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Worker crushed by elevator at St. Pete Beach's TradeWinds

ST. PETE BEACH — A man was crushed to death Wednesday morning when an elevator at the TradeWinds Island Resorts fell on him.

Mark Allen Johnson, 45, of the Tampa area, had been vacuuming water from the bottom of an elevator shaft at the Jacaranda Beach Villas, condominiums on the grounds of the resort at 5600 Gulf Blvd. He and another nearby worker had been working for about 40 minutes when the elevator fell from the second floor about 10:30 a.m., said the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. The other worker was outside the shaft and not injured.

No one is sure what caused the elevator to fall. Hotel maintenance locked it in place with a key, according to sheriff's spokeswoman Cristen Rensel, and the power to the elevator was supposed to have been cut. Hotel officials were baffled.

"There's about five things to prevent something like this from happening," said Keith Overton, the resort's president. "None of us know where the breakdown was."

While authorities tried to determine what caused the accident, Johnson's family and friends mourned the Hillsborough County native who, with light brown hair that bleached blond in the sun and an easygoing demeanor, reminded them of Barney Rubble.

Friends gathered in the yard of Johnson's home north of Tampa to console his longtime girlfriend, their children, and Johnson's mother, Lou Burnside, 66.

"You raised him well," one of them told his mother.

"It doesn't help me right now," Burnside said. "I'm so empty."

• • •

Johnson is the second person to suffer an elevator-related death this year in the Tampa Bay area. Last month, a man was found inside an elevator shaft at Tampa International Airport after apparently falling to his death. It remains under investigation.

State law requires elevators to be inspected annually. In Florida, those inspections are conducted by private companies certified by the state.

On Monday, TradeWinds Islands Resorts' elevators had been inspected. All of them passed. The inspector didn't find any violations on the elevator that killed Johnson, according to documents the hotel released to the Tampa Bay Times.

The inspector did, however, notice water at the bottom of the elevator shaft. That can happen naturally as the ground water table rises, officials said.

TradeWinds hired SWS, an environmental cleanup company, to remove the water. Johnson and another worker from the company came Wednesday. The men had filled two barrels by 10:30 a.m. when the elevator fell.

St. Pete Beach firefighters got the call at 10:37 a.m. Soon after, the St. Petersburg Technical Rescue Team arrived to recover Johnson's body.

Overton said before the SWS workers went to the shaft, the hotel's engineer manager gave them access to the electrical room, where they were supposed to cut the power. After the workers were done, the hotel staffer took them to the elevator and the power was disengaged there as well, he said.

• • •

Johnson was a hugger. Every time he left his mother, he hugged her and told her he loved her, Burnside said Wednesday, and he did the same with Annette Montford, his girlfriend of 20 years, and their two teenage sons. Johnson also helped raise Montford's two other children.

Montford was in shock Wednesday evening, struggling for a few minutes to explain what she loved so much about Johnson. Then the memories came in a flood, and so did her tears.

He was a working man, always working, for a few years at the Port of Tampa, for a few years driving dump trucks, and for the last five years at SWS doing environmental cleanups. He seldom worked around elevators.

He never lost a friend, Montford said. The men gathered in her front yard Wednesday had known him since they met at Gaither High School, where he graduated in 1986.

"I've had some serious trouble in my life, and not a lot of people stood by me," said Dennis Gallagher, 43. "He did. The world lost a good guy today."

Every night when he got off work, Johnson would call Montford to tell her he was coming home, and to ask her if she needed anything, she said. It was one of his habits that, as she recalled them, will trigger tears in the weeks to come when she notices their absence.

Like his nightly ice cream session with their sons, or the big breakfasts he cooked every Sunday — eggs, pancakes, bacon, grits and more.

But the thing that will probably hurt the most, she said, is when they bring his truck back — a "crappy," blue, 1989 Toyota pickup, as she described it.

It is not a thing of beauty, but it always got him to work and back.

"It was loyal," she said. "Like he was."

Kameel Stanley can be reached at kstanley@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643.

Worker crushed by elevator at St. Pete Beach's TradeWinds 04/24/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 24, 2013 11:58pm]
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