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Given time, and it doesn't take long, every elevator professional will make the same boast: His is the safest form of transportation, even safer than stairs. For your edification, he will likely crunch some numbers: There are at least 600,000 elevators in the United States facilitating an estimated 120 billion passenger trips per year during which only about 11,000 riders suffer some kind of en route injury and only 374 wind up in the hospital A this according to statistics promulgated by Elevator World magazine and the Elevator Escalator Safety Foundation, two of a plethora of institutions devoted to the so-called vertical transportation industry.
Contrary to popular perception, elevators aren't boxes hanging by dental floss that could fall at the least provocation. Elevators are heavy-duty pieces of machinery with several sets of built-in safeguards against falls (and against the possibility that their outer doors might open when no elevator is present). Before initially deeming an elevator operational, an inspector will run it with a full load at higher-than-normal speeds to see if those mechanisms trip.
Cable-driven elevators are fitted into steel frames within their shafts and secured by an average of five steel cables, each five-eighths of an inch thick, plus a half-inch iron cable known as a governor. Each of these is capable of bearing weights that exceed the maximum allowable capacity of the car. If a car were for any reason to accelerate to a speed ten percent greater than that permitted, an electrical safety device would shut off the motor. If that were to fail, mechanical jaws would grab the governor, activating two safety clamps beneath the car, which would wedge themselves against the guideway rails, causing the car to grind to a halt. (Such safeguards don't exist in a hydraulic elevator: In the event of a loss of pressure A say, an oil conduit breaks A the elevator can descend only as fast as the oil escapes from the lift, which can't pose a critical danger.)
As impossible as it seems, a certified passenger elevator has free-fallen. At least once. On a foggy day in 1945, a confused B-25 bomber pilot flew his plane smack into the 79th floor of the Empire State Building. Unbeknownst to rescue workers, the impact and flying debris weakened or severed most of the structure's elevator cables. One of the cars rescuers were using to transport a victim suddenly plunged from the 75th floor to the sub-basement, a fall of more than 1000 feet. Miraculously, the woman, the only person aboard, survived. Technicians attributed her luck to a cushion of cables that had coiled up in the pit, and to trapped air in the lower portion of the shaft that slowed the car's descent.
Slightly less rare is a "fall" of a car that descends at its allowable speed but misses the bottom floor and slams into the buffer, a shock absorber anchored at the base of the shaft. This has happened with overloaded elevators.
Escalators are far more hazardous, with accidents usually due to human idiocy: A man tries to take a wheelchair-bound relative down an escalator; a woman puts a three-year-old child in a newly purchased garbage can, boards the down escalator at a Hialeah mall, and loses her grip; a group of kindergartners on a field trip to the Metro-Dade Government Center are connected to one another by a rope around their waists, the last kid balks when it comes time to step aboard, whereupon the other tots tumble like bowling pins.)
Most elevator accidents tend to happen to elevator construction workers and repairmen ("There are quite a few elevator guys going around with one finger shorter than another," observes Miami Beach's Nathan Quarles), but inspectors do sometimes get hurt. Carl Mario's Metro-Dade colleague John Miner once slipped in some oil on top of an elevator car just as another car was shooting by in an adjacent shaft. "I drew my legs up just in time A the closest I've ever come to being whacked in half," he recalls.
Anthony Nastasi, Miami's inspector emeritus, is one of the few Dade elevator inspectors who have been seriously hurt in recent memory. During an inspection of a freight elevator at the Miami Herald building, an employee closed the automated gates before Nastasi was safely inside the car. "It hit me on the fuckin' head, knocked me out," Nastasi grumbles. "I sued the fuckers." He recuperated on light duty for a month and the case was settled out of court for $10,000, Nastasi recalls, adding, "They were bad people. They didn't even apologize."
And of course inspectors aren't immune to the travails that afflict the average elevator rider. Miami's Harjeet Singh once got stuck in a crowded elevator at his apartment building on his way to work. Throughout the 45-minute wait, he told no one exactly what job it was he would be late for. "There wasn't anything I could do, he explains. "And normally in those situations, people bother you."
It would make a whole lot of sense if John Miner had come into this life in an elevator. His grandfather worked for the Otis Elevator Company for 33 years. His father also worked for Otis and later started his own elevator construction company. So it wasn't exactly a family tree-shaking surprise when Miner signed on with Metro-Dade in 1981.