November 16, 2010 in City

Investigation looks into jail elevator accident

By The Spokesman-Review
 

A criminal investigation is under way to determine who may have caused an elevator shutdown that injured a Spokane County Jail deputy.

Evidence indicates someone pushed an emergency stop button in the jail control room during two recent incidents – one of which sent Deputy Janice Bauer to a hospital shortly after midnight on Oct. 24.

She was treated and released for what were described as minor injuries, but hadn’t returned to work Tuesday.

“That’s a job where you really have to be at your peak physical condition,” Undersheriff Jeff Tower said.

He said a detective was ordered to investigate when no mechanical cause could be found for the sudden stop that injured Bauer.

Sheriff’s officials have said previously that the incident occurred when the unnamed operator of the remote-controlled, video-monitored elevator “looked away for a moment.”

The case is “focused on who had access or who would have been in the control room at the time it looks like the emergency button was pushed,” Tower said.

Some “Masterpiece Mystery!”-style sleuthing occurred before the detective was assigned.

County Facilities Director Ron Oscarson said no “fault indicator” was triggered as should have happened if there had been a mechanical failure. A technician was unable to find a problem in two days of investigation.

Then, three days after Bauer was injured, a different elevator stopped suddenly in the same way – around 4:40 a.m. Another staff member was trapped, although without injury.

“We looked and looked and couldn’t find a smoking gun until we looked into the control booth,” Oscarson said.

Automatic time stamps indicated the emergency stop had been activated on both days, but control-room times didn’t match those on elevator surveillance videos.

Further investigation revealed that the clocks in both devices were wrong.

A 35-minute correction of the control-room computer and an 11-minute adjustment of the video surveillance equipment brought the time stamps within a few seconds of each other.Jail officials failed to report the Bauer incident to the state as required when someone is injured. Spokane-based elevator inspector Joseph McCann found out through news reports, and the sheriff’s office was fined $500. “There seem to have been a lot of issues on those elevators,” Oscarson agreed. “I don’t think it’s been any one particular thing.”

Similar problems were reported on Monday and Tuesday this week. Oscarson was waiting for details, but Tower said mechanical problems caused the unexpected stops.

Four staff members were trapped in one case and a staff member and an inmate got stuck in the other, but no one was injured, Tower said.

Unlike previous incidents, an elevator repairman was called to open the door – as ordinarily required by law, Oscarson said. He said officers pried the doors open in previous incidents, contributing to maintenance problems.

“They agreed that they maybe did that a little bit more than they should, and they’re going to be careful in the future not to do that so much,” Oscarson said.

He said the company hired to service the 1980s-vintage elevators advised that they’re good for 10 or 15 more years with proper maintenance.

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