elevators

Kaleb Rice, 4, recovers at a hospital after being involved in a residential elevator accident near Salt Lake City on Thanksgiving Day 2019. 

The little boy was pinned under the elevator. His face was turning blue. His dad, fearing he was dead, began to claw at the strip of metal sitting on his son's chest. His brother helped. They pried the metal piece free, stripping screws in the frantic effort. Kaleb Rice, 4, began to breathe in ragged bursts. But he was still trapped.

It was Thanksgiving Day 2019. Three generations of the Rice family gathered at Kaleb's grandfather's home just outside Salt Lake City. The house had a residential elevator, installed for Kaleb's grandmother, who could not use some limbs. Kaleb was caught under the elevator. No one in the family could imagine how it could've happened.

But the elevator industry understood. So did federal safety regulators.

They had known for years that small children were injured and killed after being accidentally trapped between a residential elevator's inner and outer doors, their tiny bodies crushed when the elevator car moved. They also knew about a simple way to prevent these accidents: a $100 insert to block the gap.

But the Consumer Product Safety Commission decided over the summer to not require companies to fix the elevators or conduct a safety recall, despite repeated pleas from victims' families, as The Washington Post reported in July. The Post detailed how elevator industry groups argued to regulators that the problem was complicated and often not their responsibility, successfully resisting pressure from the CPSC, an agency mired by internal divisions over what to do.

The Utah case - along with a previously unreported home elevator accident in North Carolina in 2017 - highlights the potential costs of the government's reluctance to address some safety hazards, despite relatively simple solutions to a problem faced by children.

Instead of a recall, the CPSC's acting chairwoman in August posted a brief "safety alert" about the elevator door gap on the agency's website and sent a similar notice to governors in every state. An agency spokesman had said the goal was to get a warning out quickly.

Victims' families, elevator safety officials and some CPSC commissioners called these actions inadequate at the time.

"It will fall on deaf ears," said Bob Shepherd, executive director of the National Association of Elevator Safety Authorities, which certifies elevator inspectors.

"It will happen again," warned Mike Helvey, whose young son Jacob suffered a severe brain injury in a residential elevator accident.

Four months later, it did.

The CPSC has contacted Kaleb's family but has not yet investigated the Utah incident. And the elevator's manufacturer said it didn't know about it until The Post contacted it. The Post learned of it after being contacted by Kaleb's family. Interviews with the family, first responders and others, along with photographs from the scene, point to a problem familiar to regulators.

And now a new family is asking why.

"It boggles the mind that they haven't done more," said Kaleb's mother, Mary Rice. "It's not acceptable. It's just not."

* * *

On Thanksgiving night, Mary Rice was helping set the dinner table when she heard her son screaming and crying. That was unusual for the boy. She ran toward the sound. It was coming from the elevator. She tried opening the outer door, but it was locked by an automatic safety device.

Kaleb was trapped.

But Mary Rice didn't understand the danger that her son faced.

"It didn't seem real or even possible," she recalled in a recent interview with The Post.

Most residential elevators have two doors: a swinging exterior door and an accordion door on the elevator itself.

The gap between these two doors has been recognized as a safety hazard for decades. At least eight children have been killed and two more seriously hurt in elevator entrapments since 1981, according to a CPSC database and Post research. But the true toll is hard to know. Some elevator safety experts suspect it is significantly higher.

The potential danger

If the elevator moves to another floor, a child, unable to escape, could be seriously injured or killed.

Otis Elevator - which first identified the problem in the 1930s - retrofitted thousands of its swing-door elevators with space guards to eliminate the gap after a child was killed in Maine in 2001. Otis officials also tried to sound the alarm that the problem was not unique to Otis, sending safety brochures and warning letters across the elevator industry in the mid-2000s.

After a boy was fatally crushed by an elevator in 2003 in Michigan, elevator experts advocated shrinking the door gap to four inches, down from five inches, as codified by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, which sets voluntary safety standards. At first, the ASME rejected the idea. But as children continued to be killed or injured, the group finally agreed in 2016 to the four-inch rule. The ASME did not respond to a request for comment.

Four inches is important. That's the space often allowed between the railings on balconies and stairways because young children are too big to squeeze through. A four-inch gap between elevator doors should stop children from fitting into that space, elevator safety experts say.

But not all states adopt the updated ASME codes. And the ASME code change applied only to elevators made after 2016.

Nothing was done to address the gap on the 300,000 to 500,000 residential elevators already installed in homes and buildings across the country.

The Rice family's elevator was manufactured in 2000 and installed two years later, according to interviews and photographs of the elevator. The elevator was made by National Wheel-O-Vator, which was acquired in 2008 by ThyssenKrupp Access, a division of the German conglomerate ThyssenKrupp.

A company spokesman, Dennis Van Milligen, said in a statement that "ThyssenKrupp's top priority is the safety of both its employees and the riding public" and that the company was still waiting to hear from the Rice family and the CPSC about the matter.

ThyssenKrupp Access elevators also were involved in elevator door-gap accidents in Georgia in 2010 and Arkansas in 2017.

Three years after the 2010 accident - the one involving Mike Helvey's son Jacob - ThyssenKrupp Access agreed to a deal with the CPSC.

The company claimed it didn't know the locations of its residential elevators, but it agreed to send letters to its dealers to tell them about the problem and offer to pay 25% of the estimated $75 cost for a space guard to fix it, according to documents disclosed in a lawsuit. The letter instructed the dealers to mail warning notes to their customers and to tell the company about any responses.

But those letters generated no response - not a single dealer said it sent one out or got any response, according to documents from a lawsuit.

The grandparents of Fletcher Hartz, who was fatally crushed by an elevator in Arkansas in 2017, said they never received a letter warning them of the danger.

The Rice family, too, said it never got one.

"If my father-in-law had known," Mary Rice said, "he would've fixed it in a heartbeat."

- - -

As Kaleb cried, his mother hunted for the key to unlock the elevator door.

Then Kaleb was silent.

Alarmed, Mary Rice ran upstairs to see whether the elevator was there.

Her husband, Kris Rice, ran downstairs.

The elevator door downstairs was unlocked. And Kris Rice screamed.

"It was a sound I never want to hear again," Mary Rice recalled.

She tried to run downstairs, but relatives held her back.

Kris Rice recalled in an interview that he could see only his son's chest and face. Kaleb's lower body was pinned under the elevator car. After Kris Rice and his brother pulled off the metal piece, the boy began to breathe.

The boy's grandfather, Kent Rice, ran to the home's garage and grabbed an automobile jack. The elevator sat on metal skids a few inches off the floor. Kaleb was trapped between them. There was just enough room for the jack to slide in, Kris Rice said. The men hoisted the car up a couple of inches and pulled Kaleb out.

Kaleb was rushed to a children's hospital, where he was checked for injuries. His mother sang him his favorite song over and over - "The wheels on the bus go 'round and 'round, 'round and 'round" - to calm him. He suffered a bruise on his face and scrapes across his chest and back. But he appeared to have escaped serious injury.

"No one can believe how well he's doing," Mary Rice said.

She soon discovered how lucky they were. That night in the hospital, she found the Post article from the summer describing the history of children being severely injured and killed in residential elevator accidents.

* * *

Shortly after the accident, a CPSC investigator phoned Kris Rice and left a message. The agency also sent a letter to the family in mid-December.

"I am working on an investigation involving several similar incidents and I would like to ask you a few questions related to yours," read part of the letter, according to a copy shown to The Post.

But the family was dealing with the holidays and the death of another relative. Kaleb also was frequently sick after the accident. The CPSC called again on Jan. 6.

The Rices said they plan to talk to the CPSC. But they also said they feel a certain amount of distrust. They've seen how the agency has responded so far to the cases involving other parents.

At the CPSC - the safety regulator for 15,000 products, including residential elevators - the elevator accidents continue to be a source of frustration and disputed decisions, according to interviews.

Last summer, four of the five agency's commissioners refused to sign on to the agency's "safety alert" because they didn't feel it went far enough, according to interviews and internal documents reviewed by The Post. These commissioners also didn't approve of allowing two elevator trade associations to sign on to the message.

These two groups, the National Association of Elevator Contractors and the Accessibility Equipment Manufacturers Association, did not respond to requests for comment.

The alert finally came from just then-acting chairwoman Ann Marie Buerkle, who resigned from the agency in October and is now working at the Washington lobbying firm Williams and Jensen.

Buerkle also sent a letter to governors to ask for their help with the problem.

But that letter did not find its target. The letter sent to Utah's governor never reached the state's Labor Commission, which houses the state's elevator safety program, so the group didn't know about it, according to a state government spokesman. It also didn't matter. The law in Utah, like many states, specifically excludes residential elevators from regulation.

Now, after learning about the Utah accident, some CPSC commissioners want the agency to take another crack at fixing the problem.

"It's immoral for those involved in the manufacture of this product to leave this out there unaddressed," Elliot Kaye, one of the CPSC commissioners who declined to sign on to Buerkle's letter, said in a recent interview.

Commissioner Peter Feldman said he felt excluded from last summer's negotiations with the elevator industry and supports tougher action by the agency.

"I don't know what's taking so long," Feldman said. He said the matter is complicated, "but that still shouldn't prevent the agency from doing its job."

One problem for the CPSC is figuring out who to go after: one company or an entire industry. Agency officials also struggled with the elevator industry's claim that the gap problem might be caused by the elevator's installation, not its design, raising more doubts about who is responsible, according to agency officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

The result is more delays.

"The industry could've solved this problem 10 times over in the time it would take any federal agency," said a senior agency official.

Robert Adler, who took over as acting chairman when Buerkle left, said in a statement that the small regulatory agency lacks the resources to push back against industry opposition.

"In a more perfect world, we would never have to choose to prioritize one safety hazard over another. But the unfortunate reality is that this agency has never been properly funded. Until that happens, we triage issues," Adler said. "But I can assure you, every child's death keeps me up at night, and we are exploring every option for action on this issue."

* * *

Another elevator accident also recently surfaced - a case that illustrates how attempts to alert authorities can be thwarted and points to the possibility that these incidents are much more widespread than believed.

Last fall, Matt Reber tried to alert the CPSC to an elevator entrapment incident using the agency website designated for reporting potential product safety problems. SaferProducts.gov was created for this purpose.

Reber's incident took place in 2017, when he and his family rented a house with a residential elevator in North Carolina's Outer Banks. His daughter, Nora, was 2 when she got caught between the elevator's swing door and its accordion door, Reber said. Reber said he tried to open the outer door, but it was locked. He managed to pry it open enough to see his daughter standing in the elevator well. The elevator must have been called upstairs as Norah stood in the gap, narrowly missing the young girl.

Reber and a friend pulled out Norah before the elevator descended, he said.

Shortly after the incident, Reber said he called the rental company, the elevator maintenance company and ASME to report what happened.

"No one was taking responsibility," he said. "Everyone is just pointing the finger at someone else."

After the Post article, Reber decided to file a report on SaferProducts.gov.

On his online form, a copy of which he shared with The Post, Reber noted that "reading stories about what happened to other children, I consider my daughter extremely lucky . . . Why the installation of this spacer is not a requirement is beyond me."

But he didn't know the elevator's manufacturer or model name. It was a beach rental home. So he left those fields blank.

In response, Reber received a form notice saying his Safer Products report was rejected because of the missing information.

He never received any follow-up from the agency, despite leaving his contact information.

Asked about Reber's case, the CPSC said it was checking what happened.

* * *

Recently, Mike and Brandi Helvey were driving from their home near Atlanta to Orlando, Florida. It'd been nearly a decade since their son Jacob was seriously injured in a residential elevator accident. Jacob, now 12, cannot walk or talk. They were driving to another therapy session for Jacob when they learned about what happened in Utah.

Another child, another elevator.

It was the kind of scenario they had been warning about for years, including last April, when they had visited the CPSC's headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland, to ask the agency to take action.

"It's just going to continue," Brandi Helvey said.

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