This article was last modified on April 19, 2005.


The Reality of Escalator Fatalities

In the film Mallrats, Brodie Bruce makes offhand remarks concerning the level of danger for people on escalators – particularly children. When he speaks of the children he hears of die each year from escalator danger [1], I took it as a joke. To me, it was nothing more than an urban legend placed in a movie to seem real and tickle our most dark and grim of funny bones. But the scenario was all too real. Not one person, but several die each year in America from an unsafe escalator or in escalator-related fatalities.

Statistics

Surprisingly, the government actually keeps records of escalator-related deaths. The organization who keeps the statistics is OSHA, receiving information from the CPSC. The Consumer Product Safety Commission reviewed passenger escalator deaths between 1997 and 2003. There were twenty deaths: twelve were due to falling and eight were from getting caught in the escalator (examples of both will be given below). These twenty deaths do not include the deaths of those repairing the escalator, only the deaths of those using them. Averaged out, twenty deaths in seven years is roughly three escalator fatalities a year. To validate Bruce’s point, let us assume for the moment that at least one of these three people is a child (although we have no concrete evidence to support this theory, only probability).

In 1994, the Consumer Product Safety Commission estimated that there were 7,300 escalator and 9,800 elevator injuries that year where people were injured seriously enough that they had to be hospitalized. If we take the average year of 365 days and divide the injuries up evenly, we come up with no less than twenty injuries a day in America resulting from escalators. While still a smaller figure in comparison to car crashes or other accidents, the number is higher than one might imagine. Given that few of us see an escalator in a week or month’s time (compared to driving daily), the figure is understandably smaller.

Other statistics are unknown to me at this time. For example, we might be curious to know if injuries increased (due to increased population) since 1994 or if they have decreased (due to better awareness and safer machines).

The Elevator Escalator Safety Foundation

To reflect the seriousness of the dangers of escalators, there is an entire organization devoted to promoting awareness of said danger. This organization, the non-profit Elevator Escalator Safety Foundation, states their mission as educating “the public on the safe and proper use of elevators, escalators and moving walks through informational programs.” They have a few programs, Saf-T Rider for kids and Safe Ride for adults, and sponsor informational events.

One such event is the National Elevator Escalator Safety Awareness Week (in both the United States and Canada). For those interested, this takes place the second full week of November. Representatives do speaking tours in major cities to promote awareness, and free educational materials are available on their website (www.eesf.org).

While this group certainly provides a useful service, I think Brodie Bruce would be happy if parents took the simple step of telling their children rather than relying on some independent group to do the parenting for them. As he says, the accidents “could have easily been avoided had some parent – I don’t care which one – but some parent conditioned [the children] to fear and respect that escalator.”

Real-Life Examples

To illustrate the reality of escalator fatalities, I am offering a few examples to drive the point home.

Unknown Man

On September 27, 2001 at 11:30a.m., a 37-year-old man died while repairing an escalator. I quote here verbatim from California Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation Report #01CA009: “A 37 year-old male elevator mechanic helper died when he was crushed in an escalator as he was performing maintenance. The victim had removed the escalator stairs and was standing inside the mechanism of the escalator when the power suddenly came on. The stairs began moving before the victim could get out and before the power could be turned off. There were no locks or tags on the controls that supply the electrical power to the escalator. The disconnect switch at the circuit panel that fed power to the elevator had not been locked and tagged out. The power came on when a co-worker dropped the electrical circuit box, triggering a relay that started the escalator’s movement. There was a mechanical blocking device on the escalator to stop movement during maintenance, but it was not used.”

The report is detailed regarding procedures, but vague in other ways – the man is never named, nor is the company he works for or the location of the escalator. Not even the city or county of the building is named, though we know it to be “a county court multi-story facility” in California. Cause of death was “massive internal injuries due to blunt force trauma”.

James Kolata

James Kolata, a 48-year old employee of the Wisconsin Department of Administration, died in July of 2004. He was attending a baseball game at Miller Park in Milwaukee between the Milwaukee Brewers and the Chicago Cubs when he decided to sit on the rail of the escalator. Kolata lost his balance and fell 17 feet. The man did not die instantly, but his injuries lead to his demise while receiving treatment at Froedtert Memorial Lutheran Hospital in Wauwatosa. According to the Milwaukee County medical examiner’s report, Kolata “suffered fractures to his skull and vertebrae and a collapsed lung”. By the time paramedics arrived at the stadium, he was not breathing. And he never regained consciousness.

Alcohol was likely a factor, though Kolata’s wife told investigators that he was only a social drinker and did not use any street drugs or have any known health problems. Alcohol had been a factor on June 19 (barely a month before) when another man fell off another escalator in the ballpark while trying to slide down the rail.

Francisco Portillo

Francisco Portillo, a prep cook for the Kaya sushi bar in Boston, died on February 21, 2005. He had left work early (9:45pm) and sat down on the escalator. The hood of his sweatshirt became entangled in the “comb plate” of the escalator and he was pulled to the ground and eventually strangled to death.

Other people on the escalator tried to help Portillo. One man hit the emergency stop button too late. Other people, including transit police, tried to help Portillo break free, but the sweatshirt had become too tight around his neck. Witnesses thought he might be having a seizure after seeing him struggling, but this might simply be because they did not understand what had happened. Paramedics and police cut him loose, but he was already dead before he reached Cambridge City Hospital.

Not surprisingly, an almost empty bottle of Korean whiskey was found in Portillo’s pocket, and police do believe that alcohol was likely a factor. During work that evening, Portillo had been dropping dishes. A sushi chef at Kaya, Kriz Chong, said, “I think he was drunk… He couldn’t even speak properly. He was mumbling almost, and we just left him alone.” Chong also noticed Portillo “walking tipsy”. The escalator was partly to blame, however, as it was not equipped with a “comb-plate sensor” which reports say is “a device required in newer models that shut them down if something gets caught.”

The escalators in this district were notoriously dangerous. Local newspapers reported that prior to replacing the older models in 2003, the escalators had caused “several” incidents. They cite a 3-year-old Cambridge boy in 1995 whose leg was severely gashed and a Beacon Hill man in 1996 whose coat was caught in the escalator and had to have his arm amputated [2].

More Anonymous Deaths

The CDC offers brief synapses of other escalator deaths and injuries. They are as follows.

Washington, DC, March 11, 1997: “A 37 year old male died from asphyxiation when his clothing became entrapped in the downward moving steps and stationary bottom comb plate of an escalator at a subway station. He was found, on his back, with the coat wrapped tightly around his chest, because part of the coat was dragged into the comb plate. There were no witnesses as to how the coat became entangled.”

Richmond Heights, Ohio, September 11, 2000: “A female, age 85, lost her balance and fell onto the escalator at a store. Cause of death blunt impact to head, trunk and extremities sustained in the fall.”

Anaheim, California, July 6, 2002: “A Twelve-year old male was riding an escalator down (egress) from a baseball game when his right shoe got stuck between the stationary left side of the escalator. The victim sustained injury to his right big toe. The extent of the injury was not determined.”

St. Petersburg, Florida, February 19, 2003: “A 5-year-old female was on the bottom step of a down escalator when her shoe got caught in the comb plate. She reached down to get her shoe when her hand also got caught in the comb plate. Her three middle fingers and part of her hand were amputated.”

Denver, Colorado, July 2, 2003: “About 60 people were injured when the escalator they were riding down suddenly accelerated and they fell or were thrown at the bottom of the escalator.”

Conclusion

Escalators, contrary to common sense, are dangerous devices and not toys to fool around with. Every year someone loses their life in a situation that could have been avoided. With the emergence of more escalators all the time, one can only assume that escalator fatalities will rise proportionately. But we can do our part to reduce escalator fatalities if we follow three simple rules.

1. Sobriety. Since accidents around escalators seem to coincide with alcohol consumption, if you are going to be involved in one, try to avoid being involved in the other.

2. Stay off the rail. The handrail is for hands and hands only. Sitting (or standing) on the handrail is dangerous and could potentially lead to a fall.

3. Keep escalators maintenanced and up-to-date. For store owners, please make sure your escalator has a comb plate sensor and any other modification that may improve safety. Consider ways of preventing falls, because as we all know – lawsuits can be filed by even the most incompetent of people.

Notes

[1] The exact wording is as follows: “Listen, not a year goes by, not a year, that I don’t hear about some escalator accident involving some bastard kid…” (the quote continues, and is quoted under the safety section above). Later, upon seeing a child sitting on the steps of the escalator, he exclaims, “That kid is back on the escalator again!” Ultimately, his concerns were correct – by the end of that day some child becomes caught in the escalator and what happens is left to our imagination.

[2] In relation to Brodie Bruce, we must comment that his observations occurred in 1995, suggesting that he lived in a time where the bulk of escalators were the older, less accident-proof models.

Also try another article under Miscellaneous
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

14 Responses to “The Reality of Escalator Fatalities”

  1. James Skemp Says:

    Gavin, what about fatalities related to the installation of escalators? While it’s true that that’s not what you’re focusing on here, it seems as though a search for escalator deaths is bringing up your article, so it’s important to mention this at least.

  2. S. Mann Says:

    Escalator safety is dependent on people riding the escalator properly. Not only should people keep their hands on the handrail, they need to stand straight, not lean over the rail, have their shoe laces tied and other loose articles of clothing (scarves, belts, ties etc. neatly tucked, and keep long hair away from any moving escalator piece. Playing on escalators, leaning against the handrail and talking to someone on the floor below or above are all inherently dangerous.

    It is important for people to take responsibility for their own safety when they are riding an excalator. Just as driving a car improperly is inherently dangerous, so is riding an escalator improperly.

    Unfortunately when a person does something wrong, like leaning over an escalator rail, or sitting on the moving step and getting injured or worse, there is the modern tendency to blame everyone and the kitchen sink for their own stupidity.

  3. S. Man Says:

    7000 hospitalized a year, many of them children, should not be blamed on stupidity. Where are the autmatic shut offs, where are the finger guards over the comb plates, where is the safety(other than the stupid little signs?) Shame on the escalator industry. They know all about how innocent, careful people can have accidents on the ill-designed products. Instead they are trying to blame the riders. Hope none of their relatives get injured on one. Gavin, thank you for providing a counter site for the industry spokesmen above.

  4. Ashley Says:

    Gavin, I am grateful to you and others who have posted articles regarding escalator deaths; the issue greatly concerns me since most people are completely unaware of what can happen, and ever since I came across a couple of news stories online of the tragic incidents which happened several years back to two different individuals, who I was surprised not to see listed in your specific examples. Do a search for 63 year old Sally Baldwin who was crushed in an escalator (due to poor maintenance) in Rome in 2002; and then there is the 7 year old Jyotsna Jethani who was also crushed in an escalator (also due to poor maintenance/carelessness) at an airport in New Delhi in 1999. Both of these horrific tragedies happened by no fault of the victims.

  5. Sue Donim Says:

    Fuel to my boyfriend’s fire. he is scared of escalators and your research did not help! please expand on the fact that safety is important when riding the escalator. ffs

  6. Jaya Says:

    I searched for escalator accidents, primarily involving kids, and got this site in my search. How incredibly shocking it sounds that there are as many deaths and injuries with something that is so common everywhere we go. My motive to get info was my adorable one-year old nephew got his finger stuck in the escalator and my brother (his dad) pulled him off the moment he noticed my nephew getting stuck and inevitably lost the tip of one of the fingers. Just thinking and imagining the pain my poor nephew makes me question a lot of things, including the safety precautions that should be put in place and the fact that adults should not have kids on the escalators without taking extra precaution, but hindsight is 20/20. I wish I could transfer that accident to me so my nephew can avoid the pain and any functioning of his hand due to missing finger tip in the future. I can’t even think of his pain and not cry as I write this. Would his finger be repairable? Of course, the doctor asked for the fingertip that got separated but it disappeared under the escalator. I just wanted to share this story and see if anyone cal help me with any suggestions of the medical advancement that could replace my nephew’s right middle fingertip. He is just one year old, and had to endure such pain. My only prayer is that he does NOT lose any function from this hand. God bless him.

  7. Harry C. Gibbens Says:

    I had October 30, 2008 Escalator Accident at I-105/Aviation Station, Los Angeles, CA.

    After a rolling cart with a suitcase which was tied to the cart knocked me backward down from the top landing (top floor). Sliding downward on the ascending escalator (only twenty two inches between sidewalls). No room for me to turn myself around. My head bumped against the step – result: a slight cut on upper right head. Yes, brief blackout. What happened and why. The half way down from the top landing, I had to place my left hand on one of the moving steps and held there firmly. The escalator brought be back to the top landing. At the landing, below my wrist line, the escalator pushed my lower body over the combplate-landing. At the means time helplessly, I stuck under the moving step – combplate area which pulled me and clothing down there firmly – continually pulling the clothings under the combplate strongly. I was unable to pull myself away from the step-combplate area. The moving steps sheared my upper back body and tore my right arm badly. Fortunately after my cry aloud HELP, two rescuers heard my cry and found me lying on the step – combplate area at the top floor. The rescuers pressed the emergency stop button.The rescuers cut up the clothing from my right arm. I got up and walk away from the stopped moving escalator. I was brought to a hospital emergency room. Result: laceration of right arm and abrasion of my back. The wounded right arm required skin grafted.

    My question: why did the escalator not let me go over the step-combplate area smoothly at the top landing freely? It was supposed to let me go over the step – combplate area properly. Instead of freeing me, the escalator step-combplate entrapped me firmly. why?

    Now I know if I am right that the combplate was not adjusted properly – posible slight above the step tread surface.

    So to my shoulder tote bag fell down next to my side and was sheared – many holes, too.

    The stopped escalator was closed to public for further repair work, et cetera. Note: three days later, the escalator was “major” overhauled for fourteen days. The escalator insurer has insisted that the accident was at my fault -100% fault. Note: The sheared tote bag is still evidenced. The insurer has refused to inform me the fact of the escalator work report. I’ll be able to provide further information including suerveillance footage of the accident and colorful photographs of injuries and the overhauled escalator repairwork. Just let me know by emailing me at harrycg@juno.com, will you?

  8. Harry C. Gibbens Says:

    The accidental thing like escalator that disturbs me.
    I doubt that I am the first person to have even fallen, caused by a front cart with a suitcase knocking me down backward and I have entrapped under moving steps-combplate area of October 30, 2008 Escalator Accident.

    (NOTE: Do not place any cart or rolling cart or stroller in the front of you on escalator. Play safe to observe safety rules.

    SUGGESTION OF SAFETY INNOVATIONS:
    1) Human emergency stopping device.
    2) Surveillance camera overhead escalator.
    3) Step-comb impact device or
    Combplate stop switch which can more readily be retrofit to existing escalators.
    5) Emergency stop switch on sidewall at both upper and lower landings.
    6) Large CAUTION SIGNS – not small Caution Signs.

    When combplate fingers are adjusted slightly above steps, please re-adjust the combplate vertically below the step’s tread surface. The combplate have multiple teeth (fingers) which are detachable and are adjustabnle vertically. The comb teeth must be meshed with the slots in each step’s tread surface so that the points of the comb teeth are always below the top of the step’s tread surface. The purpose of the combs is transfer objects from the moving steps to the stationary combplate. It is a very effective device if properly installed and maintained.
    No excuse to ignore the properly safety adjustable service.

    THERE ARE MANY DIFFERENT CAUSES WITHIN THESE TWO BROAD CATEGORIES. ALTHOUGH THE VAST MAJORITY OF ESCALATOR ACCIDENTS ARE RELATED TO TRIPS AND FALLS, THE MOST SERIOUS ESCALATOR ACCIDENTS ARE RELATED TO ENTRAPMENT OF BODY PARTS. ENTRAPMENTS HAVE RESULTED IN AMPUTATIONS, DISFIGUREMENTS, SCALPINGS, AND DEATHS.

    IT HAS BEEN PROVED THAT THE CAUSE OF THE MOVING ESCALATOR STEP – COMBPLATE ENTRAPMENT WHICH CAUGHT ME INCLUDING MY BACK UPPER BODY PARTS INCLUDING MY RIGHT ARM. THE COMB TEETH WERE ABOVE THE STEP’S TREAD SURFACE. SO TO MY TOTE BAG WHICH WAS SHEARED WITH MANY HOLES, TOO.

    Note: I have experienced with a good conditioned tote bag which contained several magazines and books together in the bag. I had examined whether the combplate teeth might be above step’s tread surface or below. I placed the tote bag on the moving escalator steps to see if the step-combplate would entrap the tote bag or not as a test purpose. Good news. The test passed successfully. That was my test on a chosen escalator which turned out to be safe.

    Attention for Code Enforcement Officer or escalator inspector during inspection:
    Please re-adjust each combplate carefully. Why don’t you try to test each escalator to see if it is safe or not safe regularly? It is depending upon its comb teeth which may be below step’s tread surface or slight above step’s tread surface. When the comb teeth appear to be slight above step’s tread surface, that is un safe condition and needs to be readjusted.

    BEWARE! The comb teeth (same as comb fingers) above step’s tread surface are NOT recommended and are NOT safe. Unsafe and defective condition, notify:
    1) OSHA Enforcement Unit or
    2) Call Police Department

    This may help to save thousands of our people from injury as well as suffocation as well as death.

  9. Harry C. Gibbens Says:

    In the regard of the October 30, 2008 escalator accident, look at the recent September 25, 2010 article of The FRAMING BUSINESS. The escalator brought be back to the top landing. The wrong word of “be” should be “me”. At the the top landing, below my wrist line which was incorrect. The wrong word of wristline should be “wraistline”

    Besides those wrong words which were recorrected as above, I wanted to encourage you to read one of the best elevator / escalator books. Here is:

    Recommendation:
    Elevator and Escalator Accident Reconstruction and Litgation
    Second Edition
    Authors of James Filippone
    Joel D. Feldman
    Ronald D. Schloss
    Davis A. Cooper

    Publisher: Lawyers & Judges
    Publising Company, Inc.
    P.O. Box 30040
    Tucson, AZ 85751-0040

    Phone: 800-209-7109
    Fax: 800-330-8795
    E-mail: sales@lawyersandjudges.com

  10. Talonvaki Says:

    It’s not just humans. My cat just got his back foot stuck in an escalator! He likes to walk up stairs and escalators, and I let him as we were returning from an errand. At the top of the escalator, his foot got caught. I reacted extremely quickly and pulled him out, and all he had was a deep cut on his pad, but…yeah. He totally could have been sucked in. And people walk dogs up and down escalators all the time, too. Now, I always thought the whole “getting caught in the escalator” thing was an urban legend, or happened to people who were drunk or high or playing around in some way, but here, we were just walking! Up the escalator, like we do a hundred times a month.

    This happened in Boston at Broadway station. I couldn’t help but notice the part of this article about the person from the Korean restaurant who died on an escalator in Boston…I know that restaurant, and that station without even looking at the source report: it’s Porter Square in Cambridge. It’s one of the longest escalators I’ve ever seen, and I have seen people sitting on A LOT (I lived near that station for many years). I didn’t know that someone had actually died on it – and I was living there when it happened!

    Scary stuff. I don’t think I’ll ever take an escalator for granted ever again.

  11. Aby-a-Day – Day 297 of 365 « Says:

    [...] As I said yesterday, I’ve heard stories of people getting things caught on the escalator, and sometimes being seriously injured, but somehow I never quite understood the severity of these accidents. I’d always kind of thought they were an urban legend, the kind of dire threat that parents tell children to make them behave in public. After having done a little internet research, I know that isn’t true. People die on escalators! [...]

  12. Bill Says:

    I would imagine that escalators are still much safer than stairs, where people stepping can slip, have heart attacks, ride railings, spill things, etc.

    Three deaths per year on escalators, with many of them being drunks or people who fall when riding the rail is acceptable.

  13. allybaby18 Says:

    Im afraid of escalators and this gives me even more of a reason to be..

  14. Andre M. Smith Says:

    On 17 Sept 1987 the New York Times reported that ” A 35-year-old woman was killed early yesterday at the Brooklyn office building where she worked when an escalator step collapsed and she was pulled into its machinery.” http://www.aintnowaytogo.com/escalat.htm and http://www.google.com/search?sourceid=navclient&aq=hts&oq=&ie=UTF-8&rlz=1T4GGLJ_enUS344US352&q=Emma+Niskala

    Writing that “she was pulled into its machinery” is a genteel way of writing that she was turned into ground chuck within fifteen seconds. A subsequent report mentioned that her coworkers were so upet by the incident that they all were sent home for the day.

    Why are individual stair collapses omitted from any commonly available reports about escalator mishaps leading to fatalies? Has anyone any idea how common such stair collapses are?

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