John Quackenbush, 70

John Quackenbush, often quoted elevator-safety expert, dies at 70

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 13, 2010

John Quackenbush, 70, an elevator-safety expert and union leader for building trades workers in the Washington area, died Dec. 21 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis at Renaissance Gardens at Greenspring in Springfield, where he lived.

Mr. Quackenbush became a widely cited consultant on the nation's elevator accidents after he joined the nonprofit Elevator Industry Work Preservation Fund when it began in 1998. He was called in on incidents from California to Texas to New York and didn't spare criticism of authorities who failed to safeguard passengers or people who took unnecessary risks.

"I would say that the District is behind in elevator inspection," he said in 2005, after a 34-year-old Alexandria woman fell six floors to her death in a District condominium when she apparently slipped down the gap between a stuck elevator and its shaft. "Anybody can work on an elevator in the District of Columbia. You don't have to be licensed or obtain any other qualifications."

That fatality was "a very typical accident," he said, adding that people in stuck elevators should "telephone, call for help, wait for help, sit down and wait. Someone should be there within an hour. There's no reason to panic."

In 1979, he opposed a Fairfax County proposal to use county workers as safety inspectors, arguing that the employees were not properly trained. "What does a plumbing inspector know about a crane? What does a plumbing inspector know about an elevator?" he asked.

He knew the trade from the perspective of someone who had worked his way up from helper and temporary mechanic. Near the end of his life, disease required him to use a wheelchair, and he found himself dependent on the safety of elevators.

John Raymond Quackenbush was born in Schenectady, N.Y. He graduated from State University of New York at Canton and began his career in 1958 with Haughton Elevator as a member of the Washington local of the elevator workers' union. The high number of accidents and fatalities in the District and a major electrical shock he suffered while working in an elevator shaft in 1960 convinced Mr. Quackenbush that he should pursue a career in safety.

After training as a supervisor in construction safety, he represented the International Union of Elevator Constructors as both an elected and an appointed official. For most of the 1970s and 1980s, he was secretary-treasurer of the Washington Building Trades Council. He was also an executive board member on the AFL-CIO Council in Washington and Virginia.

Mr. Quackenbush edited numerous books and articles on safety and health and was a member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. He moved to Ocean Isle Beach, N.C., in 1998 and returned to the Washington area in 2008. He continued to consult for national and international organizations until his death.

Survivors include his wife of 50 years, Brenda Quackenbush of Springfield; three children, Linda Turner of Salt Lake City, Mike Quackenbush of San Mateo, Calif., and Donna Karlinchak of Springfield; and four grandchildren.

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