Vol. 18, No. 8 April 21 – May 4, 2005
By JORDAN MOSS
Ming Kuang Chen, the Chinese delivery man who was trapped in a Tracey Towers elevator for more than three days earlier this month, appears to have been the victim of a remarkable series of lapses in the security system and the police search, the Norwood News has learned.
Perhaps the most serious problem was the failure of the security cameras, which did not project a discernable image, even after security finally heard Chen over the intercom the day he was rescued.
“Even when he was on the intercom, they couldn’t see him,” said James Wood, president of Copstat, the security company employed at Tracey.
The Norwood News got a look at the cameras in the first floor security room in tower B. The images were dark and grainy. However, a source with detailed knowledge of the situation involving Chen said that the Police Department had already donated a new system to Tracey management by the time the Norwood News had visited.
“What you saw is 1,000 percent better than what was there,” the source said, adding that the original screens were “totally useless.”
Wood said the system that was operative when Chen was in the elevator is the property of the building, not his company.
Don Miller, a spokesman for R-Y Management, the firm that runs Tracey, said the security situation was being reviewed.
“Well, obviously the entire security system will be revisited in light of that incident,” he said.
John Villines, a Georgia-based building security expert, said that modern equipment would have been able to easily help security staff identify Chen. “There’s no reason why the monitor should not be capable of displaying a clear camera-captured image inside an elevator …” he said. “The technology is there. It’s been there for a couple of decades.”
Virtually everyone who read or heard about the incident also wondered why, if Chen pushed the alarm and tried to speak on the intercom, he wasn’t found.
One reason might be that the alarm does not sound in the security room, according to the source. And while it does ring in the lobby, the security guards posted on that floor are posted in the entranceway on the other side of two glass doors from where the alarms would go off, and would have a difficult time hearing them.
As for the intercoms, the source said that they are frequently used by kids who are just fooling around and therefore usually ignored by security. Guards may have also reacted the same way to Chen, who didn’t speak English.
Regarding the security officers themselves, tenants who attended a recent meeting said that when they asked a Copstat representative about improving the security staff in the building, he said, “You get what you pay for.” Security staff in its other buildings, where management pays Copstat more, were of a higher quality, the representative reportedly said. (However, a 1997 news report about a shooting at the Empire State Building stated that Copstat guards there were only paid $6 an hour.)
The Norwood News asked Wood if the low wages paid Tracey workers, who earn just above minimum wage, might affect the quality of the staff there.
“You’re putting me in a difficult position,” Wood said, referring to his company’s relationship with its client, R-Y Management.
Miller said R-Y doesn’t dictate “what R-Y’s rate of pay is.”
The beginning of the security difficulties at Tracey can be traced back to 1998 when R-Y Management dismissed its in-house security staff. Tenants have complained ever since that the Copstat force is simply not up to the task of protecting the two towers and the thousands of tenants who live in the 871 units. Tenants have charged that security officers do not get involved in difficult situations.
“I don’t think the money they’re making is reason to stick their necks out,” said Sam Gillian, a longtime tenant.
The city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which provides some oversight of Mitchell-Lama buildings like Tracey, acknowledged that Tracey’s security needs improvement. “We know it’s not ideal,” said Gary Sloman, the agency’s director of operations. R-Y is considering switching companies, but wages will probably still be on the low end, he said. Miller could not confirm this.
But in regard to the Chen incident, Wood, a former police officer, put much of the blame for not finding Chen squarely on his former colleagues. “The police didn’t do the search they were supposed to do,” he said. “Normally, you bring all the elevators down to the first floor. You have to tell me why that wasn’t done. I don’t know.”
Miller also pointed to the cops. “The buildings were under control of the Police Department,” he said. “They were conducting the search.”
Paul Browne, the Police Department’s deputy commissioner for public information, said the police officers used the elevators as they searched each of the towers’ 871 units, and that they checked the security cameras to see if there was anyone in the one they hadn’t used. He added that the security staff and elevator maintenance staff also checked the cameras and that Chen may have been in the camera’s blind spot at these moments. The maintenance man who shut the power off to elevator No. 2 the day before Chen was found (see sidebar) told police he looked at the monitor for that elevator before he did it, Browne said.
Perhaps underlying the lack of rigor in checking each elevator was the almost unanimous presumption that Chen was the victim of a crime. In recent years, two Chinese delivery men have been murdered by teenagers.
But Villines said even that presumption “wouldn’t preclude the responsibility of checking each elevator.”
Deputy Inspector Joseph Hoch, commander of the 52nd Precinct, said the Department was conducting “a tactical review to see if there’s any room for improvement.”
Heather Haddon contributed to this article.
Police: Chen Stuck in Elevator Whole Time
Though many tenants all too familiar with Tracey Towers’ elevator situation were not surprised to learn that someone had been stuck, more than a few people expressed disbelief that Ming Kuang Chen was there the three and a half days. Some tenants even said they had ridden the No. 2 elevator that Chen was stuck in the same weekend he disappeared. Perhaps the men who smuggled Chen into the country from China re-deposited him in the building, was one of many theories making the rounds.
But for police, the jury’s already in.
“We … believe he was there the whole time,” said Paul Browne, the Police Department’s deputy commissioner for public information, who called Chen a “credible individual.”
A source familiar with the investigation of the incident told the Norwood News that Chen was “definitely” in the elevator for the entire 81 hours he was missing.
For one, the bodily fluids left inside the elevator were consistent with someone stranded that long, said the source, who requested anonymity.
But perhaps the most convincing information was that a day or two before Chen was rescued, a maintenance man working on another elevator noticed a safety strap in elevator shaft No. 2 that was not affixed. He then shut off the power in the same elevator line that Chen was eventually discovered in.
“The odds he had found the right elevator” after perhaps being somewhere else in the building “is a million to one,” the source said.
— Jordan Moss
Copyright © 2005 Norwood News. All Rights Reserved.