a column on workplace fatalities by talking about four men burned to death installing the elevators at the Sears Tower in 1973—a story that appears in the new book that I'm turning in next week.
I heard from a lot of grateful workers, including someone from IUEC Local 2, speaking for the 1300 of his "brothers and sisters who build, repair and maintain this equipment."
Which reminded me that, intrigued by the certificates that used to be framed in elevators, I had spent a day with an elevator inspector from Local 2.
There is a coda to this story: after it appears, someone asked me why I didn't include anything about the man I wrote about being nearly crushed by a malfunctioning elevator? Because when he said, "People get hurt" I didn't have the presence of mind to ask "Did YOU ever get hurt?" And he didn't volunteer the information, which is understandable.
If you've never seen an elevator silently whoosh down 28 floors and stop a few inches above your nose, it's quite a sight. Actually, most everything in the Blue Cross/Blue Shield building at 300 E. Randolph is quite a sight. Only five years old, cool gray, with an immense, open lobby dominated by a hovering circle of stainless steel, and glass elevators that rise like bubbles heavenward, it reminded me of those international corporate headquarters Bruce Willis is always stumbling into shortly before a squad of heavily armed Euro-terrorists seal the doors.
I was there to fulfill a long-held dream. You see, some functions of the city are obvious. I can't walk a block without noticing a city worker milking parking meters — you know, the guy who rolls around a little, wheeled safe and marries it to the meters in a kind of machine mating, then funnels the quarters out? They're everywhere.
Other functions are mysterious. What do bridge tenders do in the winter? Why do you never see people out on their condo balconies?
And, most tantalizing of all, to me: elevator inspectors. I had never seen an elevator inspector, for all my years of riding elevators. Never. But they must exist. Their handiwork is right there, often at nose level, in a little frame. "This Certifies That," it begins, in the Gothic lettering we still associate with officialdom, "I HAVE THIS DAY" — and here it gives the date —INSPECTED" — and here it lists the address and particular elevator — "AND FIND THIS ELEVATOR AND MACHINERY IN SAFE OPERATING CONDITION."
Inspected how? I have never seen an elevator inspector, but I've imagined every detail. A small man, 5' foot 6, in a derby hat and bow tie. A small, waxed mustache. Neat herringbone suit and vest — green — and thick, owlish glasses. He would carry a complex wooden case that opened like a Chinese box to all sorts of drawers and compartments, filled with an array of tools — brass calipers and dentist's mirrors on thin, extending wands. He would remove his green suit jacket, place it on a hook that folded out of a secret place in every elevator in the city, roll back his sleeves, sand his fingertips, then begin.
Curiosity for the truth overwhelmed me. So I called the Buildings Department, and they hooked me up with Mike Lundin, elevator inspector and proud member of the International Union of Elevator Constructors, Local 2. The only thing Lundin had in common with the inspector of my imagination was a mustache, and, even then, it wasn't waxed, but a regular, Chicago-guy mustache. No bow tie, no suit. He wore black jeans and a golf shirt, his primary tool a flashlight.
"This morning, I had a dumbwaiter," he said, explaining that Chicago's 13 full-time elevator inspectors are responsible not only for certifying the city's thousands of elevators, but also escalators, dumbwaiters, moving sidewalks, platform lifts and carnival rides.
Our task for the moment was elevator No. 16 — an elegant, glassed-in job. We were met by the building's full-time elevator technician, Joe Goodwin, wearing a blue jumpsuit emblazoned with "Mitsubishi." The automaker's electrical division made the building's elevators.
"First, we ride the car," said Lundin, a graduate of Gordon Tech, who has been on the job for nearly five years.
We went up to the 28th floor, then up a flight of stairs to a room filled with gray electrical lockers and big motors driving wheels that spun quietly as the elevators zipped up and down. Each motor is paired with a generator — a "regenerative system" so that the extra oomph the motor expends running the elevator can be caught by the generator and turned into electricity, the power fed back into the building's system.
"We'll look at the hoist cables," said Lundin. "We look for different telltale signs of wear."
Each elevator is held by five 5/8-inch steel cables, any one of which could hold the elevator by itself. The cables are made of steel strands wound around, oddly enough, a rope. There is hemp at the center of all that steel because it is soaked in lubricant that oozes out as the cables run back and forth, helping to reduce friction that leads to wear.
Lundin took out a round brass gauge to see how thick the cables were. "It's shut down right now, Joe?" he asked a little hesitantly before sticking his hands close to the cables.
"Elevators are extremely dangerous," he said, checking to make sure the cables had not stretched out too far, a sign of wear. "There are a lot of moving parts. People get hurt. Our union preaches safety."
He checked the brake system, the doors on each floor, the area on top of the car, the safety switches, the 15,000 pounds of counterweight.
A few myths to dispel: You can't escape through the hatch in the elevator car roof, like in the movies. Most are locked and can only be opened from the outside. Pushing the call button again after it's already lit doesn't bring the elevator faster, nor does pushing the "Close door" button close the doors more quickly.
After about 45 minutes, Lundin was done. The only thing left was the paperwork, the filling out of a new, enigmatic little inspection certificate to frame inside elevator No. 16. And, yes, he does point out the elevators he has inspected to his three children, Rachel, Sean and Annie.
"See, I'm famous," he told his oldest, Rachel who, being 14, answered with the inevitable: "Dad, will you stop it?"
—Originally appeared in the Sun-Times, February 7, 2003