BETHEL, Maine (AP) - 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 4
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 boxlike piece that bolts onto an elevator's outer door to
fill up the space between the two doors so people can't get
trapped.
"We're not talking about hundreds of thousand 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 it 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 Bristol, Conn.-based 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 the company concealed the history
of injuries and fatalities on swinging-door elevators and didn't
adequately warn the public.
Maine inspectors determined the Bethel Inn's elevator had 18
deficiencies, such as failure to perform a five-year safety test
and install an alarm. The fatal flaw was the excessive space
between the two doors - Maine law allows only 4 inches - that
permitted Tucker to be trapped.
Had the elevator had only a 4-inch gap, instead of 7 inches,
the door would not have been able to close on a child.
According to an AP examination of court documents and government
records, and interviews with lawyers and elevator experts, the same
type of elevator car has been involved in at least nine fatalities
since 1976 - all of the victims being children.
Hubert Hayes, an elevator consultant in New York, believes the
death count is actually higher - "many more than 10" - but the
exact number is unknown because nobody tracks such records.
There is no federal oversight of elevators or a national
clearinghouse of information about them. The U.S. Consumer Product
Safety Commission tracks elevator and escalator injury and death
statistics, but does not have detailed reports of the incidents.
Most cases of swinging-door deaths, Hayes said, receive little
publicity and are settled out of court. Rodner said most of the
deaths have not generated much public interest because they have
occurred in poor, urban high-rise buildings.
Elevator companies have known since the 1930s of the potential
dangers of the elevator cars.
A former director of product safety for Otis Elevator testified
that the potential hazards of the elevator design were known as
early as 1931, according to a court deposition in 1993.
"For more than 70 years Otis Elevator Company has repeatedly
advised customers about the problem posed by the excessive space"
between the elevator doors, the company said in a statement to the
AP.
The American Society for Mechanical Engineers, which writes
elevator standards, recommended in its 1955 codes for new passenger
elevators that the gap between the doors should not exceed 4 inches
on swinging-door models.
But ASME didn't address older elevators until 1986, when it
issued a new set of standards recommending that existing
swinging-door elevators be equipped with space guards.
Otis Elevator has repeatedly tried to inform elevator owners and
inspectors of the dangers, officials said. Most recently, Otis
mailed 44,500 letters in 1995, warning elevator owners that serious
injury or death "is likely to result" if somebody gets trapped
between the two doors and the elevator is called to another floor.
The letter advised elevator owners to install the space guards.
Experts say there's plenty of blame to go around for the problem
still existing so many years after it was identified: It is shared
by inspectors, government regulators, elevator manufacturers and
owners.
Elevator safety regulations vary greatly among states, cities
and counties. There is also a mishmash of elevator inspection
systems - public and private - in the various jurisdictions.
John Weldin of Weldin Engineering in Bergenfield, N.J., who has
been retained in several court cases involving accidents on
swinging-door elevators, said most places have not adopted the ASME
standards as law.
"If states and cities would adopt the (most recent) code, you
wouldn't have the condition you're talking about," Weldin said.
The reason the latest elevator standards have not been adopted
in most places is because of the financial burden they would place
on elevator owners, said Richard Atkinson, executive director of
the National Association of Elevator Safety Authorities
International, based in Arizona.
And because the latest standards have not been adopted, there
are thousands of elevators that are perfectly legal because they
complied with the laws when installed, he said.
While declining to comment about the Bethel Inn death, Otis
Elevator spokeswoman Tizz Weber said the company's No. 1 priority
is and always has been safety.
Otis has lobbied for code changes, urged states to adopt the
codes into law, and informed elevator owners of the problem - and
how to solve it, she said.
In 1995, the company estimated that a space guard would cost
$200 to $300 in materials and one "team-hour" of labor for each
landing. Under those guidelines, the cost of space guards for a
two-story building, such as the Bethel Inn, would be $400 to $600
plus labor. For a 20-story building, it would cost $4,000 to $6,000
plus labor.
Hayes, the elevator consultant, said manufacturers should take
extra steps to address the problem. If an automobile company
manufactures a model that has safety problems, it can be required
to recall cars for repairs, he said.
"If somebody knows there is a potentially dangerous situation,
they have an obligation to take care of it," he said.
Otis' Weber said building owners also have a responsibility to
update their properties - whether it be with fire alarms,
sprinklers or elevators. How long, she asked, should manufacturers
be responsible for their products?
"Take a 1963 Nova, they didn't have air bags," Weber said.
"Should GM now be responsible for putting air bags in all those
cars?"
Enforcement is another issue. Maine is one of the places that
adopted the latest ASME guidelines back in 1998. Nonetheless, two
years later, after the Bethel Inn accident, state inspectors shut
down 74 elevators in violation of the space requirement, said
Kristine Ossenfort of the Department of Professional and Financial
Regulation. She said she did not have a good explanation for why so
many elevators were operating illegally.
At the Bethel Inn, the elevator has been boarded over.