A week has passed since a woman was crushed to death by a hotel elevator in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, and authorities are saying the case may require an extended investigation because of a lack of clues about why the car went up with the doors open.
Ishikawa Prefectural Police on Monday searched the Tokyo head office of Schindler Elevator K.K., a unit of Switzerland’s Schindler Holdings Ltd., after earlier finding no evident damage or malfunction that could point to possible causes.
The government, meanwhile, may be compelled to take steps to avoid a recurrence of similar incidents in the face of investigators’ difficulties in pinning down the cause.
“We will gather all information concerning the car involved in the accident,” a senior Ishikawa police official said in explaining the reason for searching Schindler Elevator’s head office Monday.
The head office came under the prefectural police’s scrutiny just four days after they raided the company’s local unit and maintenance firm over the accident, in which Toshiko Maeda, 63, a part-time employee, was fatally wedged between the floor of the ascending elevator car and a door frame at the Apa Hotel in Kanazawa.
The investigation headquarters set up at the Kanazawa Higashi Police Station has expanded its roster to 60 officers from the initial 40 for questioning hotel employees and combing through records and data about the elevator system and its servicing.
On-site investigations did not produce any evidence or clues able to immediately shed light on the cause of the accident, according to investigators.
A coworker of the deceased cleaner told the police, “The car ascended at a slow speed with the doors open.” No signs of damage to the elevator wires or of abrasions in the braking system have been found.
An official of Nihon Elevator Kogyo, the company in Kanazawa that serviced the elevator, told Kyodo News, “No abnormality appeared in the car involved in the accident through inspections since its installation around 15 years ago.”
A senior police investigator said: “To put it bluntly, the prefectural police are laymen” when it comes to elevator systems. The officer suggested considerable time would be needed to analyze documents and data and they would not be questioning Schindler officials anytime soon.
The Ishikawa police are planning to look closely at a 2006 accident in Tokyo in which a teen was crushed to death by the same type of Schindler elevator, which also went up with the doors open.
But another top official suggested it may not help speed up the probe, noting the Metropolitan Police Department took nearly three years to bring the case to prosecution.
The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism plans to have around 5,500 Schindler-built elevators inspected nationwide. It is planning to work out specifics for the inspections based on investigations into the accident. But an official in charge said, “For the sake of user safety, we need to determine the cause of the problem promptly.”
In September 2009, the ministry revised an ordinance in the Building Standards Law that required the installation of a safeguard to prevent elevators from moving while the doors are open.
But the regulation applied only to newly installed elevators, leaving out around 700,000 that had already been operating at that time. Under the regulation, many of them are technically operating “uncertified,” including the elevator that killed Maeda.
According to the ministry, installing a safeguard requires updating brakes and other devices, which typically takes one to two weeks.
In a condominium complex, consent by residents is required for such operations. Business could also be impacted at hotels and other commercial buildings by installation work and costs are estimated to run several million yen.
This year, the ministry began offering to subsidize one-third of the safeguard installation costs. However, the subsidy is only granted on condition that a proposal is drafted to trim costs and installation time. The subsidy also tops out at around ¥1.3 million.
“We need to take the accident seriously and some measures have to be taken,” a ministry official said.
The Consumer Affairs Agency sent staff from the Consumer Safety Investigation Commission, inaugurated on Oct. 1, to the Kanazawa inn.
The agency is also considering whether the commission should probe the Tokyo Schindler elevator accident in 2006. Masako Ichikawa, 60, who lost her 16-year-old son, Hirosuke, in the accident, filed a request for an investigation by the commission Monday.
After the 2006 accident, Ichikawa collected signatures and lobbied for the establishment of the Consumer Affairs Agency and the Consumer Safety Investigation Commission. The agency was set up in September 2009.
Upon hearing of the Kanazawa case, Ichikawa said it reminded her of her son’s accident.
“It just makes me sad that the government and manufacturer are only repeating the same action,” she said.
An agency official said, “Having our staff sent over to the Kanazawa site should help us evaluate the results of the investigations by the infrastructure ministry into the 2006 accident.”