On the last Friday in June, Sarah and Jason Annerton were on vacation in Destin Florida when they had the fright of a lifetime. They were first occupants of a 3-story beachfront rental property, with a home elevator featuring an inner accordion-style door and another exterior hoistway door. Sarah had never used one before, but exercised every precaution: she showed her daughters how to use the elevator, made sure they were aware of which buttons to push and accompanied them on each trip until she felt confident they could operate it on their own. On the final evening, while taking a family photo, her five-year-old daughter Grace realized she forgot something and ran to use the elevator. What happened next remains forever etched in Sarah’s mind:
“I heard tremendous screaming and I knew something was wrong. I heard it coming from the elevator and assumed she got stuck inside and wasn’t pushing the right button and she was screaming for it to come back. I realized she wasn’t in the car and she was in the elevator shaft somehow and not in the elevator and panic hit me that I had moments to get her out before she was likely crushed,” Sarah recalled
In many home elevators, and similar versions found in older apartment and commercial buildings, the clearance between the two doors is large enough to allow children as old as 12 years to fit between them. When the elevator is called to another floor, the hoistway door automatically locks, and the child’s body is carried along with the elevator car until it meets the obstruction of the sill, where the child’s body – usually the head – is crushed. Like many consumers, the Annertons were unaware of the potential dangers of home elevators. Industry has been aware of these dangers for more than 80 years, but has failed to adopt an appropriate, safe voluntary standard to address this design flaw.
According to CPSC’s own figures, there were an estimated 1600 injuries associated with residential elevators in just a two-year period from 20011 through 2012. Additionally, at least 55 child deaths have occurred since 1967; the most recent known death occurred in 2003.
Grace, who had gotten caught in the gap between the interior and exterior door, was safely extricated.
The near-miss underscores the urgent need for a mandatory standard and a fix for existing elevators. Eight months ago, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission published a petition from that the Safety Institute, Independent Safety Consulting and the Atlanta law firm of Cash, Krugler & Fredericks to initiate mandatory rulemaking to set safety standards for residential elevators. The petition also requested a recall to repair current residential elevators with a hazard that has been responsible for numerous child deaths and injuries. Yet, the commission has not acted on it.
“There have been too many deaths and catastrophic injuries to children in residential elevator accidents. These accidents are easily preventable and we remain hopeful that the CPSC will act on our petition to prevent future tragedies from occurring,” says Cash.
The Annerton’s Experience
The Annertons were shown how to use the elevator on the first day of their weeklong vacation, but they were not provided with any warnings or information indicating the potential dangers. Sarah and Jason shared the top floor, with Grace and her sister Faith, while her brother and sister-in-law were on the middle floor. The grandparents occupied the bottom floor. On the final two days of their trip, Sarah finally allowed her children to use the elevator to visit their grandmother two floors below. Satisfied that she had properly shown them how to operate the elevator, Sarah walked them to the elevator once again and made sure they knew which buttons to push. That trip was uneventful and Sarah now felt confident they could use the elevator on their own for the remaining two days.
On the last day, however, Grace became trapped between the doors. Sarah and Jason had to rip the hoistway door off of the hinges. They found Grace standing on the 2-inch ledge in the elevator shaft narrowly escaping being crushed as the elevator moved to the lower floors.
“She squeezed between both doors…both were closed and the car started going down. There are so many factors for how she should have been hurt and I know she escaped death – we know it. We went through severe emotional distress. My daughter still talks about it” says Sarah.
The Teskey Family
The Teskey family had a similar experience in their vacation rental. Doug and Autumn Teskey were vacationing with their two children, three-year old Austin and five-year old Charlotte. The landlord showed them how to use the elevator and they were told it was equipped with a safety mechanism that shuts down operation if both doors aren’t locked. They did not know about the entrapment hazard.
The Teskey’s set rules for their kids and began their vacation. Three days into their trip both children ran to the elevator on the 4th floor to help their mom move some items. Austin ran ahead, opened the sliding door and inadvertently closed the accordion door. Charlotte ran after him and her momentum locked the outer door behind her as she ran into the closed accordion door.
“We heard screaming and we thought it was screaming from the kids having fun. Then we heard blood-curdling screams. My daughter was caught in between the accordion door and the outer door, standing on the ledge while the elevator went past her. She held onto the doorknob of the outer door, which ended up being the last second decision that saved her. As the elevator continued to pass, it caught her shoulder blade and head and started pushing her downward. My son could see part of his sister before she disappeared” explained Doug.
Doug ran over to check what was happening and was electrically shocked by the 4th floor door while trying to open it. He then ran to the third floor and pulled the door off its hinges as the screams began to escalate. He could see his son looking up and pointing, he could see his daughter pinned between the elevator shaft and the roof of the elevator. He then ran back to the 4th floor and pulled the door off it’s hinges, to find his daughter unconscious and not breathing. “My daughter, I thought she was gone. She was a blue color like I’d never seen before,” said Doug.
With the help of 2 strangers that Autumn found running into the streets for help, Doug, his brother-in-law and the 2 helpers lifted the elevator high enough off Charlotte for her to catch her first breathe and become conscious again.
“It was as if she was hanging off a cliff, half of her body on the 4th floor and the other half pined by the roof of the elevator, inches from her spine. All of the blood vessels in her face had exploded because of the pressure in her lungs and stomach, from the elevator crushing her.”
Charlotte’s whole left side was pinned. The elevator crushed and killed all of her skin and left scarring on her back. She sustained 2 hip fractures, sciatic nerve damage in her left side, and a dropped foot. Charlotte was unable to use her foot for five months and has been in physical therapy since the incident. She and her brother frequently talk about the incident and Doug says the horrible visions never leave his mind. Though his daughter now runs with a slight stagger, he knows she is lucky to be alive.
A few weeks ago, Cash, Krugler & Fredricks settled the case of ten-year old Jordan Nelson, who suffered catastrophic brain injury and quadriplegia after becoming entrapped and pinned under elevator car in a vacation home they rented in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina. The jaws of life were eventually required to rescue the Jordan from the elevator. He now requires full time care. The case settled for more than $16.3 million.
“The resolution is bittersweet, because this tragedy should have never happened,” Cash said. Jordan’s case may be over, but our firm will continue to push for major reform at the local, state and federal levels and will continue to fight to eliminate a known hazard that has been pervasive in the elevator industry for decades.”
Elevator Petition Still in Process
In January, the CPSC opened a docket and published the petition in the Federal Register with a request for comments. The comment period ended in late March, with the only submission a letter from Kids In Danger (KID), and Consumer Federation of America (CFA) expressing their support:
The Petition shows how the current voluntary standards and the ASME standard development process have not been adequate to address this hazard, leaving children at risk of injury and death. Unfortunately, this is an example of how a voluntary standard process, for various reasons, has been too slow to take action against a known hazard. This is not a hazard that would be readily obvious to elevator owners.
The Petitioners have made an excellent case for a mandatory rulemaking process and our organizations strongly support such action. We also are in favor of the Petitioners’ call for the Commission to commence a recall to repair, requiring all manufacturers to retrofit existing elevators to prevent children and small adults from becoming entrapped.
Unfortunately this is a hazard that will continue to put children at risk until action is taken. We urge the CPSC to move forward with rulemaking before any more children come face-to-face with danger.