopped elevator are on the scene.

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