Fox News has been taking a Closer Look at elevator safety for several months now. We've learned: Chicago's inspectors appear to be dangerously overworked.
It's simple arithmetic: too many elevators for too few inspectors. It's hard to believe they can even keep up. It's a question of safety: what happens when city inspectors -- the last line of defense -- are stretched too thin?
"They're just literally doing a patch-up job. Literally taping up things," one resident explains as she points to a hole in the floor of her building's elevator. "It's an accident waiting to happen. Seriously, it is."
"I was pregnant and I had to jump out!" another resident adds. "Luckily, someone was out there or I would have fell down the shaft. The fire department is here almost every day to get somebody out."
The City of Chicago has had more than 100 complaints about the elevators at 4825 S. Drexel. Many from a mother who had to carry her handicapped daughter up and down 14 flights of stairs. It's not the city's job to fix elevators like these. But city inspectors are supposed to make sure they're safe.
"It's physically impossible," says Dick Gregory, who's spent a lifetime in the elevator business. He says the city is dangerously understaffed. Would you believe we only have 10 elevator inspectors? They're responsible for the safety of some 22,000 devices.
"What I can tell you is that they cannot get around and do them all. So if the goal--which is a reasonable goal--is to do them annually, they don't have a chance. No chance," Gregory explains.
Former elevator inspector Stan Arroyo agrees. He quit his city job in frustration.
"There's just not the physical presence to enforce and to inspect all of these units and to enforce their compliance with the code," he says. "To this day. There's even fewer inspectors now than when I was there. And there weren't many then."
You'd think the city would have hired more inspectors of every variety after a pair of tragic accidents showed just how short-handed the Building Department is. After the E2 stampede, City Hall had to admit: they'd assigned only two inspectors to keep tabs on 6,000 bars and nightclubs. The mayor's blue-ribbon commission recommended hiring more inspectors across the board. But Daley did not.
I asked Gregory: "If you do the math, the City of Chicago has less than half of what you think they need?" "That's correct," he replied.
That means each elevator inspector must do 9 inspections a day. Oh, and did we tell you? They're also responsible for escalators, moving walkways, and carnival rides. That leaves no time to check new construction, respond to emergencies, or investigate accidents. It leaves just 40 minutes per elevator.
"Sometimes 40 minutes is all you had to get into the building," Arroyo recalls.
"It doesn't work. Forty minutes is not enough," Gregory agrees.
"If you did the job correctly, it would take a whole lot longer," explains Arroyo. "And I'm only talking about an elevator that goes maybe five floors. Imagine you've got the Sears Tower!"
Arroyo says his colleagues cut corners to keep up.
"You do it by taking a ride, going up, going down," he says. " 'Everything looks to be in place. It seems to be okay. I know the guy who works on it. He's a good guy. We'll just let it go.' " "Wink wink, nod nod?" I asked. "Yeah," he said. "Happens all the time."
How often? Every elevator is supposed to be inspected once a year. You wouldn't know it, looking at the permits. We spent a couple hours on Michigan Avenue and found one dating back to January 1997. That's eight years ago. Another certificate was from 1998.
We wanted to know when every elevator was last inspected. It's public record. So we asked the city for the information. They told us retrieving it would cost us $36,000. Why? They'd said they'd have to hire a consultant. No one in City Hall knew how to do it.
"Today they were working. Yesterday they weren't. Day before that they were," one senior citizen tells us. "Day before that, I had to wait four hours to get upstairs, so I walked."
Perpetually broken elevators can make prisoners out of seniors and the disabled. They miss church, doctor's appointments, even family holidays.
"She can't get out! You know. It's bad. It's gotten really bad," said one woman's caretaker.
"In reality," Gregory says, "all the City can do is can go out and inspect, issue a citation, send them to housing court"
But they're not even doing that. According to the city's own records, almost 90% of the time -- when someone complains, nothing happens. Worse yet, Arroyo says no one listened when he would sound the alarm.
"I did what I was supposed to do and somebody's dead," he tells us.
In 1996, Arroyo wrote up an elevator in a CHA high rise at 6700 N. Sheridan Rd., when he discovered it was missing a critical safety device. Once again, nothing happened. Four months later, 87-year-old Rose Gutnik fell down the shaft.
"They didn't care before she died," Arroyo says. "But they were going to make a big deal about it after she died."
If an elevator looks unsafe, the city says to call 311 and take the stairs.
As for all those citizen complaints? The woman carrying her daughter up and down fourteen flights? A city spokesman says those are often pranks, called in by disgruntled tenants. But, he tells us, elevator inspectors diligently check out all those calls.
How do they find the time? Maybe it's because they racked up 3,500 hours overtime last year. That's eight weeks of overtime, per inspector. The City says building owners reimbursed it for most of that overtime. Good thing, because Chicago's elevator inspectors are among the highest-paid in the country.
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