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Shoddy regulation, loose laws allow dangerous elevators to continue operating in San Antonio

Photo: ALEJANDRA RAMíREZ, License: N/A

ALEJANDRA RAMíREZ

Photo: Courtesy photos, License: N/A

Courtesy photos

Photos from the TDLR's investigation into the Crockett show a jumper cable on the service elevator brake that never should have been there.

Photo: N/A, License: N/A

Courtesy photos


Rodriguez's fall coincided with two other elevator deaths across the country. In early December, Annette Lujan was crushed by an elevator at Cal State Long Beach when she tried climbing out of a stuck car. A week later, Suzanne Hart died when an elevator in her Manhattan office building closed on her leg as she stepped inside, dragging her body up and into the elevator shaft as the car rose.

Such incidents, while grisly, are, as the elevator industry is quick to point out, rare. ConsumerWatch estimates U.S. elevators make some 18 billion passenger trips every year. Nationally, about 27 travelers are killed while making them each year, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission; another 10,200 elevator riders are seriously injured each year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"People inherently trust these machines," said San Antonio-based Jesse Bielefeld, national director with the Elevator Industry Work Preservation Fund, a group that has fought for tighter elevator safety laws since its founding in 1998. "You never expect anything to go wrong." When elevators fail, however, they often fail in dramatic fashion. That happens when codes aren't enforced and companies cut corners, Bielefeld said. "To save a dollar, companies cut labor. You cut labor, you eventually have problems with equipment."

There are no federal mandates on elevator safety and the U.S. government doesn't require elevators to be inspected or even require elevator inspectors to have any sort of training and certification. Each state is left with drafting inspection and safety requirements on its own. Before he died in 2010 at the age of 70, Bielefeld's predecessor and mentor, John Quackenbush (who started pushing for changes after a personal friend was mangled in an elevator accident), wrote model elevator safety regulations that became the basis for laws in several states, including Texas, Bielefeld said.

Quackenbush would reenter the media spotlight each time an elevator killed or mangled a maintenance worker or passenger somewhere in the country. "It always seems like blood has to take place before people move on this issue. These tragedies could flat-out be prevented," Bielefeld added.

Texas requires elevator inspectors to be licensed, but for those providing routine elevator maintenance there are no such requirements. "You could go down and get you some tools at Sears and Roebuck and be an elevator worker in the morning, it's that simple and that dangerous," Bielefeld said.

Elevators in private residences are essentially exempt from state regulations. Texas first-grader Colby Dillin had his head crushed in a residential elevator while vacationing in Florida in 1998. His father, Fort-Worth area orthopedic surgeon Linden Dillen, settled with the elevator company for nearly $6 million and vowed to use the money to lobby Texas lawmakers to pass laws requiring residential elevators be inspected for safety. The Lege never budged on the issue — under current law, contractors installing elevators in homes are only required to tell homeowners it's advised they have periodic safety inspections.

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