Police say Joseph Ryan was walking backwards while carrying one end of a mattress. His wife was holding the other end, heading to their apartment on the seventh floor.
The door to the elevator opened. A split second later, the horrified woman watched her husband fall down a pitch-black elevator shaft.
He plummeted two floors from the building's lobby to its basement. Ryan was rushed to St. Barnabas Hospital, but doctors couldn't save his life.
"The question is, who opened up the door?" tenant Darryl Poe said. "Because whoever did should be blamed."
Poe says the freight elevator is shut down every night, and that the only people with access to it are maintenance workers and security guards.
Eyewitness News tried to get answers, but a security guard turned us away. But after a search, Eyewitness News found a long list of complaints about defective and not operating elevators, ranging from February of last year to this year. That includes a complaint on February 6, 2009, that "four elevators in the building were defective" and that "no one uses" one elevator because "they are afraid to."
The most recent was filed on February 4.
There were also three violations handed to the building in 2009, along with a formal complaint in late January, but no violation was issued.
"I took my son to school and he said, 'Mommy, I'm not taking the elevator anymore,'" tenant Olga Ayala said. "So we took the stairs."
"Five years ago, an 18-year-old kid fell down the elevator too," tenant Gloria Rodriguez said. "He died. This has been a problem for a long time."
Tony Sclafani, a spokesman for the New York City Department of Buildings, responded with the following information.
The Department of Buildings has determined that the victim, who works for a private elevator company, used a metal tool to pry open and gain access to the freight elevator. He had used the tool to access the elevator successfully and moving his property in the minutes before the fatal fall. The tool opened the door manually. It is not clear why the superintendent of the building, who generally operates the elevator to assist residents, was not present. Residents should not operate the freight elevators on their own.
Also, the property owner is being issued a violation. The elevator is equipped with a mechanical locking device, but it was damaged. If the device was working properly, the doors would have stayed open, keeping the cab in place. Presumably, the doors closing allowed the car to move if called. All of that is under investigation, but the device was broken, so the owner is being hit with a violation.