Pittsburgh, PA Donnelly Building Elevator Crash was the Result of Overloading


Verdict of Coroner’s Jury in Elevator Disaster in Donnelly Building, May 22


Elevator Constructor Was Present On Night of Mishap With Kit of Tools in Case of Emergency

“Overloading and insufficient capacity of the elevator” is the finding of the coroner’s jury as the cause of the accident on the lift in the Donnelly building, Fifty avenue, on May 22, which resulted in the death of four persons. With all the voluminous testimony that was offered during the course of several continuations of the inquiry, the jury did not find who was responsible for the overloading or who should have seen to it that the elevator was of sufficient capacity for the needs of such a building. No one was censured and no one was charged with criminal negligence.

The inquiry into the awful disaster was brought to a close this morning with the testimony of an elevator constructor, who had repaired the elevator two days before the accident occurred. He further testified that he was there the night of the accident with a kit of tools ready to respond in case of an accident. He said, however, that the elevator was considered perfectly safe. Professor Gillis, who operated the elevator on its fatal trip, was not present this morning, and the case was submitted to the jury without hearing his testimony.

The victims of the accident, whose deaths were being investigated, were Mary B. Curtin, Raymond P. Flohr, Susan Flannigan and Nellie C. Sweeny. Some of the injured are still in the hospital and others who have but lately recovered were present at the inquest, but were not called as witnesses.

W. E. Graham, of 2411 Wylie avenue, an elevator constructor, was the first witness called. He said that he had repaired the elevator in the Donnelly building on the Wednesday before the accident.

“Tell us what was the matter with the machine,” said Coroner McGeary.

“Well, I found some of the bolts loose. I also fixed up the brakes, and, as I knew that there was an entertainment coming off, I took particular care to have the elevator in perfect condition. I went over everything carefully, and when I left it all was in perfect condition.”

"Had there been much trouble with the brakes?”

“No, sir: I never knew of there being anything particularly wrong with the brakes.”

Coroner McGeary then asked the witness about a shifting device. Graham said that he had put them in proper place on April 21 and 22. Even if this had been out of order, he said, it would not have caused the accident, as the elevator had an automatic stop. The elevator was constructed by the Howard Elevator Co., of Buffalo, N. Y., and had been in use but two years.

“What, in your opinion, caused the accident?”

“It would be hard to give an opinion.”

The coroner insisted and the witness said:

“There must have been a fuse burnt out. This would cause the elevator to stop. Being overloaded, the weight on the cage overbalanced the elevator weights and started the cage downward.”

“Who told you the fuse blew out?”

“I do not know who told me.”

“Why did the ropes break?”

“The weights went up so hard against the timbers at the top and snapped the ropes. If the elevator had not gone through the false floor the weights would not have gone high enough for the weights to strike against the timbers at the top of the shaft.”

“In your opinion, about what weight should the elevator carry?”

“About 1,300 pounds. But the elevator ought to stand an excess of five per cent.”

The witness went on to say that he was present the night of the accident and warned the operator not to overload the cage. He said that if the elevator is rated at 1,300 pound, 17 or 18 people would be too many in the cage.

“If the fuse blew out, as I am told it did, this would not have occurred unless the load was a little heavier than it was capable of carrying.”

Graham said that he had not examined the elevator since the accident and was unable to say just what was responsible for the disaster. He was near the shaft when the cage fell and the first sound was like a heavy blast from the bottom of the pit. This was the sound of the cage striking the bottom. He then told his wife that there was an accident and he hurried down to the first floor. After the accident he looked at the ropes to see if they had been broken. They were not.

“Where were you when the car was loaded on its fatal trip?”

“On the fifth floor.”

“When did you warn the operator not to load the cage too heavily?”

“About a half hour before this.”

“Did you ever hear how many the elevator would carry?”

“I did not, only the professor at the school told me he had carried as many as 13 on it.”

“Did you believe the accident was due to carelessness on the part of the operator?”

“No, sir. I believe it was an unavoidable accident. A man like Prof. Gillis, who is qualified to instruct others in mechanics, ought to have sufficient engineering ability to run an elevator.”

“Do you think the accident was due to overloading?”

“I do not know, but I think that, if the fuse was blown out, there must have been a heavy load on the cage.”

“Were the weight ropes the same length as the lifting ropes?”

“Possibly not. The length of the weights is longer than the car. They have the same distance to travel as the car, and if the length of the weight ropes is shorter than those of the car, when the car is at the bottom of the pit the weights will strike the top of the shaft. In this case the elevator came several feet below the place at which it usually stops, and this forced the weights against the timbers at the top.”

“Why did the speed brakes or clamps not work?”

“In my opinion, there was not speed enough in dropping. If there had been an increase of 10 per cent in speed, I think the safety appliances would have worked.”

“If the lifting ropes had broken just above the cage, would the safety appliances have worked?”

“Yes, sir. Immediately. The more speed, the more sensitive are the brakes.”

Frank Lee, the operator of the elevator, who testified at the first inquiry, was then recalled and was asked I Graham had warned him not to overload the elevator. He said he did not mind that Graham had warned him, but Prof. Gillis had.

The witness said that he never considered the elevator unsafe, but had not usually taken more than 10 people on it. Lee said that he was not on the cage on the fatal trip.

“Where were you when the accident happened?”

“I was over across the street.”

“How did you come to be covered with dust at the time?”

“There was dust from the crash.”

“Did you not tell a woman on the fourth or fifth floor that you were in the accident?”

“No, sir.”

Prof. A. F. Meswinger was recalled and he said that he had warned the operator not to carry too many passengers. He thought that 10 or 12 persons would be about the limit. He said that Prof. Gillis often ran the elevator in the absence of the operator. The elevator was always thought to be in good condition. The witness said that Prof. Gillis was a mechanical engineer and ought to be qualified to run an elevator.

Prof. Gillis was not present at the inquest. He had been excused yesterday on account of being sick. Coroner McGeary had notified Prof. Gillis’ attorney to have him here this morning. The case was submitted to the jury without the evidence of Prof. Gillis.

The Pittsburg Press, Pittsburg Pennsylvania Thursday Evening, 9 July 1903