Chewed Up and Spit Out

A fatal accident at a downtown bus tunnel was blamed on the victim’s alleged drunkenness. But could the escalator have been at fault?

One year ago this month, 42-year-old Maurecio Bellpushed through the doors of the University Street entrance to the Metro tunnel. It was shortly after 5 a.m. April 7, 2013, and, bundled in a heavy, hooded black jacket, he spent several minutes staggering around the mostly empty waiting area off Third Avenue in downtown Seattle. He appeared intoxicated, at one point bumping into a wall.

By 5:15, after a security guard opened an entrance to the bus-bay escalators and then disappeared, Bell wandered over to the trundling stairway. Hands in his pockets, he stepped unsteadily aboard. Down the escalator he went, a short, slow descent he would not survive.

Leaning against the side rail, Bell lost his balance about halfway down and fell back on the escalator steps. He sat up, but as he approached the bottom landing, the steps began folding beneath him, and he fell back again. He ended up sprawled feet-first over the landing, atop the escalator comb plate into which the stairway folds and disappears.

The hood of his jacket became entangled in the meshing steps, and his coat and shirt began to bind, tightening the clothing around his neck. Pinned down, he struggled, gasping for air.

Two passersby in the otherwise deserted station rode up the adjoining escalator a few feet away—one at 5:22, the other at 5:26. Neither stopped to help. A blurry security video does not definitively reveal whether they saw him. But Bell was in their field of vision, his feet sticking out from the landing.

At 5:33, a third passerby arrived, commuter Andre Roby. He normally didn’t come to the station, but had missed his bus elsewhere that morning. He descended toward Bell on the same escalator, and when he saw him lying there, began to take the steps two at a time.

He moved quickly, hopping over Bell, immediately trying to help. The videotape shows Roby pulling at Bell’s arms and clothing, trying to free him from the entanglement. He calls 911 on his cell, and at 5:36 a.m. finds and hits the escalator’s emergency stop button on a railing. He then attempts to resuscitate Bell with chest compressions.

By then, Bell’s struggle to breathe had gone on for more than 15 minutes, and he was no longer moving. A quick-arriving fire department medic crew was unable to revive him. He was pronounced dead at the scene at 6:05.

Officially, Maurecio Bell’s death by escalator—a rarity, although escalator injuries are not uncommon—was an accident, due in part to his apparent intoxication. That is the conclusion of Metro, the county, the state, and the medical examiner.

His mother doesn’t understand that. “How do you die riding a stairway?” asks Ruby Denton.

For one thing, you might be riding on one with a missing tooth in the comb plate at the bottom of the revolving escalator, as was the case where Bell died, Seattle Weekly has learned. That may have left a gap at the landing where the stairway cleats mesh with the comb-plate teeth and disappear. That could have made it easier for Bell’s clothing to snag and strangulate him.

For another, you might be riding on an old escalator, such as the one that took Bell to his death, which was installed in the transit tunnel when it was built in 1987. Those older mechanisms do not have what is called a “comb-impact device,” a safety switch that automatically trips and stops the escalator when clothing or other material becomes entangled in the folding stairs, SW has learned. Newer escalators come with the switch mechanism, while older models lack them and are not required to be retrofitted.

King County Department of Transportation spokesperson Rochelle Ogershok says Metro’s tunnel escalators are in compliance with all applicable codes, and, while she confirms the escalators lack the comb switches, she notes that such features did not exist at the time the escalators were installed.

Nor can the mechanisms simply be installed now, she says. Current space configuration “does not support replacing the existing units with comb-impact equipment,” Ogershok says. “We continue to emphasize how important it is to use care and follow posted safety precautions when using escalators.”

Officials never revealed the lack of such devices when discussing Bell’s death last year. Because of his apparent inebriation and the discovery of an open bottle of brandy in his pocket, his death was mostly attributed to his apparent intoxication, as was dutifully reported in the news at the time.

But Bell’s actions were just one of the factors turned up in a final report issued by the state Department of Labor and Industries. A July L&I press release, urging the public to “take special care” when riding escalators, emphasized that a state investigation “found no mechanical problems with the escalator that could have contributed to the incident.”

The press release also noted that “the incident itself caused major damage to the machinery, making it impossible for investigators to know for sure” what caused the “malfunction.”

According to the report, compiled by L&I investigator Dan Bartholomew, there were three contributing circumstances to Bell’s death: He was not hanging onto the hand rail; the accident happened when few people were around; and two people passed by without giving aid or pushing the emergency stop switch.

However, according to Bartholomew’s complete file, including his handwritten notes provided by L&I to SW last month, he also had questions about the missing comb tooth and the lack of the automatic stop switch.

Bartholomew found that service records by KONE, an international escalator and moving-walkways company that operates and maintains the tunnel escalators for King County, were incomplete and incorrect: Inspections lacked documentation, contained wrong figures, and revealed that some testing was done improperly.

A KONE serviceman, in an interview with Bartholomew, recalled doing maintenance and repair work on the University station escalator about three weeks earlier. But he said he was called away and did not record the visit. He also said he had replaced broken comb teeth once or twice recently. But he didn’t record that in his log either.

Thus, Bartholomew concluded that the comb tooth missing on the day of Bell’s death “may or may not have been broken during the accident.” It could have been damaged by Bell’s snagged hood, which was found in a pit beneath the comb plate, or it might have been an existing hazard when Bell fell at the landing, having broken off earlier. The records were inconclusive.

The lack of a comb-impact device, which might have stopped the escalator when Bell’s clothing got caught in the stairways, didn’t merit a mention in Bartholomew’s official list of contributing circumstances. But his handwritten notes show this entry: “No comb-impact devices.”

Jack Day, L&I’s chief inspector in the elevator/escalator division, says that because the state does not require those devices on older escalators, it was not included in the findings. “Dan couldn’t justify it as a cause one way or another,” Day said in an interview. “That’s why it’s not in the report.”

But requiring such switches on older escalators is something the legislature might consider, Day said. The devices are designed to at least limit the effects of snagging, allowing a victim to break free of the escalator’s grip.

They’re not foolproof, however, Day notes, pointing to the 2012 death of an 88-year-old New York woman who died on an escalator after her clothing became entangled in the folding steps. “And New York City has very strict laws regarding escalator safety,” Day said.

Accurate escalator-injury statistics are hard to come by, but deaths appear rare. An Internet search turned up a scattering of such incidents, including a Canadian woman who was strangled to death in January when her neck scarf got caught in a Montreal Metro escalator.

An elderly Boston woman died in 2009 when her clothing became entangled and she fell off an escalator at a transit station. And four years earlier in Boston, a man died after his sweatshirt became entangled in the stairs, choking him.

It is unclear whether any of those escalators were equipped with comb-impact devices. Nor are there statistics to show how many serious injuries or deaths were prevented by the devices.

Almost 16,000 escalator riders are injured annually in the U.S., according to Pediatrics magazine, though few are hurt seriously. That works out to about 221 annual injuries per 1,000 escalators.

Following SW ’s inquiries into Bell’s death, L&I last week issued a press release urging escalator riders to use caution. In the year since the tragedy, more than 60 people have been injured on state escalators, L&I said, noting that at least 70 percent of those injuries could have been avoided by using the hand rail. Typically, an incident “happens very fast,” said Day.

County spokesperson Ogershok says Metro undertook a review of the tunnel escalator units with its contractor after the death. “All units were fully inspected and are in compliance with L&I annual inspection criteria,” she said last week. “The escalators are regularly serviced and escalator maintenance personnel are in the tunnel daily servicing the equipment.” Metro, she adds, established “a more rigorous schedule of weekly meetings and review of maintenance issues and concerns with the escalator-service provider to ensure timely inspection and L&I reporting.”

The county is likely to face legal action over the death of Bell, who was married but separated. His widow, Vonteecesa Evans, on behalf of herself and their two children, recently obtained a court order to officially become the administrator of Bell’s estate, what there is of it. Bell, who had a long criminal record as a drug dealer, had been selling crack since he was a juvenile. To cops, he was a well-known street dealer who was last arrested just three months before his death in one of Belltown’s latest “buy bust” police operations.

In her court petition, Evans says Bell’s “only known assets consist of a small amount of cash held in a joint bank account” with her. Normally, there’d be no need to oversee such a small estate. But, her filing notes, “the circumstances of his death have led his spouse and her legal advisors to believe that a wrongful-death action is appropriate.”

Evans’ Seattle attorney, Cleodis Floyd, last week said “We haven’t filed yet, but we believe we will. We’re requesting records and consulting with experts. This is really unfortunate and we need to help this family out.”

Floyd did not want to discuss his case, and none of the government investigations contain any information on how drunk Bell may or may not have been at the time of his death; the medical examiner also would not release any blood-alcohol readings.

Bell’s mother, Ruby Denton, says her son had recently split with his wife and was living with her in Renton. She concedes he was likely drinking. “He had been at his sister’s and had been at the bar, too, that night,” she said in an interview.

She allows that his criminal past won’t earn him any sympathy. But that shouldn’t have a bearing on how he died, she thinks. “He was a good man inside,” Denton said. “He loved his kids dearly. He was heartbroken by the breakup of his marriage.”

And, she adds, on the day he died, he was following the law. He may have been drinking, but he wasn’t driving.

“I am still trying to deal with that,” said Denton. “He was just trying to catch a bus.”

randerson@seattleweekly.com

 
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