Investigators say an important elevator safety mechanism was apparently turned off when an advertising executive was crushed to death at a Manhattan office building.
A mechanic overrode the mechanism, a safety circuit that normally prevents elevators from moving with their doors open, to enable work on the midtown Manhattan elevator about a half-hour before an elevator did just that and killed Suzanne Hart on Dec. 14, the city Department of Investigation and Department of Buildings found.
The mechanic insisted he'd put the safety system back online by the time Hart tried to step into the car, but they concluded the mechanism "was apparently bypassed at the time of the fatal incident, thereby allowing the car to move with its doors open," the investigation agency said.
The Buildings Department, meanwhile, suspended the elevator repair company owner's license. He failed to notify the agency and get an OK to put the car back in service after the repairs that day, among other missteps.
"The investigation starkly showed elevator safety protocols were ignored," Department of Investigation Commissioner Rose Gill Hearn said in a statement.
The Manhattan District Attorney has received the report and is reviewing it, a spokeswoman said.
Transel Elevator Inc. says it cooperated and will contest the findings.
Isabelle Kirshner, a lawyer for mechanic Michael Hill, said she was reviewing the reports but noted he had been "completely cooperative" with the investigation.
Hart, 41, was heading to her office at the advertising agency Y&R, formerly known as Young & Rubicam, when she tried to get into one of several elevators in the lobby of the 27-story tower built in 1926. Two other people were already in the elevator, called car 9 in the report.
As they looked on in horror, it started rising with the doors still open, dragging Hart between the car and the wall. It got stuck between the first and second floors.
"These workers and their supervisors failed to follow the most basic safety procedures, and their carelessness cost a woman her life," Buildings Commissioner Robert LiMandri said in a statement. Besides putting the elevator back into service without proper clearance, workers didn't follow simple precautions such as strapping caution tape across the elevator door, the agency said.
"If these safety measures were in place, this tragedy would have been prevented," LiMandri added. His agency already has cited Transel with 23 violations carrying a minimum penalty of $117,000.
Investigators considered a range of possibilities, including faulty wiring, a power surge and a programming or brake failure. But they ultimately concluded that the only way the elevator could have started moving under the circumstances was with the safety circuit bypassed.
Mechanic Michael Hill initially told investigators he had no idea why the elevator might have moved with the doors open. Weeks later, he told them under oath that he had temporarily hooked up a wire on the elevator control panel to bypass the safety circuit earlier that morning, the report said.
The procedure, known as jumping, is often done during repairs so that workers can position a car between floors, open the doors to the elevator shaft, and step onto the top of the car to work.
Hill was adamant that he had not accidentally left the jumping wire connected to the control panel once the elevator was in position, DOI said. He said the wire had never left his hand, and he later gave investigators the wire he said he had used.
That wire didn't look as though it had been used for jumping the safety circuit, however — and in the interim, some wire "consistent with" wires used for jumping was found under the metal-grate floor by the control panel, the report said.
After Hart's death, the Buildings Department conducted its largest elevator safety sweep, inspecting 658 cars at 169 buildings in three weeks. Officials issued 135 violation citations but didn't find any conditions echoing the deadly accident, the agency said.
Copyright Associated Press / NBC New York