Fort Worth

North Texas Hospital Hit by ‘So Many Elevators Down' in Year Before a Nurse Was Crushed, Critically Injured

We all do it, usually without giving it much thought, as we step into an elevator, press the button, then expect to safely go up or down to our next destination of the day.

What could possibly go wrong, right?

For Carren Stratford, a popular nurse at JPS Hospital in Fort Worth, it went horribly wrong on Jan. 20 when she was crushed by the relentless moving parts of steel, cable and gears of a broken elevator – Elevator 29.

"She suffered severe hypoxic brain damage. She's had seizures. She's had terrible internal injuries," said attorney Frank Branson, who has been hired by Stratford's family.

Elevator 29 at JPS Hospital in Fort Worth.

Internal emails between JPS and the company hired to maintain its elevators, thyssenkrupp, show that Elevator 29 was just one of many with lingering problems, long before the nurse was hurt.

The emails indicate that for at least a year leading up to the accident JPS had repeatedly complained to the contractor about numerous broken elevators, the two sides sometimes blaming the other as the breakdowns piled up.

An industry expert said such complaints are becoming more common, not just at JPS but throughout the country, as the mechanical bones of elevators age, sometimes replaced by new, high-tech models that are complicated to work on.

And in a rapidly growing population, the need for vertical transportation has never been greater in this country, with one estimate saying there are 18 billion elevator rides a year – too many, an industry expert told NBC 5 Investigates, for elevator mechanics to keep up with.

At JPS, a year before the nurse was injured, a hospital operations manager wrote in an email: "My frustration is that I have so many elevators down, with no end in sight."

She added that "...when one fails, it takes forever to get it fixed," with some having "been down for weeks" – including Elevator 29.

In turn, thyssenkrupp, also known as TKE, told the hospital it needed to upgrade, or "modernize," some of its elevators because they were "worn out."

"We want to fix these elevators correctly, not just put a bandaid[cq] on them," the TKE email said.

Bill Whitman, JPS' chief operator officer, refuted the contractor's emails, telling NBC 5 Investigates, "We didn't BAND-AID fix these elevators. If anybody BAND-AIDed them, it was thyssenkrupp."

Whitman also said that TKE, while recommending upgrades, never indicated any of the hospital's elevators were potentially dangerous.

"They never gave me any kind of proposal and said, 'These elevators are at risk. Your patients, your staff, your visitors are at risk. You must modernize these elevators,'" he said.

Still, Whitman told NBC 5 Investigates he regrets that the hospital had not upgraded Elevator 29, which was on a list of recommended for upgrades, according to emails.

"Oh, absolutely ... I had no crystal ball. I wish I could go back to Jan. 19, 2019 (the day before Stratford was injured) ... ,” he said.

Asked if such an upgrade may have prevented Elevator 29 from malfunctioning, Whitman said: "It might have. It might have."

Whitman said he also wishes he had cut ties with TKE a year earlier.

Internal emails show the elevator troubles at JPS continued through 2018, and into early this year, even after the nurse had been hurt.

One email detailed how an elderly person sustained a head injury last year after tripping when exiting a parking garage elevator that had stopped "approximately 3 feet below the floor."

Despite the elevator problems, JPS kept its contract with thyssenkrupp until last March, weeks after nurse Stratford’s accident.

In response to a state report that blamed brake failure and poor maintenance on a serious elevator accident at JPS Hospital, the company responsible for that maintenance said they were working to ensure “this never happens again.”

Thyssenkrupp told NBC 5 Investigates they appreciated the work done by the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulations and remained "deeply committed to the safety of the riding public, as well as the recovery of Nurse Carren Stratford."

Stratford was critically injured on Jan. 20 when an elevator she was attempting to board did not stop properly on her floor, trapping her body and crushing her.

A spokeswoman for the TDLR said that while a cause for the mechanical breakdown has been determined, the agency is still working to determine whether it will take enforcement action against anyone responsible for the upkeep of the elevator.

"From the beginning, we have been focused on determining the cause of this accident and ensuring this never happens again," thyssenkrupp said in a statement

It added that it was conducting its own internal investigation and, "given the sensitivity of the matter, we will not be commenting further, moving forward."

Robert Earley, the chief executive officer of JPS, said the TDLR's findings "clearly concludes a lack of routine maintenance and equipment checks by the company contracted to provide those services caused the elevator brakes to fail."

In the past, thyssenkrupp accused JPS of letting untrained staff personnel to work on the hospital's elevators, which "can put the riding public at risk."

JPS denied that claim.

Stratford remained at a rehabilitation center with long-term brain damage, according to a lawyer hired by her family.

JPS ended its contract with thyssenkrupp weeks after the nurse was injured, and has since hired another maintenance contractor.

Sheila Swett, a veteran elevator engineer and a consultant on elevator safety and maintenance, said that sort of back and forth between building owners and elevator companies is not uncommon in the industry.

"It's very sad. And you see it more often than you'd like to admit," Swett said.

Another issue, she said, is that as elevators become more high-tech, maintenance companies sometimes struggle to keep up with complex repair calls.

The Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation (TDLR) issues this safety alert for routine elevator maintenance, particularly for elevators with drum brakes, after an investigation into an accident at JPS Hospital in Fort Worth.

"They are just overloaded, 100% overloaded," Swett said.

The accident that severely injured nurse Stratford earlier this year brought back tragic memories for Dallas surgeon Hisashi Nikaidoh and his wife Lynn, who lost their son to a similar elevator accident in 2003.

"We assume the elevators are safe," said Hisashi Nikaidoh.

At least that's what the couple thought until their son, Toshi, who was also a doctor, died after being trapped by the doors of a malfunctioning hospital elevator in Houston.

Now they want the industry to do more to ensure the public's safety when using an elevator.

"Only when an accident occurs, we're brought back to reality," Hisashi Nikaidoh said, adding, "This is only a machine. (And) machines can fail."

The accident that severely injured nurse Carren Stratford earlier this year brought back tragic memories for Dallas surgeon Hisashi Nikaidoh and his wife Lynn, who lost their son to a similar elevator accident in 2003. Now they want the industry to do more to ensure the public's safety when using an elevator.

That reality has hit hard at JPS, where Stratford's close co-workers, as well as the rest of the staff, continue to struggle over what has happened to one of their own – especially in a hospital, a house of healing.

"I will take this to my grave," said Whitman. "This has been catastrophic for this organization, for me personally ... for the staff on Tower 10, where Carren worked."

On Wednesday, the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation released a report saying the accident was caused by brake failure due to "worn out brake shoes" which "illustrated a lack of routine maintenance and equipment checks."

The second phase of the state's investigation continues to determine what, if any, enforcement action should be taken related to the accident.

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