MARTA cuts contract with elevator, escalator inspection company

MARTA said Friday it had terminated a contract with its elevator inspection and maintenance company after determining that one of its mechanics knowingly bypassed a safety system on an escalator at the Dunwoody station.

MARTA also shut down 100 of its 149 escalators late Thursday night after officials learned that the same contract employee had worked on or inspected more than 137 of them within the past year, said Beverly Scott, MARTA's general manager and chief executive officer said.

Of their 38 stations, only 9 stations have at least one working escalator. They include Airport, Dome/GWCC/Philips/CNN, Five Points, Georgia State, H.E. Holmes, North Avenue, Peachtree Center, Kensington and Edgewood/Candler Park.

Cara Hodgson, MARTA spokeswoman, told the AJC it may be mid-February before all of the escalators are fixed.

About 279,000 people take MARTA rail on an average weekday, officials said, but commuters seemed to be coping with the extra legwork Friday.

Darlene Hill of Atlanta said the escalators not working is a small inconvenience for her. She was standing outside the elevators on Peachtree Street near the Ritz Carlton.

Darlene Hill, of Atlanta, said the escalators not working is a small inconvenience for her. She was standing outside the elevators on Peachtree Street near the Ritz Carlton in downtown Atlanta.

"It slows you down, you know," Hill said. "But I rather they take the time to fix. I wouldn't want anyone, or myself on one of those things and something go wrong and get hurt."

Philip Hart, of Decatur, said he was glad to see at least one of the escalators working  at Peachtree Center and hopes the problem is fixed before he has to come into work Monday.

"That's a lot of stairs," Hart said. "I know they say its good exercise, but I don't want to walk them."

MARTA told the company -- Elevator Specialists Inc. -- last Friday that it had opened an investigation. ESI then told MARTA officials on Thursday that it would abandon its contract at 5 p.m. today.

MARTA did not shut down the elevators because the mechanic did not work on any of them, MARTA officials said.

"We hope this is isolated," Scott said at a news conference Friday morning. "Unfortunately it was so intentional, so deliberate, so egregious,"

MARTA officials said a technician employed by ESI circumvented safety procedures by "jumping" the safety circuit on an escalator at the Dunwoody station. They said they were unsure why the technician had bypassed the safety procedure.

The safety circuits are designed to stop the escalators during an emergency, such as someone falling, for example.

Officials learned of the safety violation from another contract employee, Scott said.

"It was as close to a whistle-blower situation as you could get," she said.

MARTA discovered the code violation last Friday while researching another issue that happened at the Dunwoody escalator, officials said.

MARTA's lawyers and Schindler Elevator Corp. -- which previously performed maintenance work for MARTA -- contacted the ESI mechanic to say they would be at the Dunwoody station escalator.

MARTA officials said the mechanic then asked another contract worker at the escalator not to open the escalator's safety panel.

"This employee called another one to say, ‘Whatever you do, don't touch the safety panel,'" Scott said.

MARTA's lawyers declined to name the contract worker. Pending the outcome of an independent investigation, MARTA officials said they would prosecute fully.

MARTA signed a temporary contract with Schindler Elevator Corp. on Thursday night. Scott declined to give details of the contract but said it would be "in the six figures" and could be "cusping three-fourths of $1 million."

The money, she said, would come out of MARTA's budget, which already must be cut by $100 million, 25 percent to 30 percent, this year.

The shortfall is four times as big as MARTA was facing last spring before it received a boost of federal stimulus money.

Schindler has taken over inspecting the escalators. Scott said the 100 that have been shut down are deemed "non-critical" to travel through the stations.

MARTA has extra staff at stations with so-called "priority" escalators -- which include Peachtree Center Station, the Georgia Dome station and at the Five Points Station -- to monitor any safety issues, Scott said.

It takes between six and eight hours to complete a safety inspection, Scott said. The priority escalators will be inspected first, she said.

Schinder has  worked for MARTA before. And, in 2008, it paid judgment in a lawsuit after a woman said she was hurt when a 75-foot escalator in the Peachtree Center station suddenly lunged forward after its drive chains and brakes failed.

Transit officials claimed throughout the trial that the accident never happened, and then-MARTA board chairman pushed the blame onto Schinder.

MARTA's decision comes more than a week after a 5-year-old boy fell down an elevator shaft at the Kensington station. While ESI also maintains and repairs MARTA's escalators, Scott and other officials stressed that the incidents were not related.

"What occurred at Kensington was isolated and should not have happened," Scott said.

The boy was on the second floor of the station, leaning against the elevator door, which "somehow became disengaged or opened," DeKalb County fire spokesman Capt. Eric Jackson said when the incident happened.

The boy fell 12 to 15 feet and landed on top of an elevator car.

Jackson said the boy escaped serious injury and was conscious and alert when firefighters pulled him up using a rescue basket.

The boy was treated at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta and released.

The Georgia Department of Labor is the lead agency investigating the elevator incident. MARTA has also hired Vertical Transportation Excellence (VTX) to independently investigate all of its 112 elevators and 149 escalators, Scott said.

A report from VTX is expected within 30 days, Scott said.

"We will be forthcoming with the results of the report," she said.

-- Reporter Mashaun Simon contributed to this report.