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Old Elevators Blamed in Children's Deaths

Safety: Analysis shows that at least nine children -- including four in the last four years -- have died. But simple and inexpensive modifications are available.

September 15, 2002|CLARKE CANFIELD | ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

BETHEL, Maine — The 8-year-old boy's life came to an end with the push of an elevator button.

While on vacation with his family last year, Tucker Smith stepped into the space between the outer swinging door and inner collapsible gate of a 1929 elevator at the Bethel Inn and Country Club. The outer door closed behind the 60-pound child, trapping him in a 7-inch-deep space between, just as the elevator was called up.

When it reached the second floor, the elevator shuddered to a stop. The boy was crushed between the car and the second-floor landing. He was dead of massive head trauma.

Tucker's death sounds like a freak, unavoidable accident. It was neither. At least nine children have been killed -- four in the last four years alone -- after getting trapped between doors of old-style, swinging-door elevators, an Associated Press analysis has found.

Experts say the number of children crushed or suffocated on these elevators may be higher. The industry has known for decades that the elevator design, popular before the 1950s, is potentially deadly. Nonetheless, simple safety modifications recommended more than 15 years ago by engineers who set industry standards have not been written into regulatory laws in most states. Even where they have, enforcement is often lax.

Nobody knows for sure how many swinging-door elevators there are in the United States, but people in the industry say thousands of them continue to carry children and adults in apartment houses, hotels and other buildings.

"The fact that there is an easy, simple solution to make them safe, that's the part that's so troubling to me," said Judith Rodner, a New Jersey lawyer who represented the family of Shakarr Burwell, 9, who was killed in a Newark, N.J., elevator in 1986.

The danger can be eliminated by installing a "space guard," a metal box-like piece that bolts onto an elevator's outer door to fill up the space between the two doors so that people can't get trapped.

"We're not talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars to make an elevator safe. We're talking about hundreds of dollars" per door, Rodner said. "How do you equate that with a child's life?"

Swinging-door elevators represent a small fraction of the 600,000-plus elevators nationwide, which carry 120 billion passengers annually, according to the Elevator Escalator Safety Foundation.

One of these old models was in the Bethel Inn, a two-story clapboard inn in western Maine where Jeffrey and Mary Smith of Bel Air, Md., brought their three children on vacation.

On Aug. 23, 2001, Tucker and his twin sister, Ellie, headed from their second-floor room to have breakfast in the ground-floor dining room with their father. Jeffrey Smith, an airline pilot, handed the room key to his wife as the children made their way down the hallway.

The father slowed in the hallway for two hotel employees in front of him as Tucker and Ellie scooted downstairs with the idea that they'd ride the elevator back upstairs to meet their dad and give him a ride.

Tucker stepped into the space between the two doors. Upstairs, a maid pushed the elevator button to summon it, and Tucker went with it, trapped on the outer ledge.

Ellie could see through the small window in the elevator door as her brother's body disappeared as the elevator moved upward. The state medical examiner's report includes gruesome details of how the boy was dragged up as the gap narrowed.

When the door was pried open, Tucker's parents and sisters witnessed the results, said Terry Garmey, an attorney who represents the family. Jeffrey Smith stepped into the elevator and cradled his dead son's bloodied head. The boy's sisters ran shrieking down the hotel stairs.

"When the family learned Tucker wasn't the first child who died like this, it became very important to them that he would be the last," Garmey said.

The Smiths declined to be interviewed for this story, but Mary Smith, in a letter to the Associated Press, wrote: "We have done our best to forget the horrific scenes, but it is impossible. It is something that I do not wish any other family to endure.... We have promised our two daughters that we will do all we can to prevent similar accidents; we feel that we have a moral obligation to see that this lethal hazard is eliminated."

The Smiths are suing the hotel, the company that maintained the elevator, and Otis Elevator Co. to draw attention to the problem, Garmey said. Lawyers for Otis Elevator, the Bethel Inn and Pine State Elevator, the company that serviced and inspected the elevator, declined to comment on the lawsuit's allegations.

Otis manufactured the elevator and installed it in the Bethel Inn in 1929. The lawsuit contends that the company concealed the history of injuries and fatalities on swinging-door elevators and didn't adequately warn the public.

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