BY ABIGAIL CURTIS
OF THE NEWS STAFF
ROSPECT — On Oct. 10, about 16 firefighters and rescue workers from the small towns of Prospect and Stockton Springs responded to a 911 call alerting them that Maine’s tallest elevator had malfunctioned — again — at the Penobscot Narrows Bridge and Observatory.
After high winds apparently triggered a seismic alarm to go off and stopped the elevator from moving, responding emergency crews helped about 13 people, including a man with a prosthetic leg and another who was blind, walk down more than 400 feet of stairs to the exit onto the bridge and its Route 1 traffic.
While some rescuers shut down one lane of traffic, others loaded the unfortunate sightseers into an ambulance and a rescue truck — “It’s kind of like a bus taxi,” one firefighter said — and transported them safely back to their cars, parked 3/4 of a mile away.
Technicians from Stanley Elevator came and restarted the high-tech elevator, saying that they figured the problem was solved and that the one-minute elevator trips to take in the panoramic views from what is billed by the Fort Knox website as the tallest public bridge observatory in the world could resume.
But that afternoon, emergency crews once again were paged to the scene because the alarm caused the elevator to stop working. That time, 34 people made the long trip down all those flights of stairs.
“It’s something we have to deal with,” Stockton Springs Fire Chief Harry Patterson said that Sunday afternoon while putting away the rescue vehicles after the second call. “It’s just a normal routine for us now.”
The elevator shutdowns have been a periodic, though little-discussed problem since the new observatory first opened for the season in 2007. Although Maine Department of Transportation officials said the elevator is extremely safe and reliable, the towns that respond to the emergency calls figure it costs them an average of $1,000 in man and machine power every time the alarm is sounded and the elevator is stopped. Some municipal officials say they would like the DOT to provide a little relief for what one town manager called an unwanted, unasked for problem — but so far none has been forthcoming.
“Every time there’s a problem and somebody dials 911, we get the call,” said Joe Hayes, town manager for Stockton Springs, which has a mutual aid agreement with Prospect. “It’s my taxpayers who are paying for that when it happens. I’ve gone up on one of the calls and stood back and witnessed what was going on, and said — ‘You know what, we’re spending a lot of money and tying up our crews on something that’s not even in our town.’”
‘No one’s going to get hurt’
When the $85 million Penobscot Narrows Bridge and Observatory complex opened in late 2006 and 2007, the elevator chosen was the top of the line, according to Rick Dubois, the Maine DOT’s multi-modal maintenance engineer who oversees the observatory.
“I don’t believe there’s a safer elevator in the country,” he said Friday. “We have an extremely sophisticated elevator in the middle of the bridge with multiple safety features. It’s very safe. No one’s going to get hurt.”
The Stockton Springs fire chief agreed, even after responding to the two emergency calls the same day.
“I’d go up in a minute,” Patterson said. “It doesn’t scare me.”
But the extreme sensitivity of the safety equipment and the windy, humid, foggy and sometimes saltwater environment may account for the periodic elevator shutdowns during which sightseers must walk down the enclosed stairs to the bridge. DOT spokesman Mark Latti said there have been four or five shutdown episodes a year since 2007. However, Dubois said his numbers showed four such malfunctions in 2007, four in 2008, eight to a dozen last year and four so far this season, which will end Oct. 31. The 2009 season had higher numbers because it was so rainy and some of the electronic components had a lot of water exposure and a fair amount of corrosion, he said.
“It was far more of an issue than this year,” he said.
Firefighters also expressed concern that if the elevator were to stop somewhere between the ground and the bridge deck, it would be very difficult to get sightseers out.
But Dubois said that Stanley Elevator has reassured him that the company “cannot envision” a situation where they would not be able to get the elevator to the top or the bottom.
“Certainly there are safety mechanisms in there that would allow for us getting people out of the elevator,” he said.
According to Dubois, the emergency stairs stop at the bridge deck where visitors exit because the design couldn’t accommodate another big hole in the deck.
“If that could have been done, my life would have been a lot easier,” he said ruefully. “But the principal purpose of that structure is to be a bridge carrying a lot of traffic through that corridor. If we could retrofit something like that, we’d be all in favor. It’s just not possible.”
Ken Sandhage, the New Hampshire-based area manager for Stanley Elevator, agreed with the Maine DOT officials that the elevator is safe.
“That elevator runs extremely well in a facility that is a very busy place,” he said Monday.
According to Sandhage, his “elevator guys” are generally able to respond to emergency calls within an hour, at least during regular work days. He also said that if the elevator should stop between its two stops at the ground floor and the observatory, technicians could move it safely to the top, the bottom, or one of the emergency floors in between the two stops.
“There’s ways we can move the elevator if there is a major component failure,” he said.
Dubois and Latti both said that the elevator malfunctions and the number of people who must walk down the structure are small compared to the overall number of visitors, which has dropped from more than 70,000 in 2007 to 58,000 last year, which was rainy.
“We do feel that the facility does bring tourists to the area,” Dubois said. “It’s a positive benefit to that portion of the state … That’s not much help to the Prospect Fire Department, but it is for the greater good.”
He said the Maine DOT does not subsidize the local emergency response personnel because there are no extra funds available from observatory fees. The agency collects $2.50 for every rider who goes to the top, and that money is used to pay for all costs associated with the elevator, the tower and the observatory.
“So far, our ridership has been adequate to support that,” Dubois said. “We’re not looking to spend money in ways that we haven’t historically spent money.”
Expensive and unfair
Prospect Fire Chief Tim Terry said that 90 percent of the time, people at the top of the observatory are able to walk down by themselves, but sometimes his volunteers will carry the handicapped down to the bridge in “stair chairs,” or 25-pound wheelchairs.
He and the other municipal officials all say that the first year the observatory was open was the worst with the most emergency calls.
“It was very stressful because it was very steady,” he said. “This year, it’s been relatively trouble-free.”
Terry said he is in the process of approaching the Maine DOT to see if the department can reimburse the town of Prospect for some of the firefighters’ work. Often, emergency calls to the observatory can take his crew as long as two hours to make sure everyone on top gets down safely.
Peter Curley, a selectman from Stockton Springs, said the dollars add up.
“It is expensive,” he said. “You don’t just send one person. You send an ambulance and fire truck. It’s at our expense. It seems unfair that we should have to pay. It’s an expense to any town that has to participate.”
Most officials interviewed said that even though there were two calls on Oct. 10, the situation at the bridge has been improving over time. They said they believed that DOT engineers and elevator technicians have been making adjustments to the sensitive machinery and reducing the number of shutdowns.
“In fairness to them, they seem to have gotten many of the bugs squared away,” Hayes said.
He remembered inviting state officials to a June 2007 selectmen’s meeting to ask them to fix the bridge situation, but did not receive any answers.
“The state never, ever contacted this town about our ability to respond to the bridge,” he said. “We are responding to a problem because they decided to make it a tourist attraction.”
But firefighters and rescue crews also marveled at the calmness of the stranded sightseers, many of whom are elderly, who must walk down to the bridge level.
“We’ve never had any distraught people up there,” said Stockton Springs Firefighter Cory Field. “We’ve never had an irritated patient or whatever you want to call it.”
The man with the prosthetic leg and the blind man were very cooperative Sunday, although they moved a bit more slowly than the others, said Charles Hare, director of ambulance services for Stockton Springs and Prospect.
“It worked out fine,” he said.
Latti said he’d like to focus on the positive.
“We’ve got an elevator that works in a unique environment for six months out of the year,” he said. “Over the course of four years, each year we’ve only had a handful of incidences where the elevator has stopped working. It is very reliable. And it’s an incredible experience to get up there and see the views.”