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Malfunctioning elevators worry elderly residents

By Hank Sims Daily Planet correspondent
Friday September 07, 2001

Last Saturday, the doors closed behind 88-year old Bea Geller, but the little elevator didn’t budge. And the doors wouldn’t open again. None of the buttons responded.  

“Nothing was working,” she said. “It was an awful feeling.” 

Thankfully, when she picked up the emergency phone she heard a voice on the other end of the line. Since the elevator wasn’t between floors, the man at the front desk could open the doors by activating an emergency system.  

“If Bob weren’t there, I could have been trapped for hours,” Geller said. “I felt scared... and angry.” 

Many of the other 160 tenants at Strawberry Creek Lodge, a residential facility for elderly people on Addison Street near Bonar Street, were angry too. The primary elevator in the four-story building had been out of service for almost nine weeks. When that elevator went out, a resident was trapped inside for almost two hours. So when the small elevator that nearly stranded Geller went out again on Sunday evening – leaving mobility-impaired residents stranded until Monday morning – the tenants’ association decided it was time to take action. 

Several suggestions were made at the tenants’ association meeting Tuesday. Some people thought the association should hire an attorney. Others thought that residents most endangered by faulty elevator services – people in wheelchairs, or those too frail to negotiate the stairs – should be moved into hotels. Still others thought that tenants should go to Oakland and picket the Otis Elevator Company. 

According to tenants, it is Otis that should carry most of the blame for a summer’s worth of broken elevators. In 1994, the company replaced the jacks – the large hydraulic devices that move the elevators up and down – on Strawberry Creek Lodge’s main elevator. They did not, however, install a double-bottomed hydraulic cylinder, which would have prevented the leaks in the system that caused the main elevator’s failure. The smaller elevator’s service interruptions were due to an electronic failure. 

Otis Elevator has now begun the work to replace the jacks on both elevators, and is scheduled to complete the job by Sept. 11. The company has offered its services free of charge. But there is some question as to whether the company was, in 1994, contracted to install the double-bottomed jacks. Lois O’Connell, Strawberry Creek Lodge manager, said that Otis’ policy at the time was to phase out single-bottomed jacks – the implication being that they probably should have installed the double-bottomed ones. O’Connell said that Otis has lost the paperwork on the 1994 job, a fact which in part led the company to do the repair work without charge.  

Otis Elevator could not be reached for comment. 

Though the work is underway, resentment lingers at Strawberry Creek Lodge – and some of it is directed at the people who run the building. 

“Had I been in management’s seat, I might have hollered a little more than they did,” said Sidney Efross, the president of the tenants’ association. Efross is upset that the problem has taken so long to resolve. 

“On the whole, they are not treating this as an emergency,” said Saeeda Khan, a 22-year resident. “For us it is an emergency.” 

“One day I was climbing up the stairs. In front of me was a woman who was really gasping, holding her hand to her chest. I was afraid that she would have a heart attack.” 

O’Connell said that she is aware of the tenants’ concerns, and that her staff is doing everything it can to get the job completed and to help tenants during the crisis. When both elevators were out of service Sunday night, staff called all the mobility-impaired residents in the building to let them know that they would be on hand to assist them. 

“I think the tenants think that we and Otis are not taking this very seriously,” she said. “I don’t know how we could take it any more seriously.” 

“My impression is that Otis is really dealing with us in good faith. I think they definitely take this as an emergency.” 

Still, tenants charge that if Otis and Strawberry Creek management truly considered the situation an emergency, it would not have taken so long to resolve. 

“You kind of get the feeling that since Otis is doing it all for nothing – and not out of the goodness of their hearts, but under duress – that it’s not at the top of their list,” said Efross. 

O’Connell said that several factors, including initial uncertainty about what was causing the problem, where to lay blame for the jack failure and the difficulty of quickly obtaining the 40-foot jacks, have all contributed to the delay. She said that she and her staff, and Otis, have been working on this problem continuously. 

“But for the tenants, there is only one variable,” said O’Connell. “They’re stuck. I don’t blame them for being angry.”