A 14-year-old boy was trapped for almost two hours yesterday morning in an elevator shaft in an East Baltimore high-rise before firefighters rescued him with the help of air bags, electric saws and a quart of borrowed dishwashing liquid.
Embarking on a joy ride on an elevator car in the Lafayette Courts public housing complex, Kevin Glenn slipped and fell from the roof of the car as it was descending from the eighth to the seventh floor of the 11-story building, according to housing authority and fire officials. Kevin's right leg and hip were wedged between the elevator shaft wall and the car.
Kevin, who was lowered to the ground in a fire department cherry picker, was in critical but stable condition last night at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Firefighters had to dismantle the 37-year-old elevator to reach the teen-ager.
While air bags were used to push the elevator away from Kevin's leg, it was a quart of Dawn dishwashing liquid borrowed from building resident Mavis Young that provided the last bit of lubrication needed to slip his body out of the narrow space.
Teen-age boys in the city's 18 public high-rises often play the dangerous game of riding on the roofs of the cars. The problem is one that officials have been unable to solve.
"It's a play toy for the kids," said Battalion Chief Francis J. Clemens, who headed the fire department's rescue at 1101 Orleans St. "They run them up and down for fun."
Kevin's idea of fun is repeated several times a week in the city's high-rise projects, officials and residents said.
"Children take it upon themselves to ride that elevator, and they don't realize how serious it is until something like this happens," said Sonja Merchant-Jones, a resident of Lafayette Courts for nearly 12 years and a member of a city task force that has recommended demolishing the high-rises. "They just still take these risks. There's nothing we can do unless we get them out of here."
As a former resident aide to the 816 families who live in Lafayette Courts' six high-rises and several low-rise buildings, Ms. Merchant-Jones said she has tried to convince children and their parents that the elevators are not toys.
So far, she and the housing authority's safety education programs haven't succeeded.
Housing authority spokesman Bill Toohey said elevator joy-riding frequent enough to have attracted the authority's attention. But rescues like yesterday's occur less than once a year, he said.
"Kids will play on the elevators, and there's only so much we can do," he said. "About the only way to prevent it is to shut down the elevators altogether, and you can't do that in an 11-story building. That's why we want families out of here and have these buildings torn down."
For nearly two years, the housing authority has been trying to persuade the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to tear down five of Lafayette Courts' six high-rises and replace them with low-rise units. The plan will cost at least $58 million.
For Kevin, yesterday morning's ride apparently wasn't his first, according to Kizzey Fitzgerald, a 14-year-old friend who also lives in the building.
"Someone's on [the elevator] all the time," she said, adding that Kevin took a ride Saturday night.
Getting to the building roof is relatively simple. Once the doors to the elevator shaft are pried open, jumping on a car will give a person access to a set of controls that the rider can use to guide the car up and down.
Kevin didn't get that far, fire officials said. As he was jumping onto the car, he slipped and was unable to get back on top.