Mike Hoss / Eyewitness News
NEW ORLEANS -- New Orleans firefighters on New Year's Eve were called out to rescue a crowd of people stuck in a Canal Place elevator. The scene was captured by an eyewitness viewer's cell phone.
After 20 minutes of being trapped inside, firefighters got the doors open, and the New Year's Eve revelers walked out safely.
Four years ago, Gulf Coast resident Garth Keely encountered what he said was a much different incident.
'It's pretty scary, essentially the Tower of Terror in my opinion,' Keely said.
Following a Saints victory in December 2007, Keely and his daughter got in an elevator at the 600 level of the Superdome. Keely said the elevator dropped to the bottom floor, causing the ceiling to collapse.
He said the 13 or 14 stunned, shocked and scared people sat there waiting for help.
'There were people crying. There were people screaming. There were people trying to get on their cell phones, trying to get through to someone.'
Keely said New Orleans firefighters pulled people out, one by one. Thirty to 45 minutes after the ordeal began, Kelly said 'it felt like the air was being sucked out of the elevator'
'It's like the walls started closing in,' Keely said.
New Orleans firefighters coming to the aid of people stuck in elevators is a common occurrence. Eyewitness News looked at a recent two-year period, and the fire department responded to 420 incidents involving elevators. In nearly 330 of the cases, it was to free people from a stalled elevator.
New Orleans Fire Chief Charles Parent said the number one culprit is that the elevators are overloaded.
'We don't mind. Call us out,' he said. 'We'll come out day or night.'
But the question is, is it a good use of firefighters' time?
Parent said they respond to a lot of incidents, but that his department is not usually called. He said hotels or business offices will initially call their respective maintenance companies for help first, but during a Mardi Gras or Super Bowl, the NOFD responds to five or six calls a day.
'If you're calling in an elevator company, they don't have the response time and you can't ask our citizens or our guests to the city to sit in a confined space like that for over an hour, waiting for someone to get them out,' Parent said.
Parent can truly empathize who those people, because a few months ago at the Loew's Hotel for a fire conference, he too got trapped in an elevator.
'We were about a foot below the floor, so we had to climb out, and what we did, actually the union president and I worked together. We helped each person get out and make sure they didn't slip or anything,' Parent said.
Every business in Orleans Parish with an elevator that isn't a state-owned building, like the Superdome, or a federal building must get a yearly certificate by parish inspectors.
The city says there are roughly 3,000 elevators but only two inspectors.
WWL-TV asked Pura Bascos, the interim director of Safety and Permits, if two inspectors can handle that many elevators.
'Probably not,' he said, 'but we're making do. We're making proactive inspections of the property.'
And the city admits that it is not in compliance with getting every elevator inspected every year.
'It appears we cover all of them within a two-year period, so yeah,' he said. 'Not a perfect system, no.'
Bascos says it is looking at other cities for their best practices or putting the onus on the building owner to have their elevators inspected each year.
And remember our New Year's Eve revelers stuck for 20 minutes? The sign outside the elevator clearly says no more than 15 people allowed. We counted, and that's exactly how many people got off the elevator 15. So it's not always overcrowding.
And it's been more than four years for Garth Keely and his daughter's experience. She's now 21 and hasn't been on an elevator since.
'If at all possible I'll take the stairs. If I have to get on an elevator, I'm making sure no one else is around,' Keely said.
Keely and others in the elevator that day are currently involved in civil litigation over the incident.
And, as mentioned, state and federal buildings in Orleans Parish don't receive city inspections. The city says those buildings are still inspected by the respective entities, and often they contract out for maintenance.