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Jacob Helvey in 2010. (Courtesy the Helvey family)
It was the finishing touch on Michael and Brandi Helvey’s Georgia dream house: an elevator to accommodate Michael’s mother, who was in her 80s and living with them downstairs.
The National Wheel-O-Vator Destiny had cost $20,000. But with their first child walking and safety gates in place to block their stairways, the Helveys found the elevator so handy that they raved about it to their neighbors. Then, on Christmas Eve of 2010, Brandi Helvey walked upstairs to do laundry and 3-year-old Jacob, who was left on the main floor, tried to follow — with catastrophic results.
Standing on tiptoe, Jacob managed to open the elevator’s outer door. At that point the horrific chain of events began, a tragedy linked to a design problem common to many so-called swing-door elevators found in small and older buildings and, increasingly, in homes. First, the outer door (known as the “swing door”) closed and latched, trapping the 31-pound youngster against the inner door on the elevator car.
When his mother heard noises from downstairs and hit the elevator button, Jacob was dragged upward. The car stopped within a few feet, but when it went back down, the little boy was pushed feet-first into the shaft and pinned at the chest and neck.
There, he hung for 10 crushing minutes while his mother and neighbors tried frantically to pry him loose with boards and a shovel. By the time...