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Suzanne Hart's Elevator Death Blamed on Worker Oversight

By Mary Johnson | February 27, 2012 1:26pm | Updated on February 27, 2012 3:06pm
A photograph of Suzanne Hart, who was killed in a freak elevator accident at 285 Madison Avenue, is placed in the lobby of the building, Dec. 16, 2011.
A photograph of Suzanne Hart, who was killed in a freak elevator accident at 285 Madison Avenue, is placed in the lobby of the building, Dec. 16, 2011.
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DNA/info/Mary Johnson

By Murray Weiss & Mary Johnson

DNAinfo Staff

MIDTOWN — Maintenance workers who serviced the elevator that killed Young & Rubicam advertising exec Suzanne Hart last year failed to re-engage a safety mechanism that would have prevented the elevator from moving while its doors were open, the city's Department of Buildings and Department of Investigation said.

The city said that workers had arrived at the building, 285 Madison Ave., on Dec. 14, to make repairs and in doing so, disabled a lock that prevents the elevator from operating while its doors are open. But, when the work was completed, the city alleges that the workers failed to put that safety lock back in place.

The city has now suspended the license of Transel Elevators, which was responsible for servicing the units at the building, and is seeking a full revocation.

Hart, 41, was killed when she stepped into the elevator and it shot upward with the doors still open. Hart was crushed between the first and second floors of the building and pronounced dead at the scene.

There were two other people in the elevator at the time of the accident, but Hart was the only one physically injured.

Reached by phone on Monday, a relative of Hart said that the family was “unaware” about the report being released by the city on Monday.

“We’re doing the best we can to move on,” the relative said.

The report from the city includes a detailed analysis of surveillance footage, as well as interviews with the seven Transel workers who were in the building at the time of the incident.

Several Transel employees arrived a little after 5 a.m. and began working in the building's 14th-floor control room. Around 9 a.m., work began on elevator 9, the unit that killed Hart. To complete their repairs, the workers disengaged a safety mechanism that is meant to keep the elevator from moving up or down the shaft with its doors open, using a device called a “jumper,” the city said.

However, when the work was completed, the device was not removed, the city’s investigation revealed.

One of the workers, Michael Hill, said that he had in fact removed the jumper and submitted a device to investigators as proof.

But several days after the incident, the city’s investigators found a cluster of wires beneath a grate immediately in front of elevator 9's control panel—a device that the city said looked more like a “jumper” than what Hill had provided during his interviews with the city.

In addition, the workers failed to notify the Department of Buildings after the work was completed—which is required by law—and put elevator 9 back in service without DOB clearance on Dec. 14, 2011, shortly before Hart entered the building.

“These workers and their supervisors failed to follow the most basic safety procedures, and their carelessness cost a woman her life,” DOB Commissioner Robert D. LiMandri said in a statement. “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,” LiMandri added.

Now, all 13 elevators at 285 Madison have been inspected, with 11 now back in service. Elevator 9 and one other unit remain closed.

In the days following the Dec. 14 incident, the Department of Buildings launched the largest safety sweep of elevators in the department’s history, inspecting some 678 elevators, according to a release.

The department has since slapped Transel with 23 violations, with a minimum penalty of $117,000,
including violations for operating elevator 9 without a certificate of compliance. The department has also suspended Transel’s license, preventing the company from performing any elevator upgrades, new installations or inspections, and it will seek a full revocation of that license at an administrative hearing to be held on a date to be determined.

“The investigation starkly showed elevator safety protocols were ignored,” DOI Commissioner Rose Gill Hearn said in a statement. “These findings are a caution to all licensed building professionals in the City, especially those in the elevator industry: City regulations safeguard New Yorkers and must be followed at all times.”

The city’s district attorney’s office is also investigating the incident, a spokeswoman confirmed.

With reporting by Shayna Jacobs.