The Real Deal New York

Elevated risk

A TRD investigation found that mechanics often have little training, inspectors regularly fail to identify hazards, and landlords escape penalties
By Kathryn Brenzel and David Jeans | January 01, 2019 10:00AM

(Illustration by Laurène Boglio / @boglio_boglio)

It was a few hours before dawn on Oct. 2, 2015, when Eran Modan and a dozen people piled into the elevator at 156 Hope Street in Williamsburg. The group had returned from a Manhattan nightclub and was eager to continue the revelry. But as each person entered, the car shook while it struggled to hold the weight within the cabin. When Modan stepped in, the brake gave way, causing the elevator to fall with the doors still open.   

In a panic, he turned to jump back up to the quickly disappearing lobby floor, but the car continued its descent and its ceiling landed on him, crushing his head and torso.

“We saw half of our friend’s body hanging from above us, jammed in the elevator,” a witness said. Modan was later pronounced dead at the scene. 

See related: The perils of elevator rides in NYC

Residents of the luxury rental building had been wary of the elevator and its unexpected jerks. Despite complaints filed with the city’s Department of Buildings in 2012, the agency’s experts found nothing wrong in follow-up inspections of the unit. P&W Elevators, the company that did maintenance on the lift regularly and conducted annual safety tests, flagged no issues with the agency.

There are dozens of lawsuits filed every year in New York over elevator-related incidents, and it’s often difficult to determine who’s at fault when an accident or death occurs. But a seven-month investigation by The Real Deal found that lapses by mechanics with little training, and failure by inspectors to identify hazards, address complaints and conduct inspections — which, in some cases, were falsified altogether — have impeded the safety of the city’s elevators in recent years.

At the same time, landlords and property managers who hire elevator mechanics escape penalties for neglecting safety. Almost half of the penalties for certain elevator violations issued by the city to landlords remain unpaid. Some building owners opt for nonunion firms that do not require mechanics to undergo accredited training, such as P&W Elevators, and charge significantly less.

Since 2010, at least 22 people have been killed in passenger elevators or shafts in the city, and there have been nearly 500 incidents, 48 of which led to serious injuries, according to the DOB.

While almost half of these incidents involved passengers, the majority of those killed were elevator mechanics. In most states, training and licensing for elevator mechanics is required by law, but no such rule exists in New York, which has more elevators than Chicago and Los Angeles combined.

Lawmakers in Albany have pushed for a state regulation that would require all elevator mechanics to be licensed by an accredited training program — an effort supported by both union and nonunion firms —  but lobbying by real estate industry groups and opposition from City Hall have  stymied these efforts.

The “only people who seem to care” about licensing are those involved in the elevator industry, said New York state Sen. Diane Savino, a Democrat who has sponsored bipartisan elevator licensing legislation. “It’s not as sexy as rent regulation,” she said.

Six months after Modan died, an investigator found that the elevator’s brake wasn’t functioning properly. It could hold only half the weight that it was legally required to, and P&W mechanics had performed an annual test on the elevator in August 2015 — two months prior to Modan’s death — without noticing a faulty brake.

The building’s landlord, the Rabsky Group, one of the city’s most prolific builders, received no initial penalty from the DOB and was charged $1,500 only after it failed to correct the violation two months later. In 13 other buildings, Rabsky has received 65 elevator violations.

“There are many instances throughout other industries where even the most qualified of firms, and the most rigorous of testing is unable to catch a problem until it is too late,” the company said in an emailed statement. “Tragically, this was the case here.”

The DOB falls short 

Each day, New Yorkers take more than 35 million elevator trips with the expectation of a safe ride. But in recent years, the agency tasked with enforcing elevator safety standards has failed to ensure that negligent landlords adequately maintain their elevators.

The buildings department is charged with overseeing a staggering 63,000 passenger elevators in the city. These figures don’t include escalators, dumbwaiters, private lifts in single-family homes or those in Port Authority buildings (including 1 World Trade Center), federal government-owned buildings or MTA subway stations. The DOB also has jurisdiction over New York City Housing Authority buildings, though the public housing agency has its own inspectors and is authorized to conduct its own tests. (A separate story on NYCHA elevators will run next month.)

Timothy Hogan, the DOB’s deputy commissioner of enforcement, said accidents are “few and far between, when you consider there are about, ballpark, a billion elevator lifts a year in the city of New York.” The DOB has also previously pointed to a decline in incidents; figures dropped from 105 in 2007 to 42 in 2018.

INTERACTIVE: Is your elevator safe?

(Map created by Yoryi De La Rosa)

But a drumbeat of audits have pointed to persistent shortcomings in the DOB’s oversight. By city law, elevators are required to undergo annual inspections by the DOB’s elevator unit, but with only 41 inspectors, much of that work is carried out by third-party contractors.

A report released in June by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli found that 14,828 mandated inspections were not conducted by DOB-hired inspectors between 2015 and 2016. These and other findings were consistent with five previous comptroller audits conducted by the city and state dating back to 2004.

The DOB said nearly 40 percent of these elevator checks weren’t done because its inspectors couldn’t get into the buildings, but the agency couldn’t explain why the remaining 9,252 elevators weren’t inspected. (The DOB said it has since inspected all of these units.)

Auditors also found that inspectors failed to address violations in 11 out of 12 elevators selected for the report. Three inspectors didn’t notice defective door restrictors, the devices that prevent the doors from opening between floors. At two buildings, they missed “rouging,” abrasions that cause hoist cables to wear.

Some inspection reports were falsified altogether. During the summer of 2017, auditors found that third-party inspectors hired by the DOB signed inspection certificates on 15 elevators in 14 buildings that were never tested.

The DOB requested the firing of the three inspectors who falsified inspection reports for Crimson Inspection LLC and National Elevator Inspections Services, the third-party companies they worked for. It also reduced the payments to those companies by an unspecified amount.

DOB officials say the agency has come a long way. It has introduced a biweekly training program for inspectors and also upgraded how it tracks inspections and violations related to elevators. Since December 2017, all new elevator applications are filed electronically.

“When you look at what our capabilities are as an agency, based on changes in technology and our ability to better home in on issues, we’ve gotten better at what we do,” Hogan said in an interview.

Landlord lapses 

There are several ways in which building owners have also failed to ensure elevators are maintained properly. They are responsible for two tests: an annual test, known as a Category 1, and another more rigorous test every five years, called a Category 5. Each requires running the elevator, but the latter involves testing the device with its maximum load. Both tests are carried out by maintenance mechanics hired by landlords and witnessed by third-party inspectors licensed by the DOB — a requirement introduced in 2009.

“Prior to 10 years ago, no one knew if the tests were being done properly,” said Robert Cuzzi, president of elevator consulting company Van Deusen & Associates.

But the DiNapoli auditors revealed that thousands of these tests also didn’t occur. The report found no records for over 8,000 required Category 1 and 5 tests during 2015 and 2016.

Landlords face fines of up to $5,000 for such lapses, and the DOB can also issue Environmental Control Board violations, which are collected by the city’s Department of Finance. But these penalties lack teeth, and many landlords ignore them altogether. The city is owed $7.3 million in outstanding elevator-related ECB violations, nearly half of the fines levied for active violations, according to a TRD analysis.

Property owners can also face criminal summonses if they fail to correct violations within 10 days, but such cases are rare. In July, a court summons was issued against Naim Offir, owner of 521 West 45th Street, for allegedly failing to fix the five-story building’s elevator, which hadn’t worked since 2017. He was ultimately forced to replace the elevator. 

Patrick Carr, a longtime mechanic who has consulted for hundreds of personal injury lawsuits involving elevator incidents, noted that inspections likely prevent even more accidents from occurring due to landlord negligence.

“There’s a lot of shortcuts to doing what we do. I’ve used them myself,’” he said. “If we didn’t inspect any elevators, how many people would we be injuring?”

Missed red flags 

Even when inspections and tests are done, warning signs can be overlooked. The Williamsburg incident that killed Modan revealed that issues with the elevator first emerged in 2012. “Elevator door opens halfway and shakes up and down sometimes when stopping on floor,” one person wrote in a complaint to the city. Another said: “Elevator will only go up and only opens half way. It also wobbles and jerks up and down.”

After the incident, an investigator retained by the DOB, James Filippone, found that the elevator could hold just over half of its rated load before its brakes began to give way because it was missing a dozen counterweights totaling 624 pounds. He determined the discrepancy had been a result of incorrect installation in 2007 by another firm, Lift-Tech Elevator, or an error made by the manufacturer. In subsequent years, multiple tests conducted by P&W did not register any defects, including a Category 5 test in 2013 that would have required testing the full loading capacity of the elevator and another test two months before the fatal incident.

“The property’s owner as well as the building’s managing agent, Goose Property Management, were deeply saddened by the tragic loss of life and wish that the defective part had come to light before the accident occurred,” a spokesperson for the Rabsky Group said in a statement to TRD. Filippone could not be reached for comment.

The Category 5 test was overseen by a third-party witnessing inspector from another firm, Astro Elevator and Inspections. The DOB code stipulates that witnessing inspectors must be independent and “not affiliated” with maintenance firms performing the tests. But TRD found that though P&W and Astro have several different addresses, they also share an address in Lakewood, New Jersey, and have served as witnessing agencies to each other in several buildings.

Modan’s death, the second in an elevator maintained by P&W in a span of 14 months, alarmed the International Union of Elevator Constructors Local 1, which sent a union official to go work for the company under false pretenses. After four months with P&W, Chris Randazzo, the undercover union official, said the training provided to new hires was limited to shadowing older employees and a weekly session called “tool talk” where issues were discussed.

“Some of these guys came from other companies,” Randazzo said in an interview. “The rest of these guys just didn’t have the know-how.”

Even within elevators maintained by prominent maintenance firms, preventable fatalities occur. Centennial Elevator Industries, a union-backed firm with over 50 mechanics, was charged last year by the DOB following an incident that killed a six-week-old baby and seriously injured her young mother. Pushing her daughter in a stroller, the mother walked into an empty elevator doorway and fell three feet onto the top of the car below, according to DOB records.

After inspecting the elevator at the Coney Island building, the DOB discovered that door locks were bypassed and a gate switch, which registers if the doors are closed, was not properly mounted immediately after a Centennial mechanic worked on the car. The company was fined $5,000 and its owner, Richard L’Esperance, was suspended from operating the firm for one month and put on probation for a year after he refused to cooperate with the agency’s investigation. Centennial did not respond to requests for comment.   

P&W is facing two lawsuits related to Modan’s death, filed by his family and three of his friends who witnessed his death. It is still contracted by the Rabsky Group to conduct routine maintenance at 156 Hope Street and at least five of the developer’s other properties. P&W declined to comment. The owners of Astro did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

In September 2017, another resident at 156 Hope Street filed another complaint to the DOB: “ELEVATOR: NOT WORKING.”

A dangerous job 

While passengers are endangered by poor maintenance, those who work on elevators are most exposed to the risks. Mechanics, who are not required by law in New York to receive training, figure in the majority of elevator-related deaths each year, accounting for 12 of the 22 fatalities since 2010, according to the DOB.

In the spring of 2015, Christian Ginesi had returned home from his third tour with the U.S. Air Force when he applied to work as an elevator mechanic with G-Tech Associates, a firm that worked on towers in New York and New Jersey. (G-Tech is the successor to Lift-Tech, the company that installed the brake faulted in the Hope Street incident).

Ginesi, who had no prior experience working on elevators, was assigned to work on a skyscraper and received in-house training. He reportedly complained to a friend that he felt unsafe on the “sketchy” construction site.

A month after he started, Ginesi and a colleague were riding up an elevator shaft in the under-construction RIU Hotel skyscraper in Times Square when the temporary hoist lost power between the 24th and 25th floors due to a broken power cable. His colleague unfastened from the harness and jumped down, landing on the floor below. Ginesi went to follow suit, unhooking his safety line and lunging toward the floor, but lost his balance and fell backwards down the shaft, plunging to his death.

“Everybody in our family, our lives are shattered,” Laurie Anne Smith, his mother, told the New York Daily News a month after the incident.“This is every parent’s worst nightmare, losing their child.” Smith declined to comment for this article.

In 36 states and the District of Columbia, elevator mechanics are required by law to be licensed, which typically involves the completion of an accredited program that can run as long as five years. But in New York state, there is no such requirement.

In lieu of state law, apprenticeships are mandatory for elevator maintenance firms affiliated with the city’s two main elevator unions, International Union of Elevator Constructors Local 1 and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 3. Because the DOB does not license mechanics, there are no records of how many operate in the city; however, the city estimated in a 2012 memo that between 5,000 and 7,000 mechanics were working in New York City. About 3,000 mechanics are members of Local 1 or Local 3, according to union estimates.

Among nonunion firms, elevator mechanic apprenticeships are not required. Instead, many of these companies conduct in-house training, but some say firms like G-Tech are in need of better safety programs.

“There is a lack of training in the nonunion sector,” said Constantine Kazis, an IUEC Local 1 union member and mechanic with Schindler Elevator Corporation who teaches one of the accredited apprenticeships, the National Elevator Industry Educational Program. “I’m still here, thankfully, and a lot of that has to do with the different training and protocols we go through.”

But there is a push by some nonunion firms to receive accredited training. The New York chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors, a nonunion organization, has pushed for other training programs — aside from those administered by Local 1 — to be recognized as equal to the union programs and supports licensing for mechanics, the group’s president, Brian Sampson, said.

“This is an issue where the industry on the whole is fairly well aligned,” he said.

Ginesi’s case at the RIU Hotel drew scrutiny from multiple agencies into the practices of G-Tech. An inspection by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, under the Federal Department of Labor, found two serious violations by G-Tech after determining that it had not trained mechanics to identify fall hazards and that Ginesi was not harnessed.

The federal safety agency issued a $7,000 penalty for each violation — the maximum that could be charged at the time (the maximum penalty per violation increased to $12,934 at the start of 2018). But after G-Tech contested the violations, the penalty was dropped. The DOB conducted its own investigation and issued G-Tech a “failure to safeguard” violation carrying a $25,000 penalty, but it was dismissed by the city’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings due to a lack of evidence to suggest Ginesi did not receive adequate training.

In the meantime, Ginesi’s family has campaigned for elevator safety reform and is currently involved in a lawsuit against the RIU Hotel and the construction company, the Rinaldi Group. G-Tech’s owner, Brock Glenn, declined to respond to a list of emailed questions.

More recently, in January 2018, a 33-year-old mechanic by the name of Ju Cong Wu was installing an elevator at a 12-story hotel construction site in Gramercy Park when he plummeted nine stories down an elevator shaft and died. He worked for U-Tek Elevator, a nonunion firm, and, like Ginesi, he wasn’t harnessed. 

Legislative inertia 

The grisly nature of elevator incidents has periodically prompted lawmakers to push for licensing of elevator mechanics. But in the face of opposition from the New York real estate industry and City Hall, proposed legislation has languished.

Calls for safety reform gained momentum in 2011, after an advertising executive was fatally crushed at 285 Madison Avenue on her way to work. City investigators faulted elevator mechanics who failed to reactivate a mechanism that prevents the car from moving when the doors are open. During a hearing held in April 2012, City Council members introduced a bill that would mandate licensing for mechanics.

“Right now, my cousin Vinny could be inspecting the elevator in your building,” then-Council member Peter Vallone Jr. said at the time. “He would need a license to work on the lights, to fix the paint and the walls, but not to work on the elevator.”

In 2015, the City Council again considered legislation related to mechanics, but instead called on Albany to require licensing. At the time, the state Legislature was considering a bill — dubbed the Elevator Safety Act — that would do just that.

But the bill has never reached the state Senate floor, and similar measures have failed on at least five other occasions. Two powerful industry groups, the Real Estate Board of New York and the Rent Stabilization Association, a landlord advocate, have opposed these efforts each year, claiming that they would unfairly favor elevator unions in the city and duplicate training requirements already in place for certain workers.

“REBNY and RSA are big players in Albany and have been successful in preventing this from coming out, in what they perceive as additional costs,” said Savino, who has sponsored the Elevator Safety Act. Departing Republican Sen. John Bonacic, a co-sponsor of Savino’s bill, said he was “terribly disappointed” the bill had not reached the Senate floor in the face of opposition from “special interest groups.”

REBNY filed an opposition letter against the bill in June 2017, calling for legislation that would exclude “cities with more than one million residents.” The organization opposes mandatory licensing for mechanics but supports requiring “a rigorous training process” for such workers, REBNY’s general counsel, Carl Hum, told TRD.

Frank Ricci, RSA’s director of government affairs, said the Elevator Safety Act would be a “duplication” of training for higher-level mechanics and called the legislation a “backdoor approach” by the unions to increase membership. He noted that the unions are the only entities in the city equipped to provide the training for the mechanics’ licenses.

“This wasn’t about safety. This was about union organizing,” he said, adding that smaller elevator maintenance companies can’t afford to pay for the training.

Both the Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations have opposed state efforts to introduce licensing for mechanics, and have pointed to a duplication of training requirements already imposed by the city. But in a statement to TRD, the de Blasio administration changed its position and said that it supported elevator mechanic licensing, and that it would work with Albany lawmakers to introduce legislation. The administration supported a state bill proposed last year to create a new license class for elevator mechanics at the city level rather than statewide, as proposed by the Elevator Safety Act. But the measure didn’t make it past the Senate Rules Committee.

“We agree there’s more that can be done,” de Blasio spokesperson Marcy Miranda said in a statement. “This includes increasing oversight of elevator technicians and mechanics through the creation of additional licensing requirements reflected in legislation the city has advanced.”

An uncertain future 

The city has taken incremental steps in recent years to increase training for mechanics and elevator safety oversight. In 2017, a construction safety measure, Local Law 196, was passed, requiring workers — including elevator mechanics —  to undergo at least 40 hours of OSHA training. Such training largely targets nonunion companies, since it’s already standard for union workers.

And by 2020, all elevators in the city must be equipped with door-lock monitors, which prevent elevators from moving if the doors are open — a requirement that stemmed from the fatality at 285 Madison Avenue.

In the meantime, serious elevator incidents continue to happen.

Josephine Camtor was standing in the lobby of 615 Ocean Avenue in Ditmas Park on Nov. 28 when she thought the elevator had arrived to take her to her sixth-floor apartment. The 66-year-old grandmother, who is partially blind in her right eye, opened the door and stepped into what turned out to be an empty shaft.

The fall to the basement broke her leg and hip, and she will have to learn how to walk again, according to her grandson, Marco Tlatelpa, who said she will remain hospitalized for “a few months.”

Tlatelpa said the landlord, George Muller, who owes $28,500 in unpaid elevator violations on the building dating back to 2013, had not reached out to the family following the incident. But the family did receive a call from the mechanics, who apologized and said the landlord had not paid their firm, P&W Elevator. 

This is the first story in a two-part series on elevator hazards. Visit TheRealDeal.com for more.

Correction: After this story was published, the New York City Department of Buildings said that it provided incorrect information. The number of incidents from January 1 to November 30, 2018, was not 86, as this included incidents on escalators, dumbwaiters and theme park rides. The number of passenger elevator incidents for 2018 is 42.