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He awoke 5 weeks after courthouse elevator crash: 'I just remember holding on'

Paul Owens still struggles to understand why he was a victim of last year's elevator crash at the city's Criminal Justice Center. His lawyer says the problems may be larger than just one city building.

Paul Owens of the Sheriff’s Department sits in his home next to photos of his children. Owens was paralyzed when an elevator he was in crashed through the ceiling of its shaft at the Criminal Justice Center in 2016.
Paul Owens of the Sheriff’s Department sits in his home next to photos of his children. Owens was paralyzed when an elevator he was in crashed through the ceiling of its shaft at the Criminal Justice Center in 2016.Read moreMARGO REED / Staff Photographer

At the Torresdale home of Paul and Heather Owens, the renovation is well underway: a two-story addition with a bathroom that meets disability access standards. It even has an elevator.

All that work is necessary because a year ago, another elevator — this one in Center City — lifted off at high speed, rose 15 stories, and exploded into the concrete ceiling of its shaft at the top of Philadelphia's Criminal Justice Center.

Owens, then a sergeant in the Sheriff's Office, was alone in Car 2B as it sped at more than twice its rated speed of 350 feet a minute. "I grabbed the railing, and I just remember holding on," Owens, 49, said last week at his home, his first interview since the accident. "After that, I don't remember anything until I woke up in the hospital."

The wake-up moment was after a five-week coma. Owens was paralyzed below the middle of his chest.

If Owens can't remember the moment his life changed, others can't forget.

Every day, 3,000 to 4,000 people enter the city's criminal courthouse, are funneled through security scans, and move into a small lobby to await an elevator. To anyone there on Aug. 4, 2016, it sounded like an explosion. The building shook. Fire alarms went off, and all six public elevator cars stopped in place, some with passengers inside. Court employees and the public walked down as many as 14 floors to the sidewalk at 13th and Filbert Streets.

The official investigation continues, and the ensuing months have brought an expected wave of lawsuits, including a whistle-blower claim last month by the building's former manager, who says he had warned of lax maintenance and "dummied-up" inspection reports for the elevators.

About 900,000 elevators in the United States make 18 billion passenger trips a year, according to National Elevator Industry Inc.

But accidents happen, and what happened to Owens was not unprecedented. Each year, about 25 people are killed and 10,000 injured in elevators. If there's a difference with Owens' accident, it could be that a year later no one can say what caused it.

"That's the real story," said Michael V. Tinari, the Owenses' lawyer. "How many elevators in this city — in this country — are maintained properly, and are they safe? This is not just a CJC problem."

Mechanical engineers call it "ascending car overspeed," or ACO: A power or equipment failure releases the car, and the counterweight falls and pulls it up the shaft at high speed. The name isn't new, nor is the technology to prevent it.

Two accidents in Canada in the 1980s drew attention to the problem. One killed two workers and seriously injured three when a construction elevator at Scotia Plaza Tower in Toronto surged 44 stories upward at 43 m.p.h. until it hit the top. Two years later, at the Lord Elgin Hotel in Ottawa, a tourist was killed when the elevator door closed on him and the car suddenly rose.

A solution was unveiled at the end of that decade when Hollister-Whitney Elevator Corp. of Quincy, Ill., introduced its trademarked Rope Gripper emergency brake, which uses a set of viselike jaws that automatically clamp shut and stop an elevator car if it ascends or descends too rapidly.

In 1990, Canada required rope grippers on all newly installed elevators. But in the U.S., it took a decade before rope grippers or a succession of newer overspeed devices became mandatory in new construction.

That was five years after Philadelphia's Criminal Justice Center opened.

Tinari said he believes that a lot of pre-2000 buildings, such as the CJC, have elevators that are serious or fatal accidents waiting to happen.

Since last year, the city's courts have spent $572,855 installing rope grippers on the courthouse's six public elevators.

City spokesman Mike Dunn said the city plans to replace by 2020 the six public cars, the two damaged employee elevators, and six other elevators that transport inmates from cells in the sub-basement to nine floors of courtrooms.

Center City lawyer Steven G. Wigrizer, hired by the city's judges as their representative in the accident's aftermath, said installation of rope grippers on the public elevators was a priority.

"We wanted to ensure that what happened last year could never happen again," Wigrizer said.

Ever since the Criminal Justice Center opened in 1995, there have been continuing complaints about the elevators: They're overcrowded, they don't always level when they reach a floor, they periodically stop between floors.

Those complaints are cited in Tinari's lawsuit as evidence that officials and contractors have long ignored problems with the elevators.

While the official investigation of the crash continues, so do parallel probes by civil lawyers.

"The investigation is pretty involved," Tinari said. "Obviously, there was a malfunction."

The Owenses are suing the Philadelphia Municipal Authority, the "landlord" for city-owned buildings; U.S. Facilities Inc., a Philadelphia-based company that the authority hired to operate and maintain city buildings, and its two subcontractors: Thyssenkrupp Elevator Corp., a subsidiary of the German conglomerate Thyssenkrupp AG with U.S. headquarters in Troy, Mich.; and Schindler Elevator Corp., locally based in Moorestown. Schindler had the elevator contract at the courthouse through June 2016; then Thyssenkrupp took over.

The whistle-blower suit filed by Duilio "Lou" Angelini, the U.S. Facilities manager assigned to the Criminal Justice Center, presents a darker theory: He says he continually warned his bosses about lax elevator maintenance and "dummied-up" inspection reports at the CJC and, after the accident, he was demoted and fired.

All the defendants have denied liability in the accident. H. David Seidman, a lawyer for U.S. Facilities, said company officials "strongly dispute the claims in the lawsuit filed by Mr. Angelini. The allegations in the lawsuit are baseless and without merit, and we will vigorously defend ourselves against them. We place the highest priority on the safety of our employees and those entrusted to our care."

Meanwhile, since the crash, many courthouse employees routinely take the stairs, braving secondhand smoke, rather than risk the elevators.

When Car 2B hit the ceiling, Owens was pitched headfirst into the top of the car and then just as forcefully against its sides and floor. The impact broke three thoracic vertebrae, several ribs, and his pelvis, lacerated his spleen, and caused brain injury.

For Owens, a former competitive power-lifter, the accident upended his life and sense of self. Pumping iron was replaced by a new, more difficult goal: to sit up without assistance.

Owens still finds it difficult to accept what happened.

"I went to work one day, and I kind of got caught up in a bad situation through no fault of my own, and look: I'm in a wheelchair the rest of my life now," Owens said. "It hurts, that's the best way I can describe it. Anger's not going to fix anything."

He said he hopes the renovations to his house will be done by Thanksgiving.

Right now, he sleeps in the basement, washes up in the morning in a makeshift camp shower, then wheels his way out of the garage and outside, around the house to the wheelchair ramp that takes him in the front door. There, except for trips to therapy, he remains with Heather, watching TV and talking, until it's time to repeat the return trip to the basement.

Elevators are still tough.

"At first, I didn't want to get into another elevator," Owens said. "Doctors actually prescribed medication for me; I guess you call it anxiety medication."

It was the only way Owens could be moved between floors for rehab at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital.

"It's gotten a little easier for me to be on elevators," Owens added, "but I don't think I'd ever be able to get on an elevator in the justice center again."

Triumphs are personal now. He made it to son John's high school graduation last year, and to daughter Alexis' sweet-16 party.

The Owenses have been down this route once before. Heather Owens was a sheriff's deputy for a decade until she left on disability several years ago after she injured an ankle when a CJC elevator leveled below the floor and she tripped exiting. She said the city and Sheriff's Office have been great, making sure they get everything they need. Paul Owens got a post-accident promotion to lieutenant.

They are grateful to their neighbors and say they decided to renovate rather than move because of them.

"The neighbors helped maintain the lawn and vegetable garden," Paul Owens said. "It's hard to get good neighbors like that."

Mostly, he thanks Heather: "She's the only way I made it."

Owens muses about returning to the job he held for 30 years, but knows it may not be possible.

Instead, he's been working with therapists to develop the strength and skills to operate a hand-controlled automobile. He sees himself rolling out to his van, hoisting himself into the driver's seat, and traveling beyond the end of his driveway to a destination of his choosing.

"I want to drive again," Owens said. "I want to get back as close to normalcy as best I can."