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Monday, Nov 24, 2014
Columnists

Henderson: Only important question is why the elevator was still running

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Chad Wolfe may have been drunk, or stoned, or something worse when he fell to his death in the No. 21 elevator shaft at Tampa International Airport. Maybe he mixed too much vodka with a generic version of Xanax and couldn’t tell the difference between green onions and basketballs.

Maybe he was belligerent to flight attendants on the ride from Atlanta to Tampa. Maybe we’re all glad we weren’t sitting next to him. Maybe he even kicked puppy dogs, too.

That’s certainly what TIA officials have implied all week, amid much scrutiny of the circumstances surrounding Wolfe’s fatal plunge. But while his behavior that night may well have warranted a night in jail to sleep it off, it doesn’t address why a dangerously deficient elevator was still in use.

That’s the question TIA officials have been unable to answer all week, and, frankly, it’s the only one that matters.

We’ve heard a lot about Wolfe’s use of booze, drugs and his possible need for anger management, but, to me, that’s beside the point.

I mean, we get it. This guy didn’t seem in control of things.

He also can’t fight back now, and who’s going to have sympathy for a drunk?

Airport officials released video Friday that purports to show Wolfe staggering around the airport. No one has seen video of his final moments, though, so for now we have only theories, wild guesses and unanswered questions.

TIA executives obviously know the airport authority could be sued for a bazillion dollars, and perhaps we just saw the beginnings of a legal strategy. It’s his fault, your honor. If he wasn’t so messed up, he would have known the elevator wasn’t working right.

An airport official said the door was “compromised” but said there wasn’t enough information to explain why it was.

Even if Wolfe was so plastered that he tried to pry the door open for reasons we will never know, what’s more important is that he fell into the empty space. If the elevator was working properly, Wolfe never should have been able to get the door open, especially since officials have implied that simply standing upright was a significant challenge for him.

Inspectors found a lot of problems with the elevator following Wolfe’s death and deemed it “unsafe to ride.”

State officials noted that a restrictor that keeps the doors from being opened outside the landing zone was defective. There were issues with an outside door cable and the brake pads.

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation told The Tampa Tribune, “Unless and until all violations which make the elevator unsafe have been corrected, the elevator is to remain sealed.”

That’s the key word right there.

Unsafe.

Wolfe’s body was discovered only after maintenance workers noticed an elevator had stopped working. He was on the roof of the elevator, his luggage and cell phone still sitting outside the seventh-floor door.

Did he pry open the door and stumble down the shaft? Did the door mistakenly open on its own? Did it fail to close properly earlier in the evening, inviting an impaired Wolfe into a death trap?

No one knows just now.

TIA officials have expressed condolences several times for Wolfe’s family and loved ones, which is the proper thing to do. And if Wolfe was as out of it as they claim he was, well, he has to bear responsibility for that.

We still don’t know why that elevator hadn’t been shut down, though.

Until we get the answer to that question, we won’t know the real story of how a tragedy happened at TIA.


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