Washington Monument elevator failures date back at least a year

WASHINGTON (WJLA) - For at least the second time since it reopened last Monday, the Washington Monument elevator broke down during the rainy weather on Wednesday night.

The National Park Service says that about 50 people walked down the Monument's 896 steps after the elevator took them to the top. According to NPS, the breakdown happened around 6 p.m., and witnesses say it was about 45 minutes before visitors were allowed to use the elevator again.

Now, ABC7 has learned that last week's and tonight's elevator malfunctions at the Washington Monument are not isolated incidents.

New documents obtained by the ABC7 I-Team reveal operational failures of the elevator dating back to at least May of 2013 that, in one case, resulted in a harrowing ride for a person inside.

The elevator was damaged in the 2011 east coast earthquake and was fixed as part of the $15-million repair project that closed the monument for nearly three years.

Just two days after re-opening to the public last week, the elevator went off-line with a group of visitors at the top of the 555-foot structure.

"Oh my God, I didn't know if I was going to make it or not," said Jane Bouyoukas, who is in her 80s, after walking down the nearly 900 steps to the ground.

A source familiar with what was described as "ongoing issues with the elevator" says it malfunctioned at least three times the weekend before the Washington Monument re-opened to the public.

On the morning of Saturday, May 10, D.C. firefighters were dispatched to the Monument around 8:30 for an elevator issue. A source tells ABC7 Reporter Kris Van Cleave the elevator failed with National Park Service employees inside. Firefighters were on scene for about a half an hour.

Later that day the elevator stopped working for about 20 minutes during a media preview event.

Another failure occurred on Sunday, May 11 with no one inside. The National Park Service was hosting a VIP preview event at the monument that day.

United States Park Police hazardous condition reports indicate problems with the elevator date back to at least May of 2013, when D.C. Fire had to free a Park Police officer stuck in the elevator after it stopped at the 140-foot level.

According to the report, around 12:20 p.m. that day the officer radioed for help.

"The elevator began shaking at the 490-foot level and continued to descend abruptly shaking and jerking until it stopped at the 140-foot level," the report with the officer’s account of the experience described. "The elevator was swaying back and forth as it descended."

The report indicates the elevator may have malfunctioned earlier that same day "at approximately the 10-foot level…but had returned to service."

An electrical short caused by dust from the stone work was cited as a possible cause of that incident.

Around noon on January 29, 2014 another Park Police officer was inside the elevator when it stopped working 420 feet up. According to the Hazardous Condition report, D.C. firefighters were able to open the elevator doors and free the officer, who was not injured.

Another elevator failure was reported in May of 2013, but no further information was provided.

There are access points to the elevator shaft at every landing of the stairs between the ground and top. According to a National Park Service source, in most circumstances, firefighters are able to reach a stuck elevator by opening the doors at the nearest landing and the interior elevator doors, allowing the person to climb out.

"Especially with children, I wouldn't want to get stuck in there and watch them panic," said tourist Angel Floyd from Summerset County, Pennsylvania.

Her family's ride on the Washington Monument elevator was trouble-free.

"I'm glad it didn't happen to us," she added.

Shelby McCarter, visiting from Tulsa, Oklahoma, described the view from the top as, "It's great, it's really worth it."

But, she admits she did think about what would happen if the elevator stopped working while she was at the top.

"Some of us talked about it. Depending on your fitness level and your age, it could be impossible; you could be stuck," she said.

Just this week on Tuesday, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton of D.C. spoke with the National Park Service's National Mall Superintendent Robert Vogel about the elevator issues. In a statement released Wednesday, Delegate Norton said, "We cannot risk a dysfunctional elevator becoming the Achilles heel of the Washington Monument which, in many ways, is the crown jewel of all tourist attractions in the city."

The statement indicated that Vogel had reassured Norton, telling her that the elevator is operationally safe and the breakdown was an issue with the door.

"Whatever the issue, it needs to be addressed quickly - even if it means a new elevator system," Norton said.

In response to our ABC7 I-team inquiry, Carol Bradley Johnson with the National Park Service wrote the following statement:

The National Park Service has requested that its contractor for elevator service at the Washington Monument consult with specialists to determine what is causing the recent problems it has experienced. Quality Elevator has called in two firms who are familiar with the type of elevator in the Monument, one of which built the elevators controllers.

“We are, of course, apologetic for the inconvenience to our visitors,” said Bob Vogel, superintendent of the National Mall and Memorial Parks, which oversees the Monument. “But I can assure them that we will diagnose the problem and correct it. And I can also assure them that there are no safety concerns about the elevator. It has been certified and is safe for our visitors. Our first priority is safety.” The elevator was certified by the General Services Administration on May 9, 2014.

“It is disappointing that this happened so soon after the reopening, but we will correct any problems the elevator may continue to have, sooner rather than later,” Vogel said. The Monument reopened on May 12.

The problem has not resulted in any visitors being trapped inside the elevator, although on one occasion about 60 visitors were evacuated safely using the stairs. The main issue seems to be that the controller for the elevator does not recognize that the doors are closed, which causes it to stop. The elevator is far more heavily used than most elevators, running 13 hours a day, 7 days a week.

After an earthquake closed the Monument in August 2011, the elevator was inspected for damage. Although some cables and weights that were damaged in the quake were replaced, the elevator was found to be in good shape and not in need of replacement.