Broken Chapel Elevator Leaves Eight Wheelchair Users Trapped

On June 10, a memorial for Virginia Granato, beloved community activist, and co-founder of the Roosevelt Island Disabled Association (RIDA), was held at the Chapel of the Good Shepherd.

But, when the service was over, eight wheelchair-bound attendees, who had come to honor their friend, found they were unable to leave; the single elevator servicing the chapel had stopped working. RIDA Vice President Nancy Brown said, “The repairman had just left, he had just looked at the elevator,” said Brown. “By the time we called him to come back, he was on his way to another job.”

“What was really frustrating was all that was needed was for the elevator to be reset,” said Lynne Shinozaki. “The only person authorized to do that is the elevator maintenance man who took three hours to get to Roosevelt Island.”

Unable to use the elevator to Good Shepherd Chapel, residents in wheelchairs had to wait hours for a repair person to arrive. Photo by Judith Berdy

From 2:15 to 5:30 p.m., the residents waited for help. “We all just said, ‘Uh oh, guess we will be here for a while.’ We were not worried, we thought they would fix it pretty quickly,” said Brown. “We all knew each other, we were all friends. It wasn’t bad at all.” She says they had help keeping their minds off the situation at hand.“We played games. Judy Berdy started talking about the Island and asked us to stump her. And of course she knows it all. There is no way we could stump her.”

Public Safety (PSD) was contacted, which in turn called the elevator maintenance company. 911 was called twice but, according to memorial attendee Judy Berdy, the NYPD did not consider the situation urgent. “Since no one was stuck in the elevator, we had to wait for the elevator repair person to arrive.”

In the meantime, neighbors brought over food and drinks and kept everyone informed.

“The real heroes were [Cornell Tech’s] Jane Swanson, Judy Berdy, and my husband [Michael Shinozaki], who fed them and kept them calm and entertained,” says Lynne Shinozaki. RIOC Board member Michael Shinozaki chatted with everyone to pass the time and texted PSD Chief Jack McManus to keep him apprised of the situation until he could arrive on the scene.

“Jack McManus tried multiple solutions to get the elevators working,” said Lynne Shinozaki. Not only that, but according to Brown, he came from home. It was his day off.

Two EMS crews did eventually arrive, but refused to move anyone. According to Berdy, the consensus was that there was no safe ramp option available. “There is no easy way to build a ramp at a steep angle because it is too dangerous,” she said. Because many of the motorized wheelchairs weigh between 400 and 650 pounds with the passenger, there is no way to carry the rider and chair safely. Additionally, Brown has life support equipment on her chair, so there was no way to safely move her without her chair.

At 5:00 p.m., the elevator repair person arrived. Within 30 minutes the elevator was operating and everyone was able to leave. But many agree that it’s only a matter of time before another breakdown occurs.

At the June 13 Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation Real Estate Committee meeting, RIOC engineering consultant Mike Russo described the chapel’s elevator as “fragile.” He says RIOC is already in the process of assessing all of the Island’s elevators for future upgrades.

“An RFP [request for proposals] is going out for experts to study every single elevator and to bring every single elevator up to current code,” he said. According to Russo, the Good Shepherd elevator is at the top of the list as a priority, along with the Motorgate elevators.

“We are trying to work with our maintenance company to see if we can get a few more months out of the current elevator with some smaller upgrades. But there is an overhaul that needs to happen to make it reliable.”

When RIOC Board member Margie Smith asked about whether there was any “Plan B” for getting wheelchair-bound people out of the building when this happened in the future, Russo said there is not. The chapel is a landmarked building and there are limitations on what changes can be made to the building’s structure. A ramp is not practical because of the chapel’s layout, according to Russo, and there are restrictions on how a vertical chair lift can be used in an emergency. “There are many buildings in the state – not just this city, but the state – that have only one elevator,” said Russo.

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