by MICHAEL WILSON
Ming Kuang Chen, a deliveryman for a Bronx restaurant called Happy Dragon, walked out Friday night at about 8:30 p.m. with a large order of curried shrimp with onion and a small shrimp fried rice, and never came back.
Worried co-workers found his bicycle chained up in front of the 38-story apartment building of Tracey Towers, at 40 West Mosholu Parkway near Jerome Avenue, and feared the worst: At least three deliverymen for Chinese restaurants have been killed in New York City in the last five years, for money or for food.
For three days, the police searched in and around the buildings for Mr. Chen, going door to door to the 871 apartments, sending bloodhounds and cadaver-detecting dogs into nearby Van Cortlandt Park and Woodlawn Cemetery, dropping with scuba gear into the cold waters of the Jerome Park Reservoir.
And all that time, it seems he was right in the middle of them – trapped in an express elevator, where he spent more than three days in a 4-foot by 6-and-a-half-foot cab without food or water before being rescued shortly after dawn yesterday. He had made his last delivery before becoming trapped.
“I kept yelling,” a weary Mr. Chen said through an interpreter after his rescue, briefly describing his roughly 81 hours of captivity.
In the vertical metropolis of New York City, the elevator is like a road, and a busy deliveryman can spend more time riding up and down in steel boxes than many people spend behind the wheel. But when Mr. Chen disappeared, it was a place where no one thought to look.
He was stuck between the third and fourth floors of the 38-story building, in a portion of a shaft for the express car, which skips all floors between the second and the 21st, the police said. There are three express elevators, and no doors for those cars on any floor between the second and 21st.
The case had its mysterious elements. Did the security camera in the elevator work all weekend? A building official said yes. When did it become clear that an elevator was not working? Monday, the official said, the day before Mr. Chen’s rescue. The fact Mr. Chen speaks little English likely compounded his troubles. Apparently trying to tell his rescuers how long he had been trapped, he pointed to his wrist and swirled his finger repeatedly around the dial, firefighters said.
After Mr. Chen was treated for dehydration yesterday, the police drove him to the 52nd Precinct for further questioning. He told the police that he got on the elevator at the 35th floor after his last delivery to an off-duty police officer who later confirmed that he had received his food.
Mr. Chen said he then greeted a couple that he knew. But they were going up, to the 36th floor, and when the car for some reason began to go down, they got out on the 32nd floor, Mr. Chen told the police. He continued down until the car got stuck.
In an interview later yesterday, Mr. Chen, 35, said that his calls on the intercom were answered five or six times over the weekend, but that the language barrier was too great. “Sometimes they would respond, sometimes they wouldn’t,” he said through an interpreter. In one such encounter, he said, “She said something, and I couldn’t understand, and she couldn’t understand me.”
The company that manages the building, however, said the first record that someone had sounded the alarm or used the intercom to call for help was yesterday. “The only indication we had that he was in there was at 4:10 a.m. this morning when he sounded the alarm,” said Don Miller, a spokesman for the company, R. Y. Management.
Without disputing Mr. Chen’s version of events, detectives were examining all aspects of it, “to make certain that Mr. Chen was not under any duress during the period of his absence,” a police official said, declining to elaborate.
The elevator stopped when the selector tape, which tracks the car’s position, broke, said Jennifer Givner, a spokeswoman for the city Department of Buildings. Building workers do not know that an elevator is stuck, Mr. Miller said, unless someone calls for help via the intercom or the emergency alarm button inside each cab or is seen on the feeds from the video surveillance camera. Both Mr. Miller and Ms. Givner said all of the monitors had been working.
In fact, an elevator maintenance worker who went into the machine room late Monday afternoon to pick up some gear noticed that the car was not functioning properly and shut off power, but only after calling to the car on the intercom and getting no response, Mr. Miller said. Shutting off the power does not stop the feed from the camera or the operation of the intercom and alarm.
The camera displays most of the car, but there is a blind spot directly under it, the police said. The cameras do not record, relaying live feeds to a security room. Typically, one or two guards monitor feeds from the cameras, Mr. Miller said.
The next time anyone noticed the car was yesterday morning, when the alarm sounded and Mr. Chen used the intercom. Workers in the building heard his voice and called firefighters, saying they thought the man might be drunk.
“Little did they know, he wasn’t drunk,” said Lt. Peter Chadwick, with Ladder 37, at a news conference. “He was probably feeling the effects of being in the elevator.”
When firefighters lowered the car and freed Mr. Chen, he was able to walk out of the elevator on his own and quickly gulped a bottle of water. His brief appearance before reporters at Montefiore Medical Center, where he was treated for mild to moderate dehydration, did little to solve the mystery. He took only a few questions and gave clipped replies.
“Thank you, everyone,” he said in Chinese. Asked what happened, he said, “The elevator broke.”
He was asked if he had yelled. “Yes,” he said. “I kept yelling.”
Mr. Chen, whose wife and son live in China, had canceled his cellphone just a couple of days earlier, he said. He wore no watch, but kept track of the days by listening to the elevators, which are busier during the day, he said. “I thought I would never see daylight again.”
The 12 elevators at Tracey Towers have a history of problems. Of the 17 violations issued by city inspectors in the past three years, seven remain unresolved, according to the Buildings Department’s Web site. Citations have listed problems including illegal emergency stop switches, inoperative car position operators and inaccessible emergency exits, and carried fines totaling about $2,100.
Tenants have filed at least 13 complaints in the past year about elevators bouncing, skipping floors and failing to work altogether. Officials investigated each complaint, including the most recent call from two weeks ago, but issued violations only once, records show.
The most recent complaint concerned the bank of three elevators where Mr. Chen was trapped. A caller phoned the Buildings Department on March 20, saying that one of the elevators rode up and down, but “will not let you off” at the designated floor, and the other “jumps” and “bounces,” according to the description posted on the Web site.
An inspector was dispatched last Wednesday to look into the reports. Officials concluded that the elevator was working and that no action was needed, according to the site.
Jeralyn Allston, a former vice president of the complex’s tenant association, said she had been stuck in an elevator there on four occasions. “It’ll just start going up and down, up and down, without going to your floor. Then you just have to pray.”
Thelma Wallace, who goes to the building four days a week for her job as a nurse’s aide, said she had been stuck in the elevator twice. “Now I am afraid to take it,” she said.
Mr. Chen is from the coastal Fuzhou region of Fujian Province in southeastern China, where his wife and 12-year-old son live. His family said he had entered the United States illegally, the police said, and that he had paid off the $60,000 fee to the people who smuggled him into the country. He worked six days a week at Happy Dragon, making about 40 deliveries a day on weekdays and as many as 60 a day on weekends, about a third of them to the Tracey Towers.
The restaurant, a few blocks away at 3388 Jerome Avenue, plans to hold a party for Mr. Chen. But asked if he would continue working as a deliveryman, he said, “I don’t want to think about it now.”
He added, “The tips in that building are all bad.”
Reporting for this article was contributed by Nicholas Confessore, Jennifer 8. Lee, Brian McDonald, Colin Moynihan and Robin Stein.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company