‘Swing-door’ elevators blamed for child injuries

It was the finishing touch on Michael and Brandi Helvey’s Georgia dream house: an elevator to accommodate Michael’s mother, who was in her 80s and living with them downstairs.

The National Wheel-O-Vator Destiny had cost $20,000. But with their first child walking and safety gates in place to block their stairways, the Helveys found the elevator so handy that they raved about it to their neighbors. Then, on Christmas Eve of 2010, Brandi Helvey walked upstairs to do laundry and 3-year-old Jacob, who was left on the main floor, tried to follow _ with catastrophic results.

Standing on tiptoe, Jacob managed to open the elevator’s outer door. At that point the horrific chain of events began, a tragedy linked to many so-called swing-door elevators found in small and older buildings and, increasingly, in homes. First, the outer door (known as the “swing door”) closed and latched, trapping the 31-pound youngster against the inner door on the elevator car.

When the mother heard noises from downstairs and hit the elevator button, Jacob was dragged upward. The car stopped within a few feet, but when it went back down, the little boy was pushed feet-first into the shaft and pinned at the chest and neck.

There, he hung for 10 crushing minutes while his mother and neighbors tried frantically to pry him loose with boards and a shovel. By the time first responders arrived, he had nearly suffocated.

Now 6 years old, Jacob is profoundly brain damaged, unable to speak and quadriplegic. Meanwhile, the Helveys have learned that their son’s injuries weren’t the result of a freak accident. Instead, they stemmed from a largely preventable hazard that the elevator industry has known about for generations. And the potentially deadly threat to children still exists despite long-available fixes and even a national safety campaign in recent years by a leading elevator company as a result of a liability lawsuit.

No one keeps statistics on the toll. But news accounts indicate that at least seven children since 1995 have lost their lives in swing-door elevator incidents like Jacob Helvey’s. What’s more, evidence presented in a lawsuit against the Otis Elevator company stemming from the 2001 death of a young boy revealed the names of 34 children who had been similarly maimed or killed from 1983 through 1993, just in southern New York state and New Jersey.

The Helvey case spurred the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission in August to launch an investigation of home elevators. It also is prompting the industry standard-setting organization, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, to take a fresh look at swing-door problems. Still, elevator companies have long operated with scant government oversight, and ASME’s efforts to come up with improved safety guidelines have stalled for years. In fact, critics say, a change in 1981 by ASME actually made swing-door elevators more dangerous.

Prospective buyers today _ if they are willing to pay extra _ can equip swing-door elevators with infrared sensors and other safety options. Yet the industry norm continues to be a design with an inner door that, critics say, increases the risk of entrapment by letting children edge too far inside the elevator clearance space. Meanwhile, many homeowners are unaware of the peril.

“We never had any idea this could happen,” said Michael Helvey, who heads a real estate company near Atlanta and who settled a lawsuit in April against National Wheel-O-Vator and its corporate parent, ThyssenKrupp Access.

“But what we found out was, the industry knows all about this,” he said. “There are other cases. My son was just the only one we know of who survived.”

A lawyer for ThyssenKrupp, James Doyle, said in a statement to FairWarning that at the company, “There is nothing more important than the safety of our customers and employees.” He blamed safety problems on improper installation of the elevators, which he called “a critical, industry-wide safety issue,” and said ThyssenKrupp, which has gotten out of the residential elevator business in the United States, supports efforts to improve installation practices.

Swing-door elevators have been in use in this country since the early 1900s. They require less wall space for installation than office building elevators with sliding doors. The inner gate is on the elevator car and the outer, hinged door _ which resembles an ordinary home door _ is installed at the landing. But almost since their invention, elevator experts say, the swing-door design has had problems.

“They have a terrible history,” said John J. O’Donoghue, co-author of a manual on elevator safety for emergency responders and a member of the Massachusetts Board of Elevator Regulations. “That gap between the two doors _ kids get into it and the door closes behind them.” Once that outer door is shut, he explained, the electronic circuit is completed and “the elevator is live and primed to go, and they don’t realize the danger they’re in.”

Today, manufacturers estimate there are about 125,000 swing-door elevators in use in this country, with another roughly 5,000 sold annually in recent years, most going into townhouses and single-family homes.

Manufacturers’ safety measures generally have improved somewhat over time _ for example, metal “scissor gates” that in some cases have amputated children’s fingers are no longer common _ but in other cases, protections have been undercut.

ASME standards are developed not by independent safety experts, but by a majority consensus of industry engineers, installers, inspectors and consultants. Moreover, though some states and communities put the voluntary standards into their building codes, few cities inspect elevators in private homes.

In 1955, ASME adopted its first safety standard for residential elevators, limiting the gap between the inner and outer elevator to four inches. Then, in 1981, the standard was relaxed to allow five inches. John Koshak, a Tennessee elevator consultant who traced the history of the ASME standards for the Helveys’ Atlanta lawyers, Andrew Cash and David Krugler, says he was unable to find a record of the reasoning for the loosening of the safety guidelines.

The problem was exacerbated in the mid-1990s, when manufacturers shifted to using accordion doors made of lightweight wood or vinyl for the inner gates. Flexible and cheap, the accordion doors fold like paper fans. That creates wider, V-shaped gaps that can accommodate a child’s head, but later can trap the youngster when the doors are stretched flat, as happened with Jacob Helvey.

Many safety features are available now as options. They include infrared sensors costing $200 to $400 that can detect trapped children, as well as sturdier inside doors known as Tambour gates that add about $1,500 onto the $25,000 average price of a home elevator.

Critics point out, however, that the half-dozen or so manufacturers that dominate the swing-door business haven’t taken the initiative of insisting that all of their elevators come with at least one of these features. Although some manufacturers say they now are working on new safety improvements, they have maintained that the extra cost of the available safety options would drive away customers.

Beyond that, manufacturers blame faulty installation work by contractors for creating the hazards. They say none of the known deaths or injuries occurred in properly installed swing-door elevators that precisely met ASME standards. However, although a couple manufacturers require their elevators to be put in by company-trained or -certified installers, none of them takes the extra safety step of imposing the same restriction on the contractors that can install the outer elevator doors.

All told, the manufacturers say it is up to ASME to set new industry-wide manufacturing standards if they are needed. And they say building inspectors around the country should make sure elevators are installed correctly.

“As a manufacturer, the only way we can enforce these things and not drastically affect the business side of our company is by changing the safety code so that everyone would have to do it and the installers would have to accept it,” said Bill Richardson, executive vice president of Canada-based Savaria Concord Lifts, one of the major elevator manufacturers.

The industry’s attitude appalls Sean Kane, president of the consulting and advocacy group Safety Research & Strategies, which has published online reports this year about the hazards. “This is just a dinosaur industry,” he said. “The standards need to be tightened and the elevators in service now need to be retrofitted to ensure a child can’t get in between.”

Related stories from Tacoma News Tribune