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By Lindsay Faber, Luis Perez AND Rocco Parascandola
Deliveryman Ming Kung Chen is alive and well, but police were confronted with a new mystery: How did he go unnoticed since last Friday evening, trapped and screaming in an elevator in the very building they had been searching?
Investigators thought the worst when a search of the Tracey Towers in the Bronx over the weekend failed to find any sign of the Chinese immigrant, who made three Chinese food deliveries there before disappearing.
For three days, police conducted a massive search that included police in helicopters checking rooftops and bloodhounds searching nearby Van Cortlandt Park, Woodlawn Cemetery and the Jerome Park Reservoir.
But just past 5 a.m. yesterday, the alarm sounded in elevator No. 2 in one of the two high-rise buildings in the housing complex and firefighters called to the scene pried open its door and pulled out a trembling, dizzy and dehydrated Chen.He immediately quaffed bottled water handed him by a building worker, then was rushed to Montefiore Medical Center.
Chen was treated with intravenous liquids. He called his wife in China, ate breakfast — Rice Krispies, apple juice and a roll — then emerged to explain his ordeal.
“I screamed,” he said in Mandarin. “I kept screaming loud. Nobody answered me. I was either sleeping or screaming for help.”
Dr. Babaak Toosi said Chen was suffering from “mild to moderate dehydration” when he was brought to the hospital, a condition consistent with being without fluids for more than three days.
Building security personnel, however, told police they did not hear anyone scream for help and that at no point did anyone in elevator No. 2 hit the alarm or call for help on the intercom system of the elevator, one of six in the tower.
Officially, police said they were glad their worst suspicions proved false.
Privately, they said they were left with a host of unanswered questions, most notably this: How can one trapped man go undetected for so long in a 38-story building with hundreds of residents, round-the-clock security and a functioning video monitoring system.
“You would think someone would have realized he was in there,” one police source said.
A police official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said it’s possible Chen was standing or sitting in a corner of the elevator that put him out of the video camera’s range.
The official also said it was not immediately clear if the detectives and police officers who searched high and low for Chen actually checked inside elevator No. 2, though they did check all 12 elevator shafts in the towers, as well as the roof of each elevator.
Shortly before 6 p.m. Monday, an elevator mechanic took elevator No. 2 out of service because the selector tape, which determines which floor the elevator stops on, had broken.
The mechanic later told police that he checked the video monitor feed for that elevator and did not see anyone in it, the official said.
The elevator had last been inspected March 30 following a complaint, but the Buildings Department said it found “no violating condition.”
Chen, who paid smugglers $60,000 to come to America two years ago, leaving behind his wife and child in China, has worked the past two years for Happy Dragon, a Chinese takeout restaurant not far from the towers.
On Friday night, he made three deliveries there. When he got on the elevator on the 35th floor, he encountered a couple he knows, the police official said.
The elevator headed down and stopped on the 32nd floor. The couple, who were supposed to be heading up to the 36th floor, got off and Chen continued down, later telling police that at some point the elevator took a short plunge downward. It stalled between the third and fourth floors.
When firefighters showed up Tuesday morning, workers told firefighters Chen had pushed the alarm and was calling for help on the intercom.
“They told us the guy is drunk,” said Fire Lt. Peter Chadwick. “Little did they know he wasn’t drunk. He was probably feeling the affects of being in the elevator for” 31/2-days.
When Chen, who barely speaks English, was rescued, firefighters had a hard time figuring out how long he had been trapped until he pointed “to his watch and he started to go around the clock,” Chadwick said.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg cautioned against suggesting police should have found Chen sooner, saying it’s too early to “pre-judge.
“I think we should all be thankful that the man was found alive,” Bloomberg said.
Toosi said Chen probably could have survived at least a couple of days more inside the elevator.
“I am very happy people care for me,” Chen said. “I am fine now.”
Bryan Virasami and Liam Plevin contributed to this story.
Copyright © 2005, Newsday, Inc.