Woman crushed by homemade lift in Weeki Wachee

WEEKI WACHEE — Frank Jorr pulled up to the three-story home on Island Drive and felt a wave of relief.

Parked in the driveway was the Saturn sedan owned by his longtime companion, Margaret Elizabeth Harrison. Jorr had received a call Tuesday morning from her disabled friend who lived at the home and was expecting Harrison for a visit. She never showed.

"I thought, oh, good, she made it," Jorr, 64, recalled Thursday.

The relief didn't last long. A moment later, Jorr found Harrison pinned under a mechanical lift used to gain access to the elevated house's upper floors. The 66-year-old was unresponsive. Paramedics arrived and pronounced her dead.

An autopsy confirmed that the lift crushed her to death, the Hernando County Sheriff's Office said.

Two days later, Jorr and the house's owners, Jean and Robert Blair, were struggling to understand how the death occurred. Jorr said there was no indication that Harrison suffered a medical emergency, and authorities said they did not suspect foul play.

"It's a mystery," said Robert Blair, 81. "All we can do is speculate."

A retired engineer, Blair built the lift in the 1990s, when he designed and constructed the house, which overlooks a canal off the Mud River. Flanking an outside wall, an old forklift sits welded to a concrete base, retooled to be a kind of elevator that reaches the third story of the house. It is speed-controlled, Blair said, and the ride down takes 13 seconds.

Under Florida law, lifts and other conveyances in private homes do not require certificates of operation or inspections. There was no electrical permit issued, as required, for the Blairs' device, said county Building Department operations manager Jodi Singer. The elevator also lacked the required safety switches, county building official Frank Curlee said.

Officials shut down the device, but no citations were issued.

Blair said the lift was "solidly built. But don't get me wrong. Obviously, I've got to do something to make it more foolproof."

The lift was a convenient alternative to the house's spiral staircase, but became vital when his wife's health deteriorated, Blair said. Now 81, Jean Blair is mostly stationary now due to heart problems and failing limbs and relies on a power wheelchair.

A friend and fellow congregant at First Baptist Church of Hernando Beach, Harrison had visited the Blairs many times and was familiar with how the lift worked. Jean Blair invited Harrison to keep her company Tuesday morning while Robert Blair went to the doctor. She later told investigators that she sent the lift down to the ground floor so it would be there when Harrison arrived.

When Harrison didn't show up by 9 a.m., Jean Blair called Jorr, who called Harrison's cell phone and got her voice mail. He retraced her route to the Blairs' home.

Jorr walked up the driveway and saw Harrison's purse on the ground. Then he saw her pinned under the lift's wood floor.

"I knew as soon as I saw her," Jorr said. "She was blue already."

Robert Blair told investigators that he routinely maintained the lift and that it had never malfunctioned.

Jean Blair called Harrison her "very best friend."

"My heart is just broken," she said.

Those who knew her said Harrison was a kind, generous woman who put others before herself.

The Alabama native worked at JCPenney for years, most recently at the Spring Hill store before retiring, Jorr said. She was a widow and the mother of two grown children when she met Jorr in 2002. Jorr remembers being drawn to her bubbly personality. She moved from Pasco County to his Spring Hill home about a year ago.

Mark Walton, the pastor at First Baptist of Hernando Beach, said Harrison was a frequent volunteer who loved helping with children's classes and camps.

"She would do quiet and kind things," Walton said. "She said to me, 'I'll help any way I can.' "

For the last four years, Harrison has volunteered two days a week at the Jericho Road Ministries thrift store in Spring Hill, usually sorting and pricing donated clothing, manager Rosetta McKinney said.

McKinney said she knew something was wrong when Harrison didn't show up for her Thursday shift. When she last saw Harrison on Monday, Mc­Kinney asked whether she could come three days a week.

Her response, McKinney said: "I'll try my best."

Times staff writer Barbara Behrendt contributed to this report. Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1431. Follow him on Twitter @tmarrerotimes.

Woman crushed by homemade lift in Weeki Wachee 07/25/13 [Last modified: Friday, July 26, 2013 12:59am]

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