Man Wakes Up From Coma After 5 Weeks, Life Upended

August 18, 2017 Last Updated: August 18, 2017

Paul Owens doesn’t remember much. He just stepped into an elevator when the car started to accelerate upward at a break-neck speed. “I grabbed the railing, and I just remember holding on,” he told Philly.com.

The car crushed into the elevator shaft ceiling, throwing Owens headfirst to its top. When he crashed back to the floor, three of his thoracic vertebrae were broken as well as several ribs and his pelvis. The impact lacerated his spleen and caused brain damage.

But he remembers none of it. For the next five weeks his mind was wandering beyond consciousness.

Owens, 49, a Philadelphia sheriff’s deputy and former competitive powerlifter, woke up paralyzed below the middle of his chest.

Although the accident happened on Aug. 4, 2016, he spoke to media only recently.

“I went to work one day, and I kind of got caught up in a bad situation through no fault of my own, and look: I’m in a wheelchair the rest of my life now,” he said. “It hurts, that’s the best way I can describe it. Anger’s not going to fix anything.”

By the end of the year, Owens should have construction finished at this house to build accommodations for his disability. A GoFundMe page in his support has raised over $15,000.

The cause of the accident is still under investigation. But similar ones have happened before. Some kind of malfunction lets the car loose and the counterweight goes into freefall, pulling the car up at a great speed and smashing it into the shaft ceiling.

Safety mechanisms against such accidents have been around since at least late 1980s, but they only became mandatory decades later and only for new elevators. Many elevators build before 2000 still don’t have them.

The site of Owens’s accident, Philadelphia’s Criminal Justice Center, only installed the devices on its public elevators over the past year.

Philadelphia's Criminal Justice Center. (Google Earth)
Philadelphia’s Criminal Justice Center. (Google Earth)

There are some 900,000 elevators in the United States. About 27 people die and 10,000 get seriously injured in incidents involving elevators. But because work-related and other incidents are reported separately, the overall data is reported sporadically. The latest report we located includes data only up to 2010.

The accident at the Justice Center sparked multiple lawsuits and the city is still working on modernizing the elevator system throughout the building.

Owens, however, doesn’t plan to use it.

“It’s got a little easier for me to be on elevators,” he said. “But I don’t think I’d ever be able to get on an elevator in the justice center again.”