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Another child dies in home elevator accident, days after regulators pushed for recall

A 7-year-old boy was killed in a home elevator accident at a beach rental home in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, three days after federal regulators pushed another major elevator manufacturer to fix a similar problem.

The boy was discovered Saturday night trapped between the bottom of the elevator car and the home’s upper door frame, according to Rich Shortway, fire chief in Corolla, N.C. The boy’s neck was crushed after he appeared to have gotten caught between the moving elevator’s inner accordion door and an outer door.

The boy’s family, visiting the beach from Canton, Ohio, had arrived earlier that day to begin a vacation, Shortway said.

“It’s just such a terrible tragedy,” he said.

Investigators said they were still working to understand what happened. But it appeared to fit a pattern of children being crushed by residential elevators after they get trapped in the space — just a few inches — between the two elevator doors. One door moves with the elevator car. The other sits on the floor landing. Both doors lock closed when the elevator moves.

The elevator industry has known about this particular safety hazard for decades. It also has known about a simple way to prevent it: a $100 plastic or foam insert to block the gap.

But the industry officials have resisted calls to make these safety improvements, arguing to federal regulators that the problem was complicated and not their responsibility, according to a 2019 Washington Post investigation.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission that same year decided not to require companies to fix the elevators or conduct an industry-wide recall campaign. Instead, it published a little-notice safety alert on its website and mailed notices to governors in every state.

In the meantime, the accidents continued.

A few months after the CPSC backed off, a 4-year-old boy was crushed by a residential elevator at his grandparents’ home outside Salt Lake City. He survived.

Other close-call incidents were reported, too. Chip Melton, fire chief in the Outer Banks’ Currituck County, said he recalled an elevator accident at another vacation rental home, but he said he was unaware it was possibly part of a larger problem.

The danger can be hard to imagine. The accidents are relatively rare but unusually horrifying. At least eight children were killed and two more seriously injured in elevator entrapments between 1981 and 2019, according to CPSC records and newspaper accounts. But elevator industry experts say the actual number is significantly higher.

Home elevators have killed and injured kids for decades. Safety regulators won’t order a simple fix.

Last year, the CPSC approved its first-ever safety recall for a residential elevator because of the risk to children. Otis Elevator Co., voluntarily agreed to inspect and repair about 5,000 home elevators.

But an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 home elevators could have a dangerously wide door gap, which was allowed by industry installation codes before 2017.

Last week, just before the boy’s death in Corolla, the CPSC voted 3-to-1 to sue ThyssenKrupp Access, part of German conglomerate ThyssenKrupp, after negotiations between the two sides stalled. The company’s elevators have been tied to one child’s death and another child’s serious injury. The CPSC wants the company to launch a recall effort to inspect and fix all of its residential elevators.

But the agency could lose the lawsuit. And safety advocates noted it dealt with one company, failing to address potentially dangerous elevators made by at least a dozen other companies.

The elevator involved in the Outer Banks accident was not made by ThyssenKrupp Access or Otis Elevator, according to authorities. It was manufactured by Custom Elevator Manufacturing Inc., based in Plumsteadville, Pa., according to Shortway. Calls and emails to company executives were not returned Tuesday.

Another child was crushed by a home elevator, just months after U.S. regulators decided against safety recall

The CPSC said it was investigating the accident, an agency spokesman said.

The CPSC had been dealing with the dangers of home elevators for years. Brandi and Mike Helvey petitioned the CPSC in 2013 to take action after their 3-year-old son, Jacob, suffered a severe brain injury in a ThyssenKrupp Access elevator in 2010. They were joined in their campaign by Nicole and Ben Hartz, whose 2-1/2-year-old son, Fletcher, was killed by a home elevator.

“I really do think this is going to keep happening unless something is done,” said Dave Krugler, an Atlanta attorney who has represented families in home elevator cases. “It’s an industry-wide problem.”

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The CPSC’s 2019 warning notice appeared to have caught the attention of Custom Elevator’s president Ken Hermann. A letter from him warning about the risk of entrapment is published on the company’s website.

“We care about our customers and the safety of the end-users of our products,” the letter reads.

The letter also notes what the elevator industry has been saying for years: “As an elevator manufacturer, we are not responsible for the installation of our products; instead, such is the responsibility of installers who at a minimum, must comply with applicable code.”