It is taken for granted by most people that an elevator moves only after its doors are securely closed and not while the doors are open. But events on the evening of June 3 at a 23-story condominium building in Tokyo’s Minato Ward have betrayed this trust.

That evening, Hirosuke Ichikawa, a 16-year-old high school student, straddling his bicycle, was in the process of backing out of an elevator on the 12th floor when the elevator suddenly started going up while both the outside and inner doors were open. He became wedged between the floor of the elevator and the building. Although rescuers freed him about an hour later and rushed him to a hospital, he died shortly afterward. His injuries included a fractured skull.

After the elevator was switched off and resucers freed the student, the elevator made another irregular movement: It went up and stopped only after reaching the upper limit, just above the top floor. The elevator, which can accommodate up to 28 people, came into use in April 1998.

Police started their investigation by raiding Schindler Elevator K.K., the maker of the elevator, in Tokyo’s Koto Ward on June 7. They also raided the Minato Ward public housing corporation, the owner of the condominium building located near JR Hamamatsu-cho Station, and two elevator maintenance companies. Police should be commended for their quick action.

It is hoped that police will be able to pinpoint the mechanical cause of the erratic movement of the elevator and determine the circumstances surrounding the accident, including whether regular checks and maintenance were properly done.

Since elevator use has become central to many people’s everyday life and is assumed to be safe, the results of the investigation will be significant. If, for example, the trust in the general safety of elevators operating in high-rise condominiums is shaken, people living on the upper floors, especially the elderly and physically weak residents, could experience great hardship from using staircases out of worry.

Investigators need to unravel, among other things, questions about whether the computer and software controlling the elevator’s movement were working properly, whether the sensors to detect door status were correctly functioning and whether the brake system was defective. If it is determined that the elevator had a structural problem, the social impact will be serious.

Schindler Elevator K.K. is a Japanese unit of the Switzerland-based Schindler Holding AG Group, a leading global manufacturer of elevators, escalators and moving walks, with over 1,000 branches and some 40,000 employees worldwide. In Japan, the company has only about a 1 percent share of the elevator market. The Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry has ordered all prefectural governments to examine Schindler elevators and submit reports on past troubles and accidents by June 28. It is believed that there are more than 8,800 Schindler elevators throughout the country.

According to Kyodo News, at least 270 instances of trouble with Schindler elevators have been reported in Tokyo and 16 prefectures, including Osaka and Kyoto, since 1999. In Nagoya, an elevator suddenly started going down with the doors open; a man in it jumped out in time and was not injured. In a public condominium building in Osaka, there were 17 “confinement accidents” between January 2003 and May 2006.

In their investigation into the elevator accident at the Minato Ward condominium building, police need to find out whether the public housing corporation and the maintenance companies were properly checking the elevator. Since April 2003, at least 41 instances of trouble and accidents, including noises, vibrations and twisting of wires, have been reported on the elevator in question and an adjacent elevator of the same type. This is no small number — it averages out to more than one accident or instance of trouble each month. Police need to find out the details of past troubles and accidents and the kinds of actions the housing corporation and the maintenance companies took.

The Building Standards Law and other laws require that an elevator be checked at least once a year. Elevator owners must have authorized people examine the elevators and send a report of the results to the prefectural government. There should be stricter requirements concerning the frequency and content of checks. Legal obligations should be imposed on elevator maintenance companies, not just elevator owners.

Police need to carry out a thorough investigation and the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry should compile detailed information on elevator conditions throughout the country to ensure elevator safety, irrespective of their make and type.

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