Jacob Helvey. (The Helvey family.)

Jacob Helvey in 2010. (Courtesy the Helvey family)

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 a design problem common 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 his 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.

This animation, prepared by Engineering Systems Inc. for the Helvey family’s legal team, depicts how Jacob Helvey, at age 3, was trapped and badly hurt in a swing-door elevator accident.

Safety Options Available

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 a flimsy 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. 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 U.S., supports efforts to improve installation practices.

They have a terrible history. That gap between the two doors—kids get into it and the door closes behind them.”

    — John J. O’Donoghue, a member of the Massachusetts Board of Elevator Regulations

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. Later on, when pushbutton technology eliminated the need for human operators, matters got worse, according to John J. O’Donoghue, co-author of a manual on elevator safety for emergency responders.

“They have a terrible history,” said O’Donoghue, 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. In a recent survey, about 12 percent of recent or prospective homebuyers said home elevators were an essential or desirable feature, up from 8 percent in 2004, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

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.

Safety Standard Relaxed

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.

(Dennis B. Brickman)

(Engineering Systems Inc. and Cash, Krugler & Fredericks, LLC)

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.

When an engineering consultant hired by the Helveys’ lawyers built a model of the Helveys’ elevator precisely to the manufacturer’s specifications, children were videotaped fitting easily into the clearance. Due to the way the Helveys’ elevator was installed, its clearance was a fraction of an inch wider than the standard. But the valleys of the accordion door effectively stretched the gap to more than seven inches.

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 industrywide 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.

Jacob Helvey after the elevator accident.

Jacob Helvey after the elevator accident. (Courtesy the Helvey family)

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.”

History of Deaths Revealed

A lawsuit settled in 2003 brought national attention to the swing-door elevator hazard. In that case, an 8-year-old boy named Tucker Smith had been killed in a Maine hotel, in a vintage 1929 elevator manufactured by Otis. As the child’s family was making the way back from breakfast in the midst of a vacation, his sister hopped on the elevator and when he tried to follow, the outer door closed on his 60-pound body before he could get the gate open. Just then, a maid on an upper floor pressed the button and the little boy was fatally crushed.

Evidence presented in the case revealed that Otis—and the industry in general—were well aware of problems for years, despite their contentions that they were in the dark. As early as 1931 Otis obtained a patent for a safety solution. The device, similar to a safety option available today, was a chunky space guard placed inside the swing door that theoretically made it impossible for a person to fit in the gap when the swing door is shut.

But even after Otis began urging building owners to use the guards as a way to childproof the clearance, deaths and injuries persisted. A 1943 memo from Otis’ general service manager reported that children still were getting trapped because they would sneak on top of the space guards. Another memo, in 1950, noted a “recent occurrence” of more accidents.

Most damning was a set of documents that the Smiths’ legal team had obtained by working with a New Jersey lawyer who had sued Otis in 1990 over yet another casualty, a child named Shakarr Burwell. Those papers refuted Otis’ claims that it knew of only a handful of accidents like that of the Smith child, and documented not only the 34 names of victims in New York and New Jersey, but also at least 16 earlier deaths, mostly of children, in the clearance spaces of Otis elevators between 1947 and 1963. Otis had tried to conceal much of the information from plaintiffs’ lawyers, labeling names of victims as “trade secrets” and changing its document retention policies to justify shredding old accident records.

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.”

    — Bill Richardson, executive vice-president of Canada-based Savaria Concord Lifts, one of the major elevator manufacturers

The Smith family reached a $3 million settlement with Otis, which in 2012 got out of the swing-door and overall residential elevator business in the U.S. Under the agreement, Otis also retrofitted some 4,000 older elevators with space guards and initiated a campaign to persuade states, municipalities and competitors to bring elevators into compliance with ASME standards.

Months after the settlement, a 2003 tragedy killed Benjamin Johnson, 11, in the small Michigan Upper Peninsula community of Mass City. That spurred a push to improve ASME standards themselves. Johnson had been playing with friends in an elevator in Mass City’s township hall.

The hall had a swing-door lift, made and installed by the Detroit Elevator Co., to accommodate handicapped voters. According to news accounts, Johnson and his friends decided to climb into the elevator for a ride and Johnson got caught between the lift’s inner accordion door and the door to the landing. Inside the car, someone pressed the down button. By the time rescuers—including his distraught stepfather—were able to free the boy, his body had been crushed into a 13-inch-high stretch of the clearance. Johnson later died in intensive care.

If It’s Not Broke…

Richard Gregory, a veteran Chicago elevator consultant called in as an expert for the family in the ensuing litigation, found some defects in the installation. But he also concluded that the accordion doors had contributed to the problem. In some spots, he says, the gap was well over 7 inches wide.

“I’ve handled so many death cases, I’ve thought sometimes of training as a funeral director,” Gregory said. But the Johnson case stuck with him. “I thought, ‘This is a clear and present danger,’” he said. “And it doesn’t need to keep happening.”

So in 2005, Gregory and others—including the chief of Michigan’s Elevator Safety Division—began pushing ASME’s residential elevator safety subcommittee for a standards change. But, according to the subcommittee’s minutes, the majority repeatedly rejected their proposals.

Kevin Brinkman, a Eureka, Ill., elevator consultant who heads the subcommittee, says the reason was simple: At that point, no one on the subcommittee knew of an instance in which a child had been hurt or killed in a residential elevator installed to ASME standards.

As Brinkman recalled, the subcommittee’s view was, “Why change something that’s not broke?”

“I’m not saying one death isn’t too many, but you have to have data,” he added. “You can’t change things ‘just because’.”

At the time of the debate, Brinkman was an executive at National Wheel-O-Vator, the manufacturer of the elevator in which Jacob Helvey would later be crushed. Following the Helvey settlement this spring, his subcommittee revisited the clearance issue, and has been considering various proposals to narrow the clearance or equip it with sensors. If a change is adopted, it could take years to be implemented.

That’s too far off for the Helveys, who feel that action should already have been taken to prevent further tragedies. “It’s a moral thing,” Michael Helvey said.