Safe Ride? Older Elevators Causing Injuries, Deaths

Almost everyone has had the annoying experience of being stuck in an elevator, waiting uncomfortably for a few minutes and breathing a big sigh of relief when it finally restarts.

Imagine it happening to two police officers transporting an out-of-control violent prisoner.

Don Robertson and Eric Gelles, two officers in Johnstown, Pa., were escorting Craig Damien Rummell, whom they had arrested earlier for public drunkenness and terroristic threats, in the Public Safety Building elevator for processing two weeks ago. Suddenly, the handcuffed suspect violently attacked them, causing the elevator to malfunction and stall for up to 10 minutes, police said.

"They were stuck in there while he was kicking and bouncing, trying to get free," Capt. Andrew Frear told "The Fire Department came and opened the doors. And the elevator was fixed the next day. But it happens frequently. It's an old elevator, more than 30 to 40 years old."

Man Trapped in Elevator for 41 Hours

The risk of older elevators failing was highlighted most dramatically this week when a 5-year-old boy fell to his death in an elevator shaft in an apartment building in Brooklyn. Jacob Neuman fell 10 stories Tuesday after the 34-year-old elevator that he and his brother were riding stalled between the 10th and 11th floors. Jacob banged on the elevator's buttons, prompting the doors to open. The boy jumped through the open door to the 10th floor but lost his footing and fell backward into the elevator shaft.

Now, the Brooklyn District Attorney has launched a criminal investigation into the incident to determine if any laws were broken regarding the operation and inspection of the elevator, according to the DA's office.

The replacement of the elevator has been postponed twice since 2004 due to federal cutbacks to the city's housing authority and is now scheduled for next year, according to authority spokesman Howard Marder.

After similar accidents from New Jersey to Ohio, questions are being raised about the safety of tens of thousands of older elevators in buildings across the country.

"There are plenty of old elevators out there that need to be modernized," says Don Gelestino, the president of Ver-Tech, an elevator service and maintenance company, which he said conducts 1,600 inspections a year. "I'm seeing more incidents lately. There are more people riding them, the elevators are getting older -- it's a recipe for problems."

According to Gelestino, New York City updated its codes for the operation of elevators last month, bringing them up to line with the rest of the country by requiring overspeed devices and smoke sensors.

"In general, fixing elevators in not a high priority for most building managers," said Gelestino. "You see buildings where they're spending money to renovate the lobby, putting new bricks and adding a new garden out front and meanwhile the elevators are stopping off-level. You don't see a big rush to fix things unless there's an accident."

In general, elevators are extremely safe: With more than 120 billion annual rides on more than 600,000 elevators every year, only 7,934 people were injured and went to the emergency room in 2007, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The most common injuries are caused by falls and by reaching out an arm or leg to keep an elevator door from closing, according to the CPSC.

That is the lowest injury rate in more than 10 years, which has been steadily declining since it peaked at 11,694 in 2001. Fatality rates were not immediately available.

Yet dramatic cases of elevator injuries and mishaps continue to make the headlines, from the 26 teen cheerleaders who had to be rescued after they crammed into a University of Texas elevator, causing it to stall and one girl to faint, to the Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, who became a prisoner in her own jail Wednesday when she and some staff members were stuck in an elevator for 45 minutes.

Aging elevators, many of which lack updated safety features to limit the speed and prevent riders from accessing the shaft, continue to be a problem and many remain unfixed, said safety experts.

As many as 1,000 of Dallas County's 8,000 elevators do not have current certified state inspections, and 400 of them are overdue for annual checkups, according to the Texas Department of License and Regulation.

Most infamously, Nicholas White spent 41 hours in a stuck elevator in a New York City office building after returning from a cigarette break, telling "Good Morning America" that he thought he would die of dehydration.

"After a certain amount of time I knew I was in big trouble," White recalled, who has explained that he was psychologically traumatized by the experience.

That horrible experience hasn't made him change his behavior. "Living in Manhattan, I'd be seriously limiting my life if I didn't take elevators," he said.