Manhattan Elevator Fatality Triggers Suspension

Suzanne Hart, 41, died on Dec. 14, 2011, as she was entering elevator number 9 at 285 Madison Ave. and it accelerated upward with its doors open. Two city departments have suspended the license of the elevator maintenance firm.

A very rare event –- a passenger's death from a malfunctioning elevator –- caused New York City authorities to suspend the license of Transel Elevator Inc. this week and issue 23 citations with a minimum penalty of $117,000 to the firm. The commissioners of the New York City Department of Investigation (DOI) and the New York City Department of Buildings (DOB) announced the actions Feb. 27 and said they will seek to revoke the license of John Fichera, who owns Transel, at an administrative hearing.

A 2006 report published by the Center to Protect Workers' Rights said an average of six deaths per year from 1992 to 2003 involved passengers using elevators at work, according to BLS data.

The death of Suzanne Hart, 41, a Y&R employee, at 9:56 a.m. on Dec. 14, 2011, occurred as she was entering elevator number 9 at 285 Madison Ave. in Manhattan. The elevator accelerated upward with its doors open and Hart was trapped between the elevator door saddle and the hoist way wall; she died at the scene from her injuries, according to the accident report.

Soon after, DOB inspectors conducted the largest safety sweep of elevators in the history of the department. Elevator 9 was undergoing work related to a periodic test required every five years, so the three-week, citywide sweep focused on other elevator devices with recent work applications and outstanding periodic tests. A total of 658 elevators at 169 buildings -– including 370 serviced by Transel Elevator – were inspected. Transel received 71 Environmental Control Board violations out of a total of 135 issued. The inspectors found no conditions related to the fatal incident during the sweep.

The departments' investigation concluded the safety circuit on the elevator was apparently bypassed by a Transel mechanic's use of a "jumper" wire, which DOB describes as a common practice in elevator maintenance, acceptable by industry standards, to bypass an elevator door lock by placing a wire to connect two points on the elevator control panel. The mechanic said during a Jan. 19, 2012, interview under oath that he used such a wire that day to move the elevator so two helpers could work on it, but he said he removed it from the control panel after lowering the elevator.

DOB said workers from Transel failed to follow basic safety procedures before the incident, such as placing caution tape across the elevator's door jamb, and did not notify DOB to inspect the elevators before putting them back in service as required by the New York City Building Code.

"These workers and their supervisors failed to follow the most basic safety procedures, and their carelessness cost a woman her life," said DOB Commissioner Robert D. LiMandri. "New Yorkers who commute to work each day must rely on workers to maintain our buildings in a safe manner at all times, and these employees betrayed that public trust. Failing to post warning signs about the work and allowing this elevator back into service without proper safeguards are clear violations of the Building Code, and their blatant disregard for the law and public safety is inexcusable. If these safety measures were in place, this tragedy would have been prevented."

The investigation eliminated brake failure, a power surge, or faulty wiring as possible contributors to the incident.

DOI and DOB have referred their investigative findings to the office of New York County District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr.

As of Feb. 27, DOB had inspected all 13 elevators at 285 Madison Ave. and concluded 11 of them are safe. Two, including elevator 9, remained out of service, and 34 ECB violations had been issued to the property owner, Young and Rubicam, and Transel Elevator.

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