3-year-old loses fingers in escalator

J.C. PENNEY: Girl's hand caught when she tried to retrieve a jacket.

February 8, 2009 

A little girl called for her mother, then screamed as her hand was caught and mangled in an escalator at J.C. Penney in downtown Anchorage on Saturday evening, according to a shopper who rushed to help.

A J.C. Penney spokesman confirmed a young girl was injured on the escalator in what he called "a terrible thing." At least part of the incident was caught by a store security camera.

The top building official for the city of Anchorage said the child lost her three middle fingers. A family friend said she lost her three fingers down to the first knuckle. Doctors are hoping she'll keep her pinkie, said the friend, John Cooley.

Dean Paul, co-owner of Alaska Yellow Cab, was on the top floor just after 6 p.m. Saturday considering some last-minute purchases when he heard a child yell.

" 'Mommy, help me! I'm stuck' is what she said," Paul said.

The child, age 3, then screamed -- "blood curdling," Paul said.

"So I ran over to the escalator at the same time the mother got there," he said.

The mother was paying for some items on the top floor and her children were playing around the escalator, said Cooley, who met up with the family later at the hospital.

Paul pushed a button to stop the escalator. But the child's hand was trapped.

The little girl was carrying a new coat, said Ron Thompson, municipal director of development services, including elevator and escalator inspections. The coat "got caught and she went in after it."

The city is investigating what happened, he said.

At one point during the rescue, the little girl told her mother "how she's sorry her coat was ruined," Paul said. "My heart just sank"

The entire coat was sucked in between the step and the teeth, Thompson said.

Paul said he ran to a checkout counter and asked for someone to call maintenance as well as 911.

Paul and others, including store workers, used hammers to pry up the top section of the escalator.

"The guy on my left and I, we were using all the strength we had left to lift those plates up with those claw hammers, to very carefully slide her hand out," Paul said.

"They did whatever they could to pry that thing up and get her hand out," Thompson said.

The men deserve thanks, Cooley said.

Just as the child's mangled hand was freed, paramedics arrived. They were dispatched at 6:10 p.m. and got there within minutes.

Fire officials wouldn't release the name of the child or her mother. A message left at the hospital for the family wasn't immediately returned.

"It was such a terrible thing to happen," said Tim Lyons, a Dallas-area spokesman for J.C. Penney's corporate office.

Anchorage store manager Barbara White said she couldn't say much while it's under investigation. "We're concerned if there is an injury in the store," she said.

The escalator was last inspected in January 2008, but only needs inspection every two years, Thompson said. All the paperwork was in order, he said. It appears the store did a "great job in normal maintenance," he said.

J.C. Penney's loss prevention staff inspected it daily, and a separate firm, Schindler Elevator Corp., maintained it, Lyons said.

"It's all out of service and inoperable 'til they finish doing the full investigation," Thompson said.

Escalator accidents are rare, he said. He didn't know of any in Anchorage in the 15 years he has worked for the city. Bridget Bushue, a division chief for the Anchorage Fire Department, said she remembered one more than 25 years ago at another store.

The escalator at Penney's was an older design, Thompson said. New models have automatic cutoffs. The older ones are grandfathered in, he said.

Paul said he knew about the shutoff button because when he was 15, his shirt got caught in an escalator's hand rail. He wasn't injured but always has been leery of escalators, especially when young children are riding them.

He said the button should be better marked and that there should also be a button on the inside of the escalator, so someone old enough could free himself or herself, he said.

Thompson said the escalators conform to national standards. But parents need to realize that escalators are dangerous and children shouldn't play on them, he said.

The little girl had surgery on her hand, Cooley said. She was still in the hospital Sunday evening.

"She's watching SpongeBob SquarePants so that should be good," he said.

Find Lisa Demer online at adn.com/contact/ldemer or call 257-4390.

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