A Maryland company that manages the Hilton Springfield hotel has been fined $70,000 for willfully violating state occupational safety rules when a housekeeping employee, Santa Lucia Mendieta, became trapped in a service elevator and fell three floors to her death in February.
The hotel manager on duty, an employee of Coakley Williams Hotel Management of Greenbelt, failed to respond to the scene to make sure proper rescue procedures were followed, failed to call the elevator maintenance company or the fire department, failed to notify hotel security and failed to communicate with Mendieta while she was trapped and panicking in the elevator, according to the citation issued by the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry. The company said yesterday that it is contesting the state's finding.
The citation said a single hotel maintenance worker was dispatched to check on the elevator, which was stuck between the third and fourth floors. The worker was not informed that someone was trapped inside. When the doors were pried apart, Mendieta, 44, a matriarch of sorts in the Honduran community of Springfield, jumped in a panic through the opening onto the landing below, lost her balance, then fell through the shaft to her death.
A red binder containing company procedures for responding to elevator malfunctions was steps away at the front desk, according to the citation, which labeled the violations "willful."
"That means they should have known," said Jennifer Wester, director of cooperative programs for the Department of Labor and Industry.
Dan Stevens, chief operating officer of Coakley Williams, which runs 20 hotels on the East Coast and in Colorado, declined to explain why the citation is being contested except to say the company was "surprised at the fine."
"That's all I can go into at this time," Stevens said, because the case remains open.
A spokeswoman for Hilton Hotels Corp., Kendra Walker, said that the situation sounded "extremely sad" but that the company would not comment further because it is a matter between Coakley Williams and the state.
Yesterday afternoon, Mendieta's husband, Reymundo, said he had not heard about the investigation, about the $70,000 fine or what, if anything, might happen next. He said that Coakley Williams paid for his wife's burial in her home town of Cugulero, Honduras, and that the family has received some money through workers' compensation.
Then he cried as he explained that life for him and his six children has more or less fallen apart since his wife's death Feb. 13.
"We're just completely destroyed," Mendieta said. "The children are destroyed. It hurts a lot. It really hurts a lot."
The death of Santa Lucia Mendieta was a loss not only to her family but to the wider Honduran community in Springfield. She and her husband came from Cugulero in 1991, worked and saved enough to buy two ranch houses and, in turn, supported other newcomers trying to get a foothold, renting them rooms and helping with jobs and the logistics of life in the Northern Virginia suburbs. After years working as a cook, her husband started a company, Central America Express, in Springfield, a one-stop shop for new immigrants seeking help with a loan or a passport.
Mendieta had worked at the Hilton for 10 years, and otherwise cooked, sewed, tended flowers and made life on Dana Avenue comfortable for her children and extended family. "It's been very difficult not having her at home," said her son, William Mendieta, 18.
"I remember her at every moment. But we try to move forward."
Staff writer Lila de Tantillo contributed to this report.