Faulty elevators mean 20 story hike for FDNY

March 1, 2012 - 3:55 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — About 50 New York City firefighters lugging nearly 100 pounds of gear each hiked up 20 stories to fight a top-floor blaze early Thursday after building elevators malfunctioned, and rescued an elderly woman inside.

The blaze broke out shortly before 1 a.m. on the top floor of a public housing building. Firefighters arrived three minutes later and tried to call the elevators in order to get up to the fire faster, but the elevators didn't respond, FDNY deputy chief Michael Ajello said.

So the firefighters walked up. Ajello said usually if a blaze is reported above the seventh floor crews will commandeer building elevators, but it depends on the structure and the type of fire. In this case, the fastest option would have been going up in the elevators, he said. When firefighters have control of the elevators, no residents can use them.

When crews arrived to the 20th-floor apartment, they found an 89-year-old woman unconscious and worked on reviving her. They carried her down in a stretcher, and met emergency medical crews who brought her down the rest of the way. The woman was in critical condition at a local hospital.

Firefighters treated one other floor resident for smoke inhalation, and checked all the other apartments.

The blaze was under control about 45 minutes later. FDNY spokesman Jim Long said the cause was accidental and sparked from electrical overloading in the bedroom.

Ajello said Thursday he was proud of his crew's stamina.

"The concerted effort of all the members on the scene undoubtedly saved the life of this victim," he said.

FDNY investigators are looking into why the elevators didn't work. Ajello said firefighters usually turn a key that gives them control of the elevator, but it didn't work Thursday. He said he had seen elevators malfunction before but it's not common, and if it happens, it's usually when they start to spray water to put out the blaze.

The city department of buildings said it hadn't received any complaints about elevators at the Rutland Towers address in the past five years. The New York City Housing Authority would be responsible for inspection, and a call seeking comment wasn't immediately returned.

While the prospect of an elevator malfunction makes many New Yorkers nervous, accidents are rare among the 60,000 working elevators throughout the city. There were 43 reported incidents in 2011 and 53 the year before.

An advertising executive was crushed to death when she was dragged between an elevator and a wall in a malfunction at a private building on Dec. 14. Five mechanics on duty that day have been fired.

Another woman was dragged up eight floors, crushing her arm and leg against the wall of the elevator shaft, after a safety switch was disabled that would have prevented the elevator from moving while its doors were open. That incident happened Christmas 2010 at SUNY Downstate Medical Center. A repairman was recently charged in that case and has pleaded not guilty to reckless endangerment charges.