Elevator floor position indicator

Elevators are a crucial component in modern buildings, providing both convenience and accessibility to tenants and visitors alike. However, the importance of maintaining elevator safety cannot be overstated. For building owners and managers, ensuring that elevators are in proper working order is not just a matter of compliance but also a critical aspect of occupant safety and building reputation. The consequences of neglecting elevator maintenance can be catastrophic.

Today’s municipal requirements for annual elevator and escalator inspections in NYC did not simply spring out of nowhere. They arose out of decades of hard lessons learned in the aftermath of unanticipated disasters leading to severe injuries, loss of life, and significant financial and legal repercussions. This blog will examine some of the most notable among those disasters.

Why Do We Need Elevators in the First Place?

Italian Opera House, Haymarket by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd

Royal Opera Arcade, London, ca. 1828 (source)

Driven by increasing urbanization and the need to maximize space in growing cities, architects in Europe and the Americas began designing buildings of five or more stories in the early 19th century. One of the earliest examples is the Royal Opera Arcade in London, constructed between 1815 and 1818. By the mid-19th century, technological advancements, such as the development of iron-framed construction and the advent of mechanical lifts, made it feasible to build even taller structures. The gridiron street plan of cities like New York and Chicago further facilitated the development of multi-story buildings, culminating in the skyscraper boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This era marked a significant transition in architectural design and urban planning, laying the groundwork for the vertical cities we see today.

In those circumstances, past a certain number of stories, it was no longer practical to provide regular access to upper floors solely via stairways. Elevators began to see widespread use in multi-story buildings during the mid-19th century, thanks to significant advancements in technology and engineering.

Elisha Otis demonstrating his elevator safety device

Otis free-fall safety demo (source)

The breakthrough moment came in 1853 when Elisha Otis introduced the safety elevator at the New York World’s Fair. Otis’s invention featured a safety brake that prevented the elevator car from plummeting if the hoisting cable broke, effectively addressing the primary safety concerns of the time.

Following this innovation, the installation of passenger elevators started to become commonplace. One of the first notable buildings to utilize these elevators was the Equitable Life Building in New York City, completed in 1870. This marked the beginning of an era where elevators facilitated the construction and practicality of skyscrapers, transforming urban architecture and the way cities expanded vertically.

After 1853: The First Notable Elevator Accidents in the U.S.

And then, inevitably, Murphy’s Law kicked in. Following the innovation of the safety elevator by Elisha Otis in 1853, the widespread adoption of this technology did not come without its challenges and incidents. While elevators became integral to urban development and skyscrapers, they also experienced some of the first serious accidents that highlighted the need for improved safety standards and regular maintenance.

Donnelly Building: Pittsburgh, PA (1903)

In 1903, the Donnelly Building in Pittsburgh, PA, became the site of an elevator accident that highlighted the dangers of early elevator technology. The accident occurred when the steel cable holding an overloaded passenger elevator snapped at an upper floor, causing it to crash through into the basement.

This tragic incident resulted in the death of four individuals and left several others severely injured. The aftermath of the accident sparked widespread concern and led to immediate calls for improvements in elevator safety. Investigations into the accident revealed significant flaws in the design and maintenance of the hydraulic systems used in elevators at the time.

Sears Store: Chicago, IL (1904)

The following year, a tragic freight elevator accident took place at the Sears store in Chicago, which underscored the inherent risks associated with early elevator systems. The incident occurred because the passenger elevator was out of service for repairs, forcing ten customers and employees to crowd into a freight elevator normally used for transporting goods between floors. Due to overloading, the elevator malfunctioned and fell several stories, resulting in two deaths and six injuries. The accident highlighted the critical need for higher safety standards specifically tailored for freight elevators, which often carried significantly heavier loads compared to passenger elevators.

In reaction to these tragedies, building owners and city officials pushed for more stringent safety regulations and improved inspection protocols to ensure the reliability of elevator mechanisms. Enhanced safety features, such as redundant braking systems and more robust hydraulic controls, were recommended and gradually implemented. These accidents played a significant role in accelerating the evolution of elevator safety standards, ultimately contributing to the development of safer vertical transportation methods.

Clarendon Building: New York, NY (1920)

In 1920, the Clarendon Building in New York City was the site of a harrowing elevator accident that underscored the ongoing challenges in elevator safety during that era. The accident unfolded when a passenger elevator, filled to its capacity with office workers, suffered a sudden cable breakage at the 10th floor. The defective cable, which had not been properly maintained, suddenly snapped, causing the elevator to plunge several floors before the emergency braking system brought it to an abrupt halt.

Despite the intervention of the emergency brakes, the sudden stop exerted immense inertial force on the passengers inside, resulting in two fatalities and numerous injuries. The emergency systems, though innovative for their time, were not sufficient to completely prevent severe consequences in the event of such a failure. This incident brought to light the necessity for regular and detailed maintenance checks on all elevator components, especially in high-traffic buildings.

Following the Clarendon Building disaster, there was a significant shift in how elevator safety was approached. New laws mandated routine and comprehensive inspections, focusing not only on the visible components but also on the intricate systems that ensure safe operation. Additionally, advancements were made in the materials and engineering used for elevator cables, prioritizing durability and resilience.

The tragedy at the Clarendon Building played a pivotal role in the establishment of more rigorous safety protocols and the development of advanced safety features, including more reliable braking systems and load-bearing mechanisms. This event had a lasting impact on elevator safety standards, contributing to the modern, secure systems we rely on today.

It is an ongoing effort. To the present day, with each elevator mishap, however rare, elevator safety protocols in NYC and elsewhere are re-examined and refined to prevent such accidents in the future.

The 1987 King’s Cross Escalator Fire

Going up the last wooden escalator on the London Underground at Greenford station

Going up the last wooden escalator on the London Underground, at Greenford station. All others were replaced in the years following the King’s Cross fire in 1987. Note the “no smoking” sign. (source)

And do not automatically assume that because it is fixed to the ground an escalator must be safer than an elevator. In 1987 one of the most devastating accidents in the history of London’s public transportation system occurred at the King’s Cross Underground station. The disaster began innocuously enough, with a discarded match or cigarette igniting the wooden escalator’s undergirding. However, the incident quickly grew into a full-blown inferno due to a combination of factors, including the use of combustible materials in the escalator’s construction and inadequate understanding of fire dynamics in underground settings.

The fire originated in a wooden escalator that connected the Underground’s Piccadilly Line to the station’s main concourse. The initial flames, hidden beneath the escalator steps, went unnoticed for several minutes, allowing them to build in intensity. Eventually, a phenomenon known as the “trench effect” caused a sudden and violent escalation of the fire, which shot a jet of flames into the station’s ticket hall.

Tragically, the incident claimed the lives of 31 people and injured more than 100 others. The fire spread so rapidly and fiercely that many of those affected had little chance of escape. Emergency response teams faced significant challenges due to the intense heat and thick smoke that filled the station.

In the aftermath, a public inquiry led to profound changes in fire safety standards and practices, not just within the London Underground but in buildings worldwide. It was determined that lighter materials should be used in future escalator constructions, and comprehensive fire detection systems were installed. Moreover, maintenance protocols were overhauled to ensure regular checks specifically aimed at preventing similar incidents. The King’s Cross disaster also led to the implementation of rigorous staff training in emergency response procedures, significantly enhancing passenger safety for future generations.

But let’s end this survey of gruesome outcomes with some good news.

Empire State Building: New York City (1945)

Empire State Building under crescent moon

In July of that year, a B-25 bomber crashed into the Empire State Building in dense fog, partially severing an elevator cable. Betty Lou Oliver, an elevator operator, was burned in the crash, but survived (14 passengers did not). While rescuers attempted to extract her, the cable snapped, causing the car to plunge 75 stories. Miraculously, Betty Lou survived the rapid descent (and the sudden stop at the end)! She currently holds the world record for the longest survived elevator fall.

Common Causes of Elevator and Escalator Accidents

Years of experience have taught us that equipment malfunctions and accidents typically result from several critical factors:

  • Poor Maintenance: Irregular maintenance schedules and substandard repairs can lead to mechanical failures.
  • Design Flaws: Inadequate design or manufacturing defects can make elevators prone to malfunctions.
  • Outdated Equipment: Older elevators lacking modern safety features are more susceptible to accidents.
  • Human Error: Improper use or mishandling by passengers or maintenance staff can also contribute to accidents.

The Responsibility of Building Owners and Managers

By the same token, to prevent such tragic incidents, building owners and managers must adopt stringent safety measures. Ensuring elevator safety is a fundamental responsibility of building owners and managers. Neglecting this duty can lead to severe consequences, in terms of both human life and financial liability. By prioritizing regular maintenance, adhering to safety standards, and taking proactive measures, building owners and managers can prevent tragic accidents and ensure the well-being of their tenants and visitors. Best practices include:

  • Regular Inspections: Schedule frequent inspections by certified professionals to identify and rectify potential issues.
  • Modernization: Upgrade older elevators with modern safety features such as emergency braking systems, door sensors, and communication devices.
  • Maintenance Contracts: Enter into maintenance agreements with reputable service providers to ensure consistent and high-quality upkeep.
  • Training: Provide comprehensive training for staff on the proper use and routine checks of elevators.
  • Emergency Protocols: Establish and communicate clear emergency procedures to tenants and staff in the event of an elevator malfunction.

Call to Action

We urge all building owners and managers to be vigilant in maintaining the safety of their conveyance equipment. If you haven’t done so recently, schedule a professional escalator and/or elevator inspection in NYC at your earliest convenience and consider investing in recommended upgrades. The safety of your tenants and visitors depends on it.

For expert advice and top-tier elevator maintenance services, contact Insparisk today. Ensuring elevator safety is not just a legal obligation but a moral one. Let’s work together to prevent further tragedies.

By staying vigilant and committed to safety, we can create a safer environment for everyone who relies on elevators. The cost of inaction is too high. Please take the necessary steps today to safeguard your buildings and those within them.

Modern wood and metal elevator interior

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