What Goes Up
By Kirk Semple
It is a disturbing fact of urban life that we while away a good deal of our time packed into vertically moving boxes, forced to endure the awkward rituals and mind-numbing boredom of confinement.
We speak, of course, of elevators.
Blessed be the elevator passenger who has the foresight to bring along reading material. The rest of us are left to find diversion elsewhere. Watching the light blink from floor number to floor number. Furtively eyeballing fellow passengers without being detected. Calculating how many people it would take to exceed the allowable weight limit (suddenly an enthralling pursuit!). Wondering who the hell Otis is anyway.
Especially observant riders who ply the elevators in the City of Miami may have noticed a subtle change of late. It's buried in the inspection certificate, that slip of paper behind a Plexiglas shield, attesting that an elevator inspector has been here to make sure everything is in top shape. For more than a decade, that space was the domain of a man named Anthony Nastasi. But gradually during the past year, the rugged peaks and foothills of Nastasi's signature have given way to another mark, that of one Harjeet Singh.
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Nastasi, who joined the City of Miami's Department of Building and Zoning in 1983, was in charge of inspecting each elevator and escalator within the Miami city limits once every eighteen months. At first he had help in his endeavor, but from 1992 until his retirement in May 1995, he was going it alone. Enter Singh, along with fellow rookie Marcos Bermudez. Late last year, Bermudez moved on. Now the city is all Singh's, and day by day he's replacing the last of Nastasi's certificates and establishing his own imprimatur, vaguely reminiscent of the darting flight path of a barn swallow.
"We've wiped him out from the city!" Singh declares triumphantly.
Well, not quite. Vestiges of Nastasi linger. A scattering of elevators, including several at Mercy Hospital, the Miracle Center, and CocoWalk, still bear his mark.
News of his signature's survival brings a rant from the 74-year-old Nastasi. "My name should not be up there. It's been over a year!" a thick, sloppy New York accent blares through the phone lines from North Fort Myers. "Ya can't blame the man, the man is green. He doesn't have the experience yet. Lemme tell you, I ran that whole damn city myself. I was in the trade somethin' like 35 years [yeez], I was a trouble shooter [shootah]. Then I became an inspector. You're talkin' about 45 years in the business. Oh boy, I'll tell ya, I know where all the elevators are.
"I'm a perfectionist, ya know, right?" he continues. "I was always interested in elevators. When I first came to Miami, there was a lot of work wasn't being done. Covers were missing, pits were dirty, tops of cars were dirty, cables were rusting. I always wanted things done the right way. You can put in that newspaper of yours: I was an inspector for fourteen years; I never hadda go on an accident case."
Nastasi's swagger is unique in the small, subdued subculture of local elevator inspectors, but his satisfaction isn't. To a man (and the business is almost entirely populated by men), they're a prideful band. And why shouldn't they be? Elevator inspectors are unsung heroes, our last line of defense against the combination of shoddy workmanship and the inevitable effects of gravity. Theirs is a thankless job. They toil in near-obscurity, slipping in and out of buildings phantomlike, doing their work in the darkness of dusty shafts and noisy machine rooms. But if something goes wrong A a car gets stuck, say, or somebody gets hurt A they feel the heat.
Declares Miami Beach's lone elevator inspector, 50-year-old Nathan Quarles: "People ride on 'em and take them for granted and don't realize what's going on around them or above them or below them.
"Elevators," he intones, "are fascinating."
It could be a scene from a B-grade biker flick: Carl Mario is sloshing through the sticky grime of a service passageway in Kendall's Town & Country Center. A large man dressed in cowboy boots, jeans, black T-shirt, and a leather vest, Mario might have just slid off the back of a Harley and is now hunting for a guy named Zeke. And Zeke doesn't have long to live.
Actually Mario's a Metro-Dade elevator inspector and he's searching for an elevator, his first inspection of the day. It's eight-thirty in the morning and the stench of stale beer is in the air. "Usually you get the smell of urine in here from people sleeping, but today it's not too bad," observes the twelve-year veteran as he wanders down a hallway behind Cafe Iguana. "These places look so nice from the front, don't they?"
He pushes through a door marked "DANGER: ELECTRICAL MACHINERY A AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY" and enters a small cement-block room whose most distinguishing characteristic is the phrase "THIS SUCKS" emblazoned on one wall in fluorescent pink spray paint. This is the machine room, often an inspector's first stop. The 41-year-old, Miami-born Mario moves steadily and without hesitation, looking over the machinery and running through a mental checklist: Is the room clean? Is it illegally being used for storage? Any errant wires or electronic equipment? He discovers a violation: The machinery is overdue for a required periodic pressure test.
This particular elevator rises only two stories and is hydraulic-powered, the type most commonly found in buildings no more than five stories high. It operates much like the lift in an auto-repair shop: An electric motor pumps oil into a cylinder, causing the elevator car to rise. Then valves release the oil for a controlled descent. (The other basic elevator type employs cables that run from the top of the car, over grooved wheels called sheaves at the top of the building, and down to a counterweight.)
Mario summons the elevator, then sends it up to the second floor, empty. As it ascends, he pulls a slim metal rod out of his pocket A the elevator key A and slides it into a little hole located near the top of the outer elevator door. After giving the rod a few measured twists, he is able to slide open the door to reveal the darkened elevator shaft and its innards. He plays the beam of his flashlight off the hydraulic lift and the bottom of the elevator car. Noting the presence of trash and oil that has leaked onto the floor A fire hazards A he tallies his second violation. "Pretty nasty pit," he sums up, letting the door slide shut and calling the car back down.
When the elevator arrives and the door opens, Mario scrapes a boot heel over the threshold to ensure that the floor of the car is level with the hallway (an uneven match could precipitate an injury, not to mention a costly trip-and-fall lawsuit), then boards the car and rides it upward (it moves smoothly). He tests the emergency button (it works) and discovers that the emergency phone is missing (violation number three). Once on the second floor, he sends the elevator down empty and again keys open the door to inspect the top of the car (escape hatch bolted, but more debris).
Mario checks out the mall's other elevator, as well as its 1908 German-made Herschell-Spillman merry-go-round: Metro-Dade's elevator inspectors are also responsible for amusement rides and dumbwaiters, not to mention escalators, moving sidewalks, and wheelchair lifts. Before leaving the building he will stop by the management office and leave copies of the various inspection reports. The manager has 30 days to fix the problems. Violations that persist beyond that grace period can lead to fines of $200 a day, although this is rare. Egregiously flawed elevators can be padlocked shut, a process known as "red tagging." (Says Mario: "That friggin' Nathan [Quarles]. He red-tagged the elevator in my condo last week!")
Mario is one of seven Metro-Dade elevator inspectors, who between them examine the majority of elevators in Dade County. Miami and Miami Beach are the only municipalities to employ their own elevator inspectors; the others contract with the county, which also handles the elevators in unincorporated Dade, as well as those belonging to the State of Florida. (The federal government handles its own.)
For his part, Mario has a fair amount of ground to cover: His region extends from the Palmetto Expressway to Krome Avenue and from SW Eighth Street to Kendall Drive. He also takes care of most county structures A administration buildings, public schools, public housing, Jackson Memorial Hospital, et cetera. By the end of this day, he will have inspected about ten elevators, including several at Florida International University and one at Gloria and Emilio Estefan's Crescent Moon Studios. (That building has a repeat violation: The machine room is being used to store packaging for a recording console. Mario gives the Estefans an extra few days to correct the fault.)
In all matters of elevator inspecting, the Florida Statutes are the final word. The law requires elevators in Florida to undergo a thorough initial inspection and safety test, as well as a reinspection once every two years. (Lifts in private residences are a little different and receive only an initial inspection.) Miami Beach, Miami, and Dade County set the bar progressively higher: The Beach aims for inspections once every eighteen months; Miami shoots for annual inspections; and Dade County makes a run at twice-yearly checkups, the guideline recommended by the American Society of Engineers. The various inspection divisions in Dade extract fees for performing their tasks that range from less than $100 to nearly $300 per inspection period.
Dade County's inspectors generally average between eight and twelve reinspections per day. And still they can barely keep up. Each of the seven inspectors is responsible for about 860 pieces of equipment, the majority of which are elevators. Miami Beach inspector Nathan Quarles has to cover 1700 lifts all by his lonesome (impossible). And Miami's Harjeet Singh single-handedly juggles 2600 ("What should I say?" he chuckles uncomfortably. "It's too many.")
The short supply of inspectors is more than a budgetary issue; it's a matter of public safety. With so many elevators to cover, inspectors are either having to hurry their inspections to stay on schedule (they say they don't do this) or allowing many elevators to go uninspected for months, if not years, after they're due.
Some relief is on the way. Miami Beach is advertising for an additional inspector (starting annual salary: $25,800 to $35,600), and the City of Miami this past week brought on a new man to help Singh.
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.
His fifteen years have earned him the mantle of senior inspector and the title of supervisor. In fact, he's now the most veteran inspector in Dade. In addition to his supervisory duties, Miner inspects elevators in Golden Beach, Sunny Isles, Bal Harbour, and Surfside, as well as Homestead. (In better budgetary times, these municipalities would be handled by a separate inspector.) "If I have a son, he will not be in this business," the 40-year-old Miner asserts, but deep down he seems resigned to the probability that elevators are a Miner family predisposition.
Indeed, many of Dade's elevator professionals A inspectors and tradesmen alike A have followed relatives into that dark, dank shaft. When he was a kid, Metro-Dade's Carl Mario, for instance, tagged along behind his father, a Westinghouse elevator mechanic, and now counts a half-brother and two brothers-in-law among his brethren in the biz. Part of the reason has to do with the impenetrability of the unions. In the Forties, when Anthony Nastasi graduated from an electrical engineering trade school in New York and entered the elevator business, he had to take a nonunion job. "Your father had to be there, or an uncle, to sponsor you," he recalls. "I had to sweat it out until the Seventies to get in."
The elevator fraternity remains intimate. The local six-county chapter of the International Union of Elevator Constructors (motto: "Taking America to the Top Since 1901") has only 530 members. Most inspectors in Dade were originally union tradesmen who find this work less strenuous. "The biggest thing I pick up here is a pen, versus a 350-pound rail," says Mario. "I'll take the pen any day."
Once you're in the elevator business, though, you stay in it. The union local's vice president Michael Hammar says union members' careers commonly last 40 years or more. And it's hard to take the elevator business out of the man. "Me and my lady friend got into an elevator in Las Vegas," recounts Mario, "and the first thing I did, instinctively, was to ring the alarm bell."
Anthony Nastasi knows the impulse. Retired for more than a year, he can't stop exploring the world's shafts. "I took me a tour of Europe and studied their elevators," he admits. "I went to China, I went to Russia. I was looking at all the goddamn elevators!"
"Hello, I'm Harjeet Singh. I'm elevator inspector from City of Miami. Please, I want to see chief engineer." Singh, a native of India, is speaking in his pretzely accent to a security guard at the Alfred I. duPont Building on East Flagler Street downtown. There's a little language barrier to hurdle.
"¨Si?" the security guard says tentatively, his forehead furrowing. "Si." He points to nowhere in particular.
"I need to speak with chief engineer, chief of maintenance," Singh tries again, handing the guard one of his business cards. "Is there a manager's office?"
"Si, office," the security guard hazards, gesturing by turn to the ceiling and to the doors leading out to Flagler Street. "Building. DuPont Building." Singh nods his head respectfully, says thanks, then sets out to find the superintendent himself. Formalities taken care of, he boards one of the building's stunning-
ly beautiful elevators through doors engraved with palm trees and tropical birds, and scans the car's interior appreciatively. "Very historic," he notes, his admiring gaze sweeping around the car, constructed of dark wood accented with elaborate bronze designs. He stands attentively, feeling through the soft soles of his loafers the car's jerky, time-honored rise. "This is very old," he pronounces. "One of the oldest in the city."
There is nothing rushed or impatient about Singh, a compact man most identifiable by his prominent nose, well-groomed beard, and turban. He is both intensely appreciative of his job and extraordinarily deferential to building managers. (Toward the end of a perfect inspection at the spanking-new Bristol Tower condominium on Brickell Avenue, he tells the superintendent that he'd like to view the elevator shafts, adding quickly, "Not to find fault.") Other inspectors might wipe their sweaty brows with their sleeve. Not Singh, who carries tissues to do the job.
The 46-year-old Singh has no ancestral claim to the occupation. In fact, he never spent a day in the business before March 1995. He is from Jamshedpur, a city in northeastern India, where he worked for a coal-mining concern after earning a degree in mechanical engineering. "I was doing well back in India," he admits. But in 1989 he moved to Orlando, where his brother lives, in order to, as he puts it, "do better." A job in a cement plant led to a job at a textile factory, and finally to the City of Miami, where he replaced the venerable Nastasi. "I think I'm the only elevator inspector from India in Florida," he ventures, credibly.
His workload is awesome. When Marcos Bermudez left to work for Metro-Dade, Singh stopped taking lunch breaks. "I bring food from home and eat in the car," he says.
The duPont Building's machine room on the roof is a hot, dark space, filled with hulking apparatus the size of jet engines. And loud. A far cry from the purr of modern equipment, this room rumbles and churns with the grinding of gears, the clank of metal cables, the whir of sheaves. A row of metal cabinets houses panels of electric relays that crackle and spark. "It's all mechanical," Singh explains above the din. "These are like museum pieces."
If it weren't for the invention of the elevator, of course, the duPont Building never would have been built. The modern elevator can be traced back to about 2600 B.C., when Egyptians used a system of hoists and pulleys to build the Great Pyramid of Cheops. Rudimentary hoisting devices were also employed by the Greeks and Romans. During the Middle Ages, the Monastery of St. Barlaam in Greece, which was perched on a 200-foot peak, was accessible only by a rope pulley fitted with a basket or net.
The shift from human power to other sources began in 1800, when coal miners used James Watt's steam engine to fuel a device that lifted coal from the mine shafts. But it was a 41-year-old master mechanic working for a manufacturing company in Yonkers, New York, whose invention spurred the rapid development of passenger elevators. In 1852, Elisha Graves Otis designed a gizmo that stopped a hoist platform from falling if its cable were to snap. He publicly debuted his creation A dubbed the "safety hoister" A at New York's Crystal Palace Exhibition two years later. In 1857, the elevator much improved by this new safety mechanism, Otis installed the first passenger elevator in a five-story New York City department store. Ascending at the rate of about 40 feet per minute, it heralded the beginning of the era of the skyscraper. The Otis Elevator Company, the world's largest manufacturer of elevators, now has more than 1.2 million elevators in use worldwide.
Six of those, manufactured in 1939, rise and fall daily at the Alfred I. duPont Building.
In the age of high-tech computerization, where microchip-powered control systems have eliminated the on-board attendant, the last human touch in the elevator is the inspector's signature. "If people happen to see me sign the certificate," says Metro-Dade inspector Don Greene, "they go, 'Oh, D.J. Greene A you're the guy. I've been looking for you!'" Adds Miami's Singh: "Many people, they shake hands. They say, 'Oh, you are the one!'"
But the inspector's signature, too, is on the verge of becoming an anachronism. Seeking a more streamlined process, the State of Florida has already eliminated signed certificates, opting instead to post a more generic inspection card that doesn't include the inspector's name. The City of Miami Beach has followed the state's lead and Metro-Dade is discussing it, though the traditionalists at the City of Miami have no plans to forgo the personal touch.
The talk at Metro to do away with the signatures suits Carl Mario just fine. "I don't like my name known," he grumbles, citing the endless calls he gets from people blaming him for elevator ills. Once, he recounts, then-county manager Sergio Pereira got stuck in a Government Center elevator for two hours. "The phone ran out of power and he was stuck in there without communication, and all he saw was my name [on the certificate] and he got more and more pissed," Mario says. Fortunately, when consultants were called in to determine the cause of the debacle, it turned out not to be anything that could have been prevented on an inspection.
Climbing the stairs for yet another machine room inspection, Singh says he has never considered the celebrity A or ignominy A generated by his signature. "I never thought of that, really," he muses, pausing to straighten the sheaf of inspection forms tucked under his arm. "I do it as a duty. That's it.