The elevator from which an Alexandria woman fell to her death Thanksgiving day had problems with the device that keeps the doors closed between floors, according to a spokeswoman for a District agency.
"We're still investigating different facets of the elevator . . . but obviously, there was a problem with the door restrictors," said Linda Argo, a spokeswoman for the city's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which oversees elevator inspections.
If control devices are working properly, it is not possible to open elevator doors between floors, safety experts said.
Dawn M. Phillips, 34, a riding instructor and manager of an Ellicott City stable, died after spending the holiday with a childhood friend and the friend's husband. The couple lived on the ninth floor of the 11-story Residences at Gallery Place condominium in the heart of gentrifying Chinatown. According to police, the husband was escorting Phillips down the elevator to go home shortly after 8 p.m. when it became wedged just above the sixth floor. The man, an FBI agent, told Phillips to remain in the elevator while he went for help. He pried open the doors and jumped safely to the landing.
But Phillips apparently panicked and tried to follow him, slipping and falling to her death, according to police.
"He got out of the elevator to go and get help and advised her to stay and she didn't," said Capt. C.V. Morris, who is overseeing the D.C. police investigation. Morris said the death appeared to be an accident.
When an elevator stops between floors, as was the case in the recent incident, experts say, passengers should stay in the elevator until trained personnel arrive.
It is not clear how the man opened the doors. Law enforcement officials said they found two coat hangers at the scene, one under Phillips's body in the elevator shaft and the other on the landing.
The emergency button inside the elevator had not been pushed, according to city officials, who said they were told by the building's management company, Legum & Norman Realty Inc. The company declined to comment.
Pushing the emergency button is supposed to automatically alert a monitoring company so that building managers can contact the elevator manufacturer, Fujitec America, according to an attorney for the manufacturer.
"These are 21st-century elevators that run with computer chips and very sophisticated equipment," said Sid Leech, the attorney. He said he could not comment on possible equipment problems until the manufacturer had access to official investigation reports.
Residents of the building said they were not aware of any problems with the elevator, which was one of five at the building in the 700 block of Seventh Street NW. The elevator had been inspected twice -- once in October 2004, before the building opened, and again on Nov. 16, eight days before the accident, according to Argo. After the first inspection, the management used the lift for construction only, she said. It was opened to the general public only after the second inspection.
Elevators are supposed to be inspected every six months. The Nov. 16 inspection found some "issues," Argo said, but none that jeopardized safety. She said she could not provide copies of the inspection reports because of the ongoing investigation.
The inspections were conducted by Adonai Consultants Inc., one of more than a dozen companies authorized by the city to conduct elevator inspections, Argo said. Officials at Adonai did not return telephone calls.
Officials said there are at least 12,000 elevators in the city and two certified elevator inspectors. The District's recent construction boom has overwhelmed the agency's ability to inspect elevators, and the majority of inspections are now performed by third parties, officials said.
Elevator safety experts have raised questions about the quality of third-party inspections, which are paid for by building owners. One of the two certified D.C. elevator inspectors, Audrick Payne, said he has spot-checked more than 200 inspections performed by third-party companies this year and has found problems in every case. Often the problems are missing documents showing that required safety tests were performed.
Neil Stanley, deputy director of licensing and permitting at the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, said he had "absolute" confidence in the ability of third-party inspectors to perform the technical tests required for inspections.
Aside from the inspections, buildings owners are required to obtain certificates from the city for each elevator. None of the Gallery Place building's five elevators, including the one involved in the accident, had the required certificates, Argo said. The violation carries a fine of $2,000 per elevator car.
Stanley said the city is considering tightening its policy so that buildings could not be occupied until the elevators had passed inspection and certificates had been obtained.
Phillips was buried in Ohio on Thursday. Among the attendees were the couple she spent Thanksgiving with, her father said.
Staff writers Caryle Murphy, Sari Horwitz and Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this report.