By MICHAEL WILSON
A restaurant deliveryman who immigrated from China and speaks virtually no English spent three days unnoticed in a stalled high-rise elevator in the Bronx as an intensive search swirled around him, the police said today. He emerged this morning thirsty but appearing otherwise all right after someone finally heard – or he finally figured how to trigger – the elevator car’s alarm.
But there was no immediate answer to the question that officials, co-workers, reporters and the hundreds of people who live in the apartment complex were asking: So what took so long?
The deliveryman, Ming Kuang Chen, 35, was in stable condition today at Montefiore Medical Center, where he was being treated for dehydration. The police said they were awaiting a Mandarin-speaking translator so they could learn the details of his ordeal.
Mr. Chen was last seen at 8:30 p.m. Friday when, co-workers told the authorities, he left the Happy Dragon restaurant to deliver three dinners at Tracey Towers, two apartment buildings that rise 38 and 41 floors, respectively.
When Mr. Chen did not return to the restaurant, where he has worked since arriving in the United States about two years ago, co-workers began looking for him, but found only his bicycle, chained near the residential complex on West Mosholu Parkway in the Norwood section of the Bronx. After confirming that all three food orders had been delivered, they notified the authorities.
Deliverymen in New York City are often preyed upon by criminals, and there was concern that Mr. Chen had become a victim of foul play.
For three days, the police searched in and around the apartment complex, going door to door to the 871 apartments and taking bloodhounds and cadaver-detecting dogs into nearby Van Cortlandt Park and Woodlawn Cemetery. The waters of the Jerome Park Reservoir were also searched.
The police said Mr. Chen was finally discovered in Tracey Towers this morning, after an elevator alarm was sounded around 5 a.m. He was later able to speak with a building worker through an intercom in the elevator car, a Fire Department spokesman said, though because of Mr. Chen’s limited English, the precise circumstances of his predicament were not immediately understood.
And it remains unclear whether Mr. Chen had ever tried to sound the alarm before today and it malfunctioned, or he had simply not tried until this morning.
One of the firefighters summoned to the building, Lt. Peter Chadwick, said his company had received a call at 4:56 a.m. from the Tracey Towers maintenance department, which reported someone stuck in an elevator. But the building worker could not understand what Mr. Chen was saying over the intercom.
“They said, ‘We think the guy’s drunk. We can’t understand him,'” Mr. Chadwick said. “Little did they know he wasn’t drunk, but probably feeling the effects of being in an elevator” for days, adding, “He was starting to feel dehydrated.”
That no one noticed the elevator was not running was not as surprising as it might at first seem. A community newspaper, The Norwood News, said on its Web site that a long-standing complaint among residents of Tracey Towers is the poor condition of the elevators – five of seven tenants interviewed by the paper said they had been stuck in the elevators at least once.
The car in which Mr. Chen spent the weekend was stuck between the fourth and fifth floors of an express elevator that does not stop between the 2nd and 21st floors of the tower, a Fire Department spokesman, Charlie Markey, said. Firefighters, with the help of an elevator mechanic, were able to bring the car to the ground floor with an override key, the spokesman said.
Mr. Chen was then able to step out on his own, and quickly gulped down a bottle of water someone handed him, the spokesman said. In what his rescuers took be an effort to explain how long he had been trapped, Mr. Chen pointed to his watch and swirled his finger repeatedly around the dial.
Mr. Chen is reported to be from the coastal Fuzhou region of Fujian Province in southeastern China, where his wife and 12-year-old son live. His family told the police that he had entered the United States illegally and paid off a $60,000 fee to the people who smuggled him in, the police said.
He has worked six days a week at Happy Dragon, making about 40 deliveries a day on weekdays and as many as 60 on weekends. His last delivery on Friday was to an off-duty police officer who lives in Tracey Towers, the police said.
In a 2003 article on its Web site, The Norwood News described most of Tracey Towers’ hallways as dark, with few if any light boxes functioning in the long corridors that lead to the elevators, which the residents described as shaky and notoriously unreliable.
“You have to pray every time you get in the elevator not to get caught,” one resident told the newspaper.
Colin Moynihan contributed to this report.
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company