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Wednesday, February 22, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Man who fell down elevator lost his grip climbing out

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

At 7:50 p.m. Monday, Jeremy Johnson and his friends pushed a button on their stalled elevator to summon a mechanic. They had just finished dinner at Lincoln Square in Bellevue and were headed back to the parking garage.

An operator on the East Coast, working for the elevator company, told the group of five to stay in the stalled cab and wait for help. The operator called back a few minutes later to say a mechanic was on the way.

But Johnson and his friends wanted out. They pried open the elevator doors, breaking through a safety device that is supposed to keep the doors closed. One by one, his friends lowered themselves through a 12-inch opening and dropped safely to the parking-garage floor several feet below.

Just 20 minutes after calling for help, Johnson was the last to leave the cab. But as the 25-year-old Kirkland man eased himself out, he lost his grip and wasn't able to land securely on the floor, according to friends and police. He fell back into the open elevator shaft, as two of his friends reached out to try to save him.

He fell about 50 feet and was pronounced dead at the scene.

Police and mall officials did not know why the elevator became stuck between the first and second floors of the parking garage.

But according to police, stalled elevators happen from time to time, and unless the elevator is on fire, those trapped inside should always wait until help arrives.

"The safest thing for people to do when they're stalled in an elevator is to stay put," said Silvio Albino, spokesman for Otis Elevator, which installed and maintains the elevators at Lincoln Square.

Johnson's friends and family were mourning the loss of a young man dedicated to his construction job and adrenaline-pumping sports. Jeremy Lynn Johnson grew up in Newport, Ore., and loved riding motorcycles, wakeboarding and snowboarding.

Johnson was a regular at summertime barbecues at the Sundown Apartments overlooking Lake Washington in Kirkland, where he lived until late last year, said the apartment manager, Michael Adams. Johnson rose with the sun many mornings, Adams said, carrying his sailboard the short walk across Lake Street to ride the waves until it was time to leave in his pickup for his construction job.

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"Everybody loved him"

For the past seven years, he built high-end custom homes for Heckert Construction of Kirkland.

"Everybody loved him," owner Bill Heckert said. "He was one of the nicest guys — I never heard him raise his voice, get mad."

Heckert said his niece Natasha Iankov was with Johnson and three other friends in the elevator. Iankov is distraught, Heckert said, but from what he could gather the friends figured they could climb down to the door and just go home rather than wait to be rescued.

"She was passed from the elevator to the floor; she was one of the four that made it," Heckert said.

Some questions remain about how the elevator accident occurred. Johnson and his friends were stuck between the first and second levels of the parking garage, called "P0" and "P1."

They may have had to combine forces to pry open the door of the cab, which had a metal bar installed to prevent it from being opened more than a few inches in dangerous situations, said Bellevue police spokesman Greg Grannis.

Once they opened the inner door, Johnson and his friends then used a release switch in the elevator shaft to open the outer door on the second level of the parking garage, Grannis said. The bottom portion of the cab was stopped at that level, and Johnson's friends were able to wiggle through a 12-inch opening, hang in the open elevator shaft and swing on to the floor below.

"I think those four were lucky to have done so," Grannis said.

After hearing about the stalled elevator, the Otis operator contacted Lincoln Square security, and a security guard was talking to the trapped group from the first level of the parking garage.

Officials from Otis and Kemper Development, which owns Lincoln Square, offered their condolences to Johnson's friends and family.

The elevator involved in the accident, at the north end of the mall, was closed Tuesday while mechanics tried to figure out what had happened.

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Lincoln Square, with a 16-screen multiplex, a Westin hotel and several upscale restaurants, opened in November with a glitzy unveiling attended by a large number of Eastside business and political leaders.

The $500 million downtown Bellevue development has invigorated the city's nightlife, with throngs of people coming out each weekend to watch movies or eat dinner.

Even before opening, though, the building had its share of unusual incidents. In 2002, three construction workers were hurt when a temporary construction elevator plunged 60 feet to the ground. The incident had no connection to Monday's accident, police said.

Three people parachuted off the development's 42-story south tower in July 2005. Police said they could have been charged with trespassing but were never found.

Three months earlier, construction on the project was delayed for a day when a death threat was found scrawled in graffiti at the site.

Ashley Bach: 206-464-2567 or abach@seattletimes.com

Eastside bureau reporter Karen Gaudette contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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