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 while trying to jump from the cab onto a sixth-floor landing, police said yesterday.
The gap "was big enough for somebody to fall through," said Capt. C.V. Morris, who is overseeing the investigation of the death Thursday night of Dawn M. Phillips at an 11-story building in the Chinatown area of Northwest Washington.
"It appears she tried to jump onto the landing but failed and slipped and fell between the elevator and shaft itself," Morris added.
The D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which is responsible for inspecting elevators, is also investigating. Neil Stanley, the agency's deputy director of licensing and permitting, was unable to say when the elevator, at the Residences at Gallery Place in the 700 block of Seventh Street, was last inspected.
Elevator passengers often are unaware of the dangers they face if they try to exit stopped cabs without professional assistance, elevator safety experts said.
"If you open the door between floors, there can be a fair gap between the shaft of the elevator and the frame of the elevator car," said Michael McCann, director of safety at the Silver Spring-based Center to Protect Workers' Rights, the research and development institute of the Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO.
McCann explained that although elevator cabs appear snug against the shaft at the doors where people enter and exit, this is not always the case between landings. "There can be enough [space] for people to fall through," he said.
In February, a housekeeper at the Hilton Springfield hotel was killed when she jumped from an elevator stuck between the third and fourth floors of the facility. When the doors were pried apart, a panicked Santa Lucia Mendieta, 44, lost her balance as she tried to jump from the cab onto the landing below and fell down the shaft.
Phillips, who grew up in Lorain, Ohio, was an experienced horsewoman and qualified riding instructor with a bachelor's degree in equestrian studies from Lake Erie College in Painesville, Ohio, according to her father, Stanley E. Phillips, a steelworker who lives in Avon Lake, Ohio.
He said that his daughter, who had no siblings, loved to travel. She had been living in the 5400 block of Sheffield Court near Landmark Mall while working at a stable in Maryland.
Phillips was invited to spend Thanksgiving with a friend living at the Residences at Gallery Place, he said, a building that attracts young professionals.
Police said that the husband of the friend was escorting Phillips to the lobby when the elevator in which they were riding got stuck just above the sixth floor. The man opened the doors and leapt onto the sixth-floor landing. Phillips was attempting to follow suit when she slipped. The incident happened shortly after 8 p.m., police said, adding that alcohol did not appear to be a factor. It was unclear yesterday how long the elevator was stuck or what steps were taken to seek help.
McCann said that if all the control mechanisms on an elevator are working properly, it is not possible to open its doors between floors. "One of the constant things people talk about is . . . you can't open the door. That's only true if the control systems of the elevator are working properly," he said. If not, "all bets are off."
Several residents said yesterday that they had not been aware of any problems with the building's elevators. An employee at Legum & Norman Realty Inc., which manages the building, said that no official of the company could be reached yesterday to comment.
According to a recent report on elevator safety by McCann, 146 people were killed in accidents while working near or on elevators between 1992 and 2001. Of those, 46 percent died in shaft falls. In addition, 61 elevator passengers were killed.
Only 19 states, including Maryland and Virginia, require elevator mechanics, inspectors and contractors to be licensed. The District does not require such licensing, according to McCann's report.
"I would say that the District is behind in elevator inspection," said John Quackenbush, a consultant to the Elevator Industry Work Preservation Fund in Columbia. "Anybody can work on an elevator in the District of Columbia. You don't have to be licensed or obtain any other qualifications."
Quackenbush called the incident at Gallery Place "a very typical accident," 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."
Staff writer Leef Smith and staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.