Tampa airport: Man found dead in elevator shaft was drinking

Published March 21, 2013

TAMPA — Chad Wolfe was last seen alive after midnight Friday, when the 31-year-old mechanic from Pennsylvania stepped onto Elevator 21 on the third floor of Tampa International Airport's terminal and rode it to the seventh-floor parking garage. His carry-on bags and cellphone were found there, hours later.

About 3 a.m. Friday, according to the airport, an employee reported Elevator 21 stuck on the first floor, with broken glass inside. About 10:45 a.m., a technician found Wolfe's body on top of the car. The impact had broken fluorescent lights in the car.

How Wolfe's body got there is still unknown. But at a news conference Wednesday, airport officials announced their investigation revealed Wolfe had been drinking and that the elevator door lock had been found broken. The cause of death awaits toxicology reports.

A bottle of alprazolam, an anti-anxiety drug better known by the brand name Xanax, and a bottle of vodka were found on Wolfe, according to airport police Chief Paul Sireci.

He said Wolfe's father, Garland Wolfe, told officers that Chad would take Xanax and drink alcohol at the same time. Garland Wolfe did not return a call for comment later Wednesday.

Sireci also said Chad Wolfe "appeared to be intoxicated to a high degree" and "acted erratically" that night, according to witness statements.

The seventh-floor elevator door locking device, which keeps the door closed when the car is not there, was found to be "compromised."

Al Illustrato, airport vice president of facilities and administration, wouldn't specify what "compromised" meant, and said he is unsure if the problem existed before Wolfe got in, or if Wolfe damaged the lock.

Clearer answers are dependent on forensic evidence, Sireci said, or someone else coming forward who saw Wolfe after he got on the elevator. Surveillance cameras show him getting on, but the seventh-floor cameras were not aimed at the elevator when Wolfe got off, Sireci said. There are no indications of foul play. "We're looking at every possibility," Sireci said. "This is a highly unusual set of circumstances."

Wolfe, from West Newton, Pa., had flown in on a Delta flight with Jessica Price, his longtime girlfriend. They planned to visit Price's parents in the Tampa area, according to Wolfe's father, and then go to Daytona Beach for Bike Week. Price declined to comment Wednesday.

Witnesses said Wolfe was drinking on the flight, was refused service and became belligerent toward the crew — so much so that they considered calling the police on him, according to Sireci.

It is unclear why Wolfe went up to the seventh floor while his girlfriend went down to the first floor. Garland Wolfe has said his son liked to go to the top floors of places he visited to see the view.

An inspector with the state Bureau of Elevator Safety found 17 safety violations on Elevator 21 after inspecting it Monday and Tuesday, including the broken locking device, according to bureau spokeswoman Beth Frady. Inspector Frank Matuszewski was able to pull the seventh-floor elevator doors open with his hands. "This poses an imminent danger to the riding public of falling, crushing and shearing," he wrote in his report. The state inspects elevators only when complaints are received or an incident occurs, Frady said.

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Routine elevator inspections were privatized in 2002 and are conducted by private inspectors.

Schindler Elevator Corp. runs the airport's elevators. Schindler last inspected Elevator 21 in January, airport officials said, and found nothing wrong.

A Schindler spokesman emailed a statement this week to the Tampa Bay Times: "Schindler regrets whenever anyone is injured on equipment it maintains. … Schindler's thoughts and prayers are with Mr. Wolfe's family and friends at this difficult time. The situation is under investigation and it would be inappropriate to comment further."

Schindler has inspected the airport's other 215 elevator openings since Wolfe's death, according to Illustrato, and found no other problems. The airport has 90 days to fix Elevator 21 or it could be fined. The elevator remained out of service Wednesday.

Times staff writers Laura C. Morel and Rich Shopes contributed to this report.