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Peralta Community College District's only student-run publication.

The Citizen

Peralta Community College District's only student-run publication.

The Citizen

Peralta Community College District's only student-run publication.

The Citizen

Laney’s Tower of Terror

Tower elevators offline after alleged malfunctions with passengers inside
(Graphic by Li Khan/The Citizen)

After a series of “heart-stopping” incidents coupled with conflicting messaging from Peralta Community College District (PCCD) officials, Laney College President Rudy Besikof announced Dec. 4 that the long-troubled elevators in the Tower Building would “remain offline until further notice.” 

In November, three separate reports were made to The Citizen about a Tower elevator malfunctioning with passengers inside – one involving two Citizen reporters. In one case, an elevator allegedly dropped one floor.

According to Interim Vice Chancellor of General Services Atheria Smith, both of the two Tower elevators have had issues for “well over six, seven years.”

Besikof’s Dec. 4 announcement was not sent to the student body. At the time of this article’s publication, students have not been directly notified about the offline Tower elevators from district or college administrators. Much of the Tower Building consists of offices for faculty and administrators.

Records obtained by The Citizen reveal more about the Laney elevators than what has been communicated to the PCCD community on official channels. 

Elevator malfunctions

The two elevators in the Laney Tower building were both taken offline in December, but the elevator on the right (“second” elevator in this article) was not marked out of service when Citizen reporters investigated in November. (Photo: Li Khan/The Citizen, taken Dec. 13)

On Nov. 17, The Citizen photographed and tested the elevators in the Laney Tower. The first Tower elevator, on the left, was marked as out of order, but a Citizen reporter was able to use the second elevator, on the right, multiple times without issue. 

On Nov. 22, Danitza Lopez, an Instructor in Laney’s English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) Department, entered the second elevator from the fourth floor of the Tower. According to Lopez, after she pressed the button to the lobby, the elevator suddenly dropped down to the third floor.

“It honestly felt like my heart stopped for a second,” Lopez told The Citizen.

The elevator then went back up to the fourth floor instead, where she exited.

“I was completely shaking,” Lopez said. “My body was shaking, just trembling because of the experience.”

It honestly felt like my heart stopped for a second.

— Danitza Lopez, Laney ESOL Instructor

One week later on Nov. 29, Laney ESOL Department Chair Steven Zetlan was in the second Tower elevator with President Besikof, Laney College Interim Vice President of Administrative Services Dettie Del Rosario, and an unidentified student in a motorized wheelchair, when it allegedly malfunctioned.

“The door to the elevator closed, and then jerked violently, several times. And then the door opened and we were on the third floor, but several inches above the actual floor. So the elevator and the third floor did not line up,” Zetlan reported.

According to Zetlan, the student in the wheelchair had to back out of the elevator over the three-to-four inch gap. Del Rosario stayed with the student to provide them with assistance, according to Zetlan, but the student did not have a clear way to exit the building from the third floor.

Just a few hours after Zetlan’s experience, Citizen reporters experienced a malfunction firsthand.

While looking for the serial numbers of the two elevators in the Laney Tower, two Citizen reporters entered the second Tower elevator. The first elevator was still marked with an “out-of-service” sign, but the second was unmarked and appeared to be usable.

The second elevator went directly up to the seventh floor without issue. But, after pressing the button to go back down to the lobby, the elevator shook erratically and went up to the eighth floor instead. 

Zetlan told The Citizen that the second elevator was marked as out of service the next day. PCCD Facilities Project Manager BC Hoff alleged at a Dec. 1 Facilities Committee meeting that the out of order signs had been put up by faculty, rather than technicians or inspectors.

These recent incidents are far from the first time the Tower elevators have malfunctioned while someone was inside. In May of this year, according to public records obtained by The Citizen, Besikof was allegedly “injured in an elevator accident, sustaining a concussion along with neck and back injuries.” 

District officials did not inform the widespread Laney community about any of the alleged incidents on official channels, although Zetlan brought up Besikof’s alleged accident during the Dec. 1 Facilities Committee meeting. 

Besikof declined to comment on the incident.

“All elevators are operational”

Just weeks before the November incidents, Smith stated that both Tower elevators, among others at Laney, were “functional.”

During a Nov. 14 meeting of the PCCD Board of Trustees, Trustee Louis Quindlen asked Smith about the status of several elevators at Laney, following a presentation Smith gave to the board on several facilities and maintenance projects at the district.

Smith responded, “All elevators are operational. All of them.”

Louis Quindlen [LQ]: So I have questions about the elevators at Laney. Uh, I’ve read an email that went out that three of them are basically non-operational. Uh, the handicap elevators in G, and the Forum, and uh, I think the one in the-

Atheria Smith [AS]: Student Center.

LQ: Pardon?

AS: Student Center.

LQ: Student Center. Uh, okay. And then, uh, what’s the status of the Tower elevators?

AS: Okay. So those all op– all elevators are operational. All of them. They were tagged out because when the inspectors come, they were given, um, they were given a fee that we have to, uh, pay for the state. There was a breakdown because we have individuals who have come and gone out of our department. So that’s why there was an issue and they were tagged out. All elevators are operational.

LQ: So have they been untagged?

AS: We’ve paid our fees, and they are in the process of untagging those immediately, yes.

LQ: So have the elevators, elevators in the Tower, have they been repaired–

AS: Modernized? One has been modernized. The other one is functional. As soon as they come and do the final assessment for that, then we will do the next one. We cannot have them both down at the same time.

The exchange followed a Nov. 7 email sent by Del Rosario, which informed students that the exterior elevators on Laney campus outside Buildings G, E, and the Forum were offline and undergoing service. 

The Citizen reached out to Smith on Dec. 20 for further comment, but she did not respond in time for publication.

May inspections reveal issues with several elevators; elevators subsequently operated without permits

A student walks up the steps near the Laney Tower building. The two elevators in the Tower building were red-tagged on Oct. 31, according to OSHA records.

The Citizen requested records related to Laney elevators from the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA). OSHA released documents for all elevators at Laney with the exception of the Building G elevator.

The records, which were released to The Citizen on Nov. 28, show that inspections of each Laney elevator on May 16 and 17 found several violations of elevator safety standards. Preliminary orders, listing “conditions in need of correction” for each non-compliant elevator, were issued May 26. These preliminary orders stated that permits for the elevators would not be issued until OSHA received notification that the listed items were corrected and all fees were paid.

These elevators included the Building E and Student Center elevators in addition to both Tower elevators

The telephone in the Building E elevator was found to not work properly – “CANNOT UNDERSTAND, BREAKS UP,” the order states. 

A May 16 inspection of the Student Center elevator found that “water is coming through the wall from a bathroom a floor above the machine room.” 

During the May 17 inspection, OSHA found that the telephone in the second Tower elevator did not “operate as intended” and the hoistway doors did not work properly at certain floors. OSHA also requested that the elevator be tested under earthquake or other emergency conditions, and that the emergency light and bell be checked. 

On Oct. 31, OSHA served orders prohibiting use of the elevators. The orders stated that the elevators were “being operated without a valid permit” and repeated the outstanding requirements ordered in May. Red tags were attached to these elevators to show that use was prohibited. The order states that the tags should not be removed without authorization from OSHA. Some elevators were also “yellow tagged” for nonpayment of fees from the May inspections. 

OSHA issued another preliminary order for the first Tower elevator following an Oct. 31 inspection, requiring that “cab and hoistway doors shall fully open at all floors,” with a compliance date of Jan. 1, 2024.

On Nov. 16, a service coordinator from Kone, the company contracted to perform elevator maintenance, repairs, and modernizations for PCCD, notified OSHA about which issues had been addressed for many of the elevators, and which were still pending.

A Nov. 16 email from Kone stated that the requirements set by OSHA for the second Tower elevator and the Building E elevator had been resolved, save for the two broken telephones. 

The pit lighting in the Student Center elevator was still underway and the cleanliness of the machine room floor was yet to be cleared, according to Kone’s email.

Kone maintained that one of the two Tower elevators was fully operational as of Dec. 1, according to a comment from Hoff at the Dec. 1 Facilities Committee meeting. 

As of Nov. 28, according to records provided by OSHA, official permits for the Tower, Student Center, and Building E elevators have not been reissued. A temporary permit is posted to the Student Center elevator, dated May 2023. A temporary permit posted to the second Tower elevator is dated July 2021.

Contracts with Kone extended

Kone has a $3.5 million contract with the district for elevator modernization, maintenance, and repair. A two-year extension to Kone’s contract was ratified at the Nov. 14 board meeting; the original contract had a date of completion for the project of Dec. 30, 2022 but the approved amendment extended the completion date to the end of December 2024. 

Kone has an additional contract with the district for “the provision of routine elevator maintenance services.” This contract was extended to September 2024 for an additional amount of nearly $200,000 at the Dec. 12 board meeting and now totals close to $1 million.

Kone did not provide comment.

Smith clarifies DGS plan for Tower elevators

During a presentation on the state of PCCD’s facilities at a Dec. 12 Board of Trustees meeting, Smith provided clarification about the plan to service the Tower elevators, which she stated have had issues for “well over six, seven years.”

“The plan is to do a modernization, which we’ve done on one elevator […] once we get that approved by the state, then we will do the second elevator”

Smith said the modernized elevators would eventually need to be replaced as well, but the process could take “well over a year.”

“I am trying to move in a different direction to expedite getting those elevators done, so the way to do that is to go ahead and have them modernized while we go ahead and replace them,” Smith continued.

Trustee Nicky González Yuen expressed some confusion with the plan of spending “millions” to modernize the elevators only to replace them later. 

Smith explained that fixing the elevators would be a “parallel issue.” The replacement of three critical elevators at Laney – both Tower elevators and the Building E elevator – would require approval from the State Architect and another estimated $1.4 million, Smith said. The modernizations, meanwhile, could be completed under Kone’s existing $3.5 million contract, which would keep the elevators running while the district works on a plan to replace them.

Because of the complex state of the facilities at the four PCCD campuses, Smith’s presentation was limited to a brief update. The Board of Trustees will be presented with a full in-depth facilities assessment when they reconvene in January, according to Interim Chancellor Jannett Jackson.

OSHA Records: part 1 part 2 part 3 part 4

About the Contributor
Leo Premnath-Ray
Leo Premnath-Ray, Investigations Reporter
Leo Premnath-Ray (any pronouns) is a current Peralta student. They finished high school three days before they took their first college class and spent that last weekend taking part in their two favorite activities: re-reading one of their favorite books (in this case, 'In Sensorium' by Tanais) and panic-sewing. As someone who grew up in Berkeley, they are very grateful for the rich community history within the Bay Area. They are interested in exploring the political aspect of that history and how it interacts with the present.
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