Tragedy in an Elevator

Student's death at Ohio State points to potential problem faced by many colleges with high-rise dormitories.
November 1, 2006

Andrew Polakowski, an 18-year-old freshman at Ohio State University, was among the last of 24 students who crammed into a dormitory elevator on Friday night, October 20, at 11:20 p.m. The students were all leaving the dorm together and wanted to stay together. The elevator has a maximum weight capacity of 2,500 pounds -- a total probably exceeded by 1,000 pounds with 24 students on board. As Polakowski entered, the elevator car began to descend without its doors closing. He tried to jump out, was pinned by the elevator, and was killed.

As soon as Jack Collins heard about the tragedy, he started checking with his colleagues -- even though he works hundreds of miles away as director of housing at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "I wanted to know immediately: Did we have all the safeguards in place?" he said. He was reassured to learn that the university did.

But he also started work on an education program for students about elevators -- a daily part of life for students at many large universities who live in high-rise dormitories. Obviously students know how to use elevators in the literal sense of pushing buttons. And the periodic elevator accident can happen anywhere, not just on a campus. But the Ohio State accident illustrates some ways that universities may be particularly vulnerable to elevator tragedies.

In an apartment building, adults may wish an elevator had some more room, but social conventions about just how packed in most people will let themselves be help keep the cars in the safety zone. "But in college, there can be tremendous peer pressure to literally join the crowd," and in a no-privacy dorm environment, cramming into an elevator may seem normal, said Ann Franke, president of Wise Results, which advises colleges on legal risks.

"The rush to get somewhere can overcome common sense," Franke said.

That's just part of the problem for universities. Students -- unlike most apartment residents -- will engage in activities that harm elevators and themselves. While the craze has largely passed, "elevator surfing" -- in which students try to ride on the top of an elevator car -- remains a worry. In the 1990s, students were killed elevator surfing at Indiana State University, Southern Methodist University and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Vandalism and hijinks remain big problems. "We have a lot of situations where students make poor judgments," said Norbert Dunkel, director of housing at the University of Florida. "They will do everything from taking a lighter and trying to light a sensor, to breaking the lights, to picking up the emergency phone and calling something [false] in, to banging all the buttons," he said. Other dormitory officials mention crowding as a frequent problem, sometimes combined with crowding in and jumping up and down, stopping the elevator between floors -- either just for kicks or to enjoy a romantic moment with a fellow passenger.

All of this combines to mean that universities must both keep their cars functioning well and figure out a way to get students to behave.

As is typical in the wake of an accident, much of the initial focus at Ohio State has been on technical checks of the elevators, and some of the findings have alarmed students. A round of tests last week found that 7 of the 67 elevators in Ohio State dormitories failed safety standards -- the elevators have been taken out of service for repairs. On Tuesday, a state report revealed that the elevator that the students were on last Friday had a brake failure that made it unable to support even the weight it was supposed to be able to handle.

At Pennsylvania State University, a series of improvements have followed the 2003 death of Katherine Ibanez, 21. An elevator stopped between floors, students pried the door open and some jumped out, but Ibanez fell down the elevator shaft. Since then, 80 additional emergency phones have been added to elevators and posters have been added to many -- with police and dormitory officials trained to discourage students from trying to rescue themselves.

To give some sense of the magnitude of elevator issues at a large campus like Penn State's, the institution has 350 elevators and each year has to rescue people from elevator cars about 150 times. Most of those rescues are in dorm elevators, not the many that are in classroom buildings or athletic facilities. Brakes are tested eight times a year and tests are conducted at 125 percent of capacity.

Students tend to pay attention to elevator safety only when something goes wrong. Many students at San Jose State University were alarmed last month when the student newspaper reported on an incident in which a student was stuck for more than two hours in a stalled elevator. Susan Hansen, director of housing services, said that university procedures call for students to be rescued within 45 minutes but because there were new elevators in place, the rescue squad took longer to figure out how to do everything. The student was never in danger, Hansen said.

The more typical problem at San Jose State, Hansen said, is students who drop their keys in elevator shafts -- which requires a complete inspection of the shaft.

In the end, how safe elevators are depends largely on students, said Connie L. Carson, assistant vice president for campus services at Wake Forest University and president of the Association of College and University Housing Officers International. She said that the people who run dormitories are so committed to safety that she would be stunned by any serious accident in which the root cause was a faulty elevator. Inspections are frequent and taken seriously, she said.

But students are another matter. Carson said it was vital for campuses to reach students, but stressed that they needed to reach students who would then influence others to change behaviors. "A lot of students just won't listen to administrators," she said.


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