By Adam Baker/News editor
An early morning ride on one of Commonwealth Hall’s elevators turned into a nightmare for five high school students attending a girls’ basketball team camp on July 16. Around 1 a.m. the elevator in which they were riding stopped just below the sixth floor, trapping the young women inside.
University spokesman Marc Whitt cited bad weather as the likely cause of the elevators malfunction.
“The storm is one possibility for the problem,” he told The Progress, noting Commonwealth’s electrical service was not interrupted long enough to activate the emergency generator.
As university and emergency personnel responded to the scene, they were informed of a medical emergency inside the stalled elevator.
“It was reported to us that one of the young women apparently suffered from an anxiety-related situation,” Whitt said.
Fearing the condition of the young woman could worsen, officials on the scene used equipment to cut the doors open.
“The Richmond Fire Department determined that access needed to be as quick as possible,” Whitt said. “It was their decision to cut and force the doors open.”
By cutting into the elevator doors, officials released insulation from within the steel doors, which was determined to contain asbestos.
“As an unanticipated result of the doors being sawed, some aircell chrysotile asbestos encased as insulating material in the steel door was released,” Whitt said. “It has not been determined this created a hazard.”
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Web site, “asbestos is made up of microscopic bundles of fibers that may become airborne when distributed … fibers get into the air and may be inhaled into the lungs, where they can cause significant health problems.”
The Web site added researchers have not yet determined a “safe-level” of asbestos contact but do know “the greater and the longer exposure, the greater the risk of contracting an asbestos related disease.”
The EPA listed mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer as some of the diseases caused by prolonged asbestos exposure.
Whitt explained the young women’s exposure was minimal and they “appeared to be fine and participated in their basketball camp the next day.”
“Everyone who may have been exposed to asbestos has been advised through a letter and a press release,” he said. “In addition, the provost and the vice president for student affairs made themselves available to all parents’ calls.”
To insure all potentially hazardous material had been removed from Commonwealth Hall, the university contracted an air monitoring consultant to test the building using “technology prescribed by the EPA and the Kentucky Division of Air Quality,” Whitt said.
“We have been verbally informed that these test results showed that – even without clean-up at that time – the level of air-borne particles met the EPA’s standards for building occupancy,” he said.
University President Joanne Glasser told The Progress she “deeply appreciated the understanding and hard work of everyone involved.”
“I believe our staff and emergency personnel responded quickly to get the young ladies out of the elevator,” she said adding she is pleased “all indications are that any exposure (to asbestos) was very likely minimal.”
Although Commonwealth Hall has been determined “clear,” clean up is still underway. Whitt said the elevator doors will be repaired and tested and expected Commonwealth to re-open for the upcoming fall semester.
As for if such a similar nightmare could take place on one of Eastern’s elevators again, Whitt said “it is difficult to predict when things will happen,” noting this was an “unforeseeable event.”
“We do not consider our elevators to be a safety hazard,” he said. “We truly believe that individuals are safe on our elevators.”