Sheriff's deputy injured by CJC elevator in August finally goes home

Lt. Paul Owens enters a van for the ride home after five months hospitalized.

Lt. Paul Owens, a Philadelphia sheriff's deputy who was severely injured in a violent elevator crash at the Criminal Justice Center more than five months ago, was released from Magee Rehabilitation Hospital on Tuesday morning.

"I feel a lot better than I did when I first got here," Owens, 50, sitting in a wheelchair, told reporters in the Magee parking garage, in Center City, after he was released.

Owens was in an employee elevator around 10:20 a.m. Aug. 4 when the elevator rose through the 15th-floor ceiling of the 17-story courthouse, at 13th and Filbert Streets, and smashed into an equipment room.

He was taken to Hahnemann University Hospital in critical condition with severe head and chest injuries, and doctors later discovered that he had four broken vertebrae. He was then transferred to Magee, on the 1500 block of Race Street.

"It's unbelievable how much support I had — my office, police department, FOP [Fraternal Order of Police], everybody, this rehab. They're great. I'm just happy this part is over with. I'm moving on," Owens said.
Sheriff Jewell Williams, who was at Magee to greet Owens upon his release and who has visited Owens and his family many times during Owens' hospitalization, told reporters: "He's come a long way from the day of the accident. Certainly, Magee has done a tremendous job from what I saw the first day. ... We'll continue to support him and his family in whatever needs they have."

Williams said four days after the elevator crash that Owens was partly paralyzed from the waist down. He declined to comment Tuesday on the extent of Owens' injuries.

"I can only say he has done a remarkable job with the rehab," Williams said. "He is resolved in a way that he really wants to get home. He's excited. He knows he has the love from the Sheriff's Office."

Williams promoted Owens, a 28-year veteran of the Sheriff's Office, from sergeant to lieutenant during his hospitalization.

Asked if Owens is expected to return to work, Williams said: "I would hope so. Any way that we will bring him back, we will bring him back. Even if he's in a wheelchair, we will bring him back. We'll find something for him to do."

The two employee elevators, located in the rear of the courthouse behind a key-card security door, are used by employees, judges, and deputies. 

Williams said Tuesday that the two employee elevators have been out of service since the crash.

Gabriel Roberts, a spokesman for the First Judicial District, or the city courts, said Tuesday: "As tenants in the building, we’ve been working diligently with our landlord, the city of Philadelphia, to return the elevators to safe and full function."

Mike Dunn, a city spokesman, said later Tuesday by email: “The City, along with officials of the state Department of Labor and Industry, are continuing their investigation into the accident, assisted by independent elevator safety experts. The exact cause is still undetermined.”

A second court employee, who was in the other employee elevator and who was injured in the crash when debris fell on top of her elevator, suffered minor injuries. The crash that morning rocked the building. It triggered fire alarms throughout the courthouse, and employees and others began the trek down the stairs to the lobby and then out to the sidewalks on 13th and Filbert Streets.

At the CJC, there are also six public elevators for defendants, witnesses, family members, and attorneys.

Williams said Tuesday of the courthouse elevators in general: "As far as I'm concerned, those elevators are not safe enough for my deputies to go through that building. I think they need to be overhauled. I think they need to have a new process in updating the equipment."

Dunn, in response, said that the elevators "have been fully cleared for use by state inspectors and independent elevator inspectors retained by the City" and that "the safety of those who work in and visit the building is the absolute top priority."

The Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry is responsible for inspections at the building. After Owens was injured, officials said all the elevators had passed inspection June 14.

In 2009, Owens' wife, Heather, who was also a sheriff's deputy, was injured by an elevator accident in the building, breaking an ankle when a prisoner transport elevator "dropped" when it stopped, an attorney for her has said. She has since retired from the Sheriff's Office, Williams said.

Owens' wife and their two children were also at Magee on Tuesday.