Imagine the pain and horror former Sheriff's Department Sgt. Paul Owens felt as a passenger in an elevator at Philadelphia's Criminal Justice Center that shot up 15 floors at twice its normal speed and then crashed into the concrete footing below. He remains paralyzed from the chest down due to the Aug. 4, 2016, accident.
A year later, the mystery of how an elevator in a building used by hundreds of people every day could fail remains unsolved. The Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, which is responsible for elevator safety in the state, still doesn't know how it happened.
An official of the agency said this week it was still investigating the accident. But a whistleblower lawsuit from a maintenance employee filed recently in federal court may offer some clues to the problem.
Former maintenance supervisor Duilio Angelini said in his lawsuit he warned his bosses that maintenance reports on elevators in the Criminal Justice Center were "dummied up" to make it appear they were regularly maintained.
Angelini said that elevators in the courthouse stopped working several times and that mechanics supplied by the contractor were inexperienced and unable to repair the elevators in a timely manner. He further alleges that the city's contract with the contractor included a perverse incentive – the company made more money to perform repairs than basic maintenance.
For his repeated warnings, Angelini says, he was fired.
An attorney for the maintenance contractor, U.S. Facilities, told staff writer Joseph A. Slobodzian it strongly disputed Angelini's claims.
But there is no dispute that the contractor the city hired to maintain the CJC, the Municipal Services Building, and the city's nearby One Parkway Building has strong political connections. All three buildings are heavily used by the public and city workers.
U.S. Facilities' chairman is Willie Johnson, and a member of its board is former City Controller Thomas Leonard. Both are longtime and prodigious campaign contributors and politically influential figures.
The defective CJC elevator that injured Owens, which is used by employees and not the public, remains shut down. The question is whether other elevators should be closed, too.
The state says it isn't inspecting the elevators in other buildings maintained by U.S. Facilities even though hundreds of people use them daily.
"The Uniform Construction Code does not give the department authority to conduct random investigations of elevators not related to accidents," said Lindsay Bracale, Labor and Industry's deputy communications director.
If that is going to be the state's position, then it's up to Mayor Kenney to make sure the public buildings used by the citizens and employees of the city of Philadelphia are safe. No one else should have to experience the pain and suffering of Sgt. Owens.