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Elevator Tragedy: Random Accident, Negligence, or Inevitable?

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The grisly death of Y&R ad exec Suzanne Hart in the elevator of 285 Madison is resonating with New Yorkers who live and work in a vertical city. Hart was caught by her leg while entering the elevator at the building where she worked, before being quickly yanked up and crushed to death between the elevator car and shaft. Such a horrible incident has unsettled a city in which entering and exiting elevators is done as often, and considered as risky, as flipping a light switch. Gov. Andrew Cuomo's initial reaction was that Hart's death was a random tragedy, and should remind us all of the capricious nature of fate. But can we take away something more practical or actionable from her death?

According to a Dept. of Buildings spokesman, Tony Sclafani, quoted in the Times, there were three fatal accidents linked to NYC elevators last year and 50 more non-fatal accidents. There are approximately 60,000 elevators in New York. As anyone has taken a ride on a creaking, jerky elevator, however, small numbers belie the sense that things could be better. Chad Kawalec, a former employee at Y&R, described the elevators where Suzanne Hart as creaky and balky to the Times. "They weren't the kind of elevators that you stuck your hand in to catch the doors, because they wouldn't stop."

Finger pointing over responsibility for Hart's death started almost before her body was extricated from the elevator shaft where she died. The DOB slapped 285 Madison for 13 violations for its elevators in recent years, although a department spokesman said these violations were all for administrative and non-hazardous conditions. Focus is now turning towards elevator maintenance firm Transel Elevator. Employees of that company were performing electrical maintenance work on the elevator that killed Hart just hours before her death. DOB investigators will be reviewing safety protocols and performing a sweep of elevators across the city that Transel personnel worked on recently.

A wider view of Hart's death reveals that even marquee businesses in New York, like ad agency Y&R, have to make due with office space in older buildings with antiquated facilities. New York was the epicenter of skyscraper construction in the early 20th century, and that architectural precociousness has translated into the creaking pains of old age after a hundred years. Steve Cuozzo in the Post points out that new office space in this city is pitiably scarce. "Recent vacancy rates of plus or minus 10 percent are misleading. Most available space is in older buildings; vacancies in more contemporary ones, even those built after 1960, are in the single digits." Ironically, Y&R was already scheduled to move out of 285 Madison?a building it has occupied since 1926?in 2013, to a more modern space at 3 Columbus Circle.
· Photo via Curbed pool/luluinnyc
· Woman Fatally Crushed in Midtown Elevator Accident [NYT]
· Probers Zero In On Work Done By Transel Elevator [NYDN]
· A Wake-Up Call To Build A Modern Manhattan [NYP]
· Elevator Work Under Review [WSJ]