Melbourne Toddler Figures in Elevator Accident, Clings for Life
An 18-month-old boy was trapped in an elevator well and survived the surreal ordeal. The toddler fell down a lift shaft, but held on to life by clinging to the side of the lift for 15 minutes as it continued to move up and down a building in Melbourne's southeast. Creative Commons

Following the tragic death of ad executive Suzanne Hart yesterday in a freak elevator accident, officials investigating the machine at 285 Madison Avenue are struggling to determine what caused the accident in the first place, and whether or not unfixed safety hazards contributed to her death.

Despite assurances by building department authorities and the service inspector's clearance, however, several clear warning signs indicated an elevator accident like the one that claimed Hart's life were possible.

Reports indicate that the 13 elevators within 285 Madison Avenue had a history of defects, complaints and unsatisfactory ratings during routine inspections, and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer has been blowing the whistle on the 85-year-old building for years.

All of which begs the question: How much are 285 Madison Avenue officials to blame for the elevator accident that killed Suzanne Hart?

Crushed By Elevator Shaft

At around 10 a.m. on Dec. 14, Suzanne Hart of marketing company Young & Rubicam was killed in a horrific elevator accident at 285 Madison Avenue.

Public safety and law enforcement officials say Hart was stepping into the elevator when her foot became caught in the gap between the car and the lobby floor.

Before Hart had a chance to get free, however, the elevator suddenly and inexplicably jerked upward, its doors still open. Hart was dragged up as the elevator rose and became jammed between the first and second floors, crushed by the elevator's force as those inside looked on in horror.

Emergency officials did not remove Suzanne Hart from the elevator shaft until 7pm, almost 10 hours after the fatal accident.

Did the Sensors Fail?

A representative for Transel Elevator Inc., the service operator for 285 Madison Avenue, had no immediate comment in the aftermath of Suzanne hart's tragic death, and New York's Occupational Safety and Health officials had no immediate comment.

Investigators within the city's buildings department, however, are scrambling to find an answer as to what went wrong in the elevator, even as reports indicate that the elevator in question, and indeed all the elevators in the building, have a history of serious problems.

Spokesman Tony Sclafani reports that the lift, which has been taken out of use pending a full investigation, had been inspected in June, and that no safety issues had been found.

The last time the lift in question had received a violation for a safety hazard, he told reporters, was in 2003, and the condition was corrected. No conditions were found that would be related to this incident, he told The Daily News.

The other 12 elevators in at the 285 Madison Avenue building are up and running. At the moment, preliminary investigations seem to indicate that the elevator's sensors failed to activate, which would stop the car from moving if something was blocking the elevator door's path.

Rampant Violations

Sclafani insists the recent violation in the elevator this June was paperwork related, and that no critical safety issues were discovered during recent safety checks.

An investigation into the elevator's records, however, show that the 85-year-old building's elevators have a history of defects, including several code violations and unsatisfactory inspections over the past year alone.

City Buildings Department records show that the 13 elevators operating at 285 Madison Avenue have piled up an astonishing 56 violations between them since 1999, 34 of which were for failure to maintain elevators.

And although almost all maintenance violations are listed as corrected in the building's online records, The Post reports that all the elevators received an unsatisfactory rating after being reviewed by a private inspection company last December.

During the June inspection Sclafani referenced, inspectors noted defects in every single elevator in the building.

Citations for elevators at 285 Madison Avenue had dropped after a record 11 hazardous violations in 1995, but picked up again from 2000 to 2003, when officials noted a grinding noise when one of the elevators was running.

Stringer: 'I'm very concerned.'

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer says he has been calling for the elevators at 285 Madison Avenue to be investigated more thoroughly for years, and is deeply disturbed by both the accident that killed Suzanne Hart and the lack of information about what caused her horrific death.

He, too, has been keeping track of the building department's records.

I'm very concerned that over a 12-month period, this building received unsatisfactory four times on inspections to their elevators, he said. He also expressed frustration at the opaque quality of the violations.

Transel Elevators, who dubbed the elevators unsatisfactory last December, declined to divulge the reasons for the low rating.

So right now, the inspection [in June] was an 'unsatisfactory', but was it for a missing light bulb in the elevator or was there real structural damage that perhaps could have caused this horrific accident? Stringer asked.

'They wouldn't stop.'

Those who work for Young & Rubicam and other companies in the building, meanwhile, find it hard to believe that the elevator accident comes as a shock to officials, even as they are left traumatized by the loss of a co-worker.

Some Young & Rubicam employees have said that they saw workers repairing the deadly elevator earlier this week.

Others report that the elevators often seemed unsafe, calling them old, scary and creaky.

Chad Kawalec, a former director of client services at Y&R, said he could imagine the accident that claimed his old friend and co-worker.

They weren't the kind of elevators that you stuck your hand in to catch the doors, he told The Times, because they wouldn't stop.

Tenants within 285 Madison Avenue, meanwhile, were already preparing to leave the building this year. Y&R plans to relocate to 3 Columbus Circle, while tenants such as Kang & Lee and Bravo plan to move as well.

[285 Madison Avenue] is not a suitable building for us, Y&R executive David Sable said. Probably hasn't been for a number of years.

'It's very scary.'

Elevator accidents are an incredibly rare occurrence in the U.S., and fatal accidents are even more unlikely. Of the 60,000 elevators that run in New York City, elevator accidents occurred a fraction of 1 percent of the time.

But in the wake of Suzanne Hart's tragic and horrific death, many New Yorkers, and certainly many tenants at 285 Madison Avenue, are opting to take the stairs.

It's very scary actually... to think that the elevator just slammed on her like that and she was caught, neighbor Diane Kepple said.

Hart's death, in a rare and even more disturbing coincidence, happened just days after another fatal elevator accident.

On Dec. 7, longtime Cal State Long Beach employee Annette Lujan was killed in another freak elevator accident. Lujan, 48, was crushed while trying to escape a stuck elevator, which gave way and crushed her as she tried to get out.

With elevator accidents being such a rare occurrence, building officials and inspectors are likely to be under increased scrutiny in the days ahead, especially as reports of the elevators' past violations become public knowledge.

As officials struggle to determine the reason for the horrifying accident, and investigators try to determine how much inspectors or building officials may have been at fault for the elevator's upkeep, Hart's friends and family continue to mourn her tragic loss.

She was a beautiful person, Suzanne Hart's boyfriend told CBS News. I don't have words, don't have words for this. I loved her.