Fourteen people stepped into an elevator Saturday night at Two Liberty Place, one of Philadelphia’s iconic high-rises, to attend a close friend’s wedding reception on the 37th floor. But they never made it. Instead, the group, ranging in age from 32 to 72, was trapped in the elevator car amid sizzling temperatures and little air to breathe for 3½ hours.
At one point, the passengers, stuck around the fourth floor, became so desperate for air that they stood on top of each other and pressed their faces to a small opening in the car’s door to suck in any available oxygen from the elevator’s shaft.
And then to get out, they had to climb up a ladder, three at a time, to the top of the car. They then stepped over to the top of an adjoining car, and stood there as it was brought down to safety on a lower floor.
“It was like being in an oven,” said Joseph Byrne, cofounder of BG Capital LLC, a Philadelphia real estate investment firm, who was among those trapped. “We were cooking, literally, for 3.5 hours” in temperatures that rose above 100 degrees.
Byrne said that people remained relatively calm for the first hour and a half but then started to panic as the rescue dragged on. He said two older passengers sat on the floor with unsteady heart rates. Luckily, a nurse was present who helped keep them calm.
Two Liberty Place, Philadelphia’s fourth-tallest building, according to the building’s website, is one of the city’s landmarks. The 58-story building -- with its splashy Art Deco exterior lit up at night by LEDs -- is split into several parts: offices on the lower floors, an upscale R2L Restaurant on the 37th floor, and luxury apartments from floors 37 to 57.
The office portion of the building is owned by Coretrust Capital Partners LLC, a Los Angeles-based investment company. “This was a rare and unfortunate occurrence that we deeply regret,” said Barbara Casey, Coretrust’s spokesperson.
She said the building is in the midst of a $5 million investment to modernize the elevators, and “Saturday night an electrical breaker tripped, cutting power to the car.”
“Since then, the contractor has run extensive diagnostics, made appropriate adjustments and retested everything," she said. "We felt comfortable putting it back in service earlier this week and it has been running smoothly.”
She said the Philadelphia Fire Department took full command of the rescue.
Kathy Matheson, the department’s communications director, said, “Our companies worked with the building engineer and elevator company representative to rescue the occupants as quickly as possible.” The rescue took longer than usual, she said, "because the car was stalled in an express shaft between the third and 21st floors, with no access from floors in between.”
The building’s elevators are serviced by Fujitec America Inc., a company that designs and installs elevators, escalators, and moving walkways. Personnel for Fujitec did not return The Inquirer’s calls.
The building’s elevators are up-to-date with operation certificates and inspections, said a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, which oversees elevator licensing and certifications across the state. The elevators received their last inspection in February. The department said it has not received any prior complaints for the building.
The city Fire Department has responded to four calls of stalled elevators at Two Liberty Place since January 2017.
Coretrust’s Casey said that Saturday was the first incident on the building’s office elevators. The three other incidents occurred on the elevators on the residential side, which are overseen by condo owners.
Tom Knox, a multimillionaire businessman and former mayoral candidate who has lived in the residences of Liberty Place for nearly 10 years, said that he recalls someone getting stuck in an elevator on the residence side of the building for a few hours about seven months ago.
“In the last four or five years, there have probably been four or five times that someone was stuck in the elevator for more than 10 minutes,” said Knox, who was previously on the board of the building’s residents association.
The group crowded into the elevator that goes directly to the R2L Restaurant, where Brian and Kiley Stevenson’s wedding reception was to be held on the 37th floor. The event was a celebration of the couple’s elopement in Morocco two weeks ago and came one day after they had their marriage officiated by Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Kevin Dougherty in his chambers. Brian, 44, is a Philadelphia native and a business consultant for Stevenson Advocacy LLC., while Kiley, 31, from Hutchinson, Kan., is a medical sales representative for the biotech company BioD LLC.
It was around 7:15 p.m. when the car ascended a few floors, then immediately dropped around 15 feet. “It was almost like an amusement ride,” said Joe Rafter, who was inside the elevator with his wife, Katie, his two 72-year-old parents, brother, and sister-in-law.
They used the call button to tell the front desk that the elevator was stuck and then the Fire Department, elevator technicians, and building engineers were called. Katie Rafter also called 911.
After an hour and a half, people inside the elevator started to panic. It was hot, there was little air, and they were receiving no reassurance from people at the front desk. After multiple calls to the front desk, the personnel eventually left the phone off the hook and the people inside the elevator could no longer communicate with them.
“It was like someone put you in a microwave oven and shut the door,” said Byrne.
“It was traumatizing,” added Michael Miska, a local attorney who was also present.
“My father, who is 72, had to sit on the floor,” said Joe Rafter, a 43-year-old entrepreneur from Fishtown. "I was worried about him, his breathing. I didn’t know if he was going to have a heart attack.”
Byrne called his business lawyer, Michael Ecker, a partner at Eckert Seamans, which has an office in the building. And Byrne called people from the wedding, who made their way down to the lobby to help. One was Philadelphia City Councilman Mark Squilla.
“It didn’t seem like there was any urgency from the building to get these folks out,” said Squilla. “It was pretty alarming, because if there was a fire and that happened, those people would have been dead.”
Coretrust’s Casey stressed that the Fire Department was in charge and directed front-desk security to disconnect the intercom, “presumably so PFD could control all communications.” Elevators do not typically have air-conditioning, she noted. Airflow comes from movement and the car was not moving. “Since the car stopped between floor landings, the doors could not be opened.”
The Fire Department eventually managed to maneuver a second elevator car adjacent to the one that was stuck. Firefighters unlocked the emergency escape door on the top of the car and lowered a ladder.
People climbed up on top of the elevator car, which was about 40 feet up in the shaft, in groups of three, and then, with the guidance of the firefighters, stepped about three feet onto the top of another elevator. Each group of three was lowered down with the passengers still on top.
They then climbed over wires and shimmied through a 2-foot opening onto the safety of solid ground. With their wedding attire covered in elevator dust and dampened with hours of sweat, they were evaluated by emergency personnel.