San Antonio

  • How to check safety inspections for any elevator or escalator in Texas

    The view from the Tower of the Americas in San Antonio
    The view from the top of the Tower of the Americas, the tallest structure in San Antonio.

    The elevators at the Tower of the Americas in San Antonio look like something out of the Jetsons. Yet every once in a while, the futuristic contraptions get stuck, stranding people hundreds of feet in the air.

    Last week it happened again. Firefighters rescued 14 people, including two children, who were trapped inside a stalled elevator. This time they were only 50 feet high. But on a hot summer day they had no air conditioning for part of their two-hour ordeal.

    Tower of the Americas in San Antonio
    The Tower of the Americas and a stalled elevator, Dec. 28, 2012
    If all these incidents are making you wonder about the safety record of elevators at the tower or your office building, there’s a quick way to find answers in Texas.

    An obscure state agency, the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, oversees a hodgepodge of industries such as barbers, boilermakers and tow-truck companies to name a few.

    Elevators and escalators are also under TDLR’s purview. State law requires elevator and escalator owners to hire a licensed inspector annually to check the machinery. Many owners also hire contractors to conduct routine maintenance and repairs.

    The results of the annual inspections are sent to TDLR, which has been posting them all online since 2001. The first time I worked on a story about a stuck elevator at the Tower of the Americas in 2006, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that TDLR offered a quick way access those annual inspection reports and other documents online.

    Not every agency makes this kind of thing so easy, even in 2015.

    Searching for records

    On the search page, you can type parameters such as owner name or building address:

    TDLR's elevator inspection search page

    Click on the search result you want — in this case, the Tower of the Americas — and the next page shows how many elevators and escalators are in the building. Clicking on the “show documents” button takes you to a list of downloadable inspection reports and correspondence.

    Elevator inspection page on TDLR's website

    It’s a timely, useful resource. But it’s not perfect.

    Past tragedy

    While TDLR offers easy access to individual inspection reports, the agency doesn’t plug in the results of those inspections into any kind of database that could be analyzed and show just how often major problems are found.

    And a tragedy at the Crockett Hotel in San Antonio revealed weaknesses in Texas’ regulatory system on Dec. 28, 2011, when a 65-year-old housekeeper named Gloria Rodriguez fell six stories to her death down an elevator shaft.

    Past inspections for the elevator looked relatively benign. But after the fatal accident, TDLR’s chief inspector, Lawrence Taylor, scrutinized the elevator and found a litany of problems. In tests, Taylor saw the elevator car stop at a landing, then move upward of its own accord with no signal to run.

    Taylor called that a “matter of grave concern.”

    No one actually did anything meaningful or effective to uncover the real problem”

    “Someone with special knowledge of the elevator control system knew that there was a problem with the brake and intentionally installed a jumper and moved wires in an attempt to overcome the problem(s),” Taylor wrote in his report. “However, no one actually did anything meaningful or effective to uncover the real problem(s) and embark on a course of action that would have solved the problem and prevented this tragic event.

    “This tragedy was preventable,” Taylor wrote, “and was a direct result of the failure to have the elevator inspected as required and inadequate maintenance.”

    TDLR fined the owner of the Crockett Hotel and its contractor, Otis Elevator Co., nearly $86,000 for Rodriguez’s death.

    Over the years I’ve spoken with TDLR employees about the valuable service the agency provides by making so much information available on its website for so many years. But given the tragedy at the Crockett Hotel, just how reliable are the state-mandated annual inspections?

    “When you consider how many elevators there are in the state and that they’re working every day, I think overall they are effective,” said Susan Stanford, a spokeswoman for TDLR.

    Customers can help keep each other safe by checking certificates that are supposed to be posted near every elevator and see whether it’s overdue for an annual inspection, Stanford said. And she emphasized that elevator accidents are rare. Even at the Tower of the Americas, where elevators routinely get stuck, the incidents are usually a sign that safety mechanisms worked.

    “Instances involving a major violation don’t happen often, but they do happen,” Stanford added in an email she sent me today. “Inspectors identifying ‘reportable conditions’ are required to notify TDLR and must request the owner’s cooperation in shutting down the equipment until it is repaired or brought into compliance.”

    Escalator danger

    While it’s unnerving to be trapped inside an elevator at the 622-foot-tall tower, mundane escalators harm more people. Escalator and elevator owners have to report injuries to TDLR, and in San Antonio the injuries usually stem from escalator accidents. In 2010, a 3-year-old child trying to go up an escalator at Rolling Oaks Mall fell and got two fingers stuck. They were amputated.

    I didn’t find much fodder in the most recent elevator inspection records posted for the Tower of the Americas. But after an earlier incident at the tower on Dec. 28, 2012, the search was more productive and led to this news story:

    All three elevators at the Tower of the Americas, where several employees were trapped early Friday in one of the cars about 400 feet in the air, were behind schedule on state-mandated annual inspections, records show.

    The Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation sent notices in May to Landry’s Inc., the company that operates the city-owned landmark, warning that inspections due in April were late. The licensing department oversees elevator safety.

    Landry’s later told the agency it completed the inspections in September and October. But the company hasn’t yet filed the results of the inspections for at least one of the elevators, according to a Dec. 27 notice the agency sent to Landry’s.

    Past inspections at the Tower of the Americas uncovered rusted brackets that came loose from the tower structure. Inspectors also recommended adjusting safety mechanisms for all three elevators. The mechanisms, called “governors,” control speed. One of the elevators flunked a safety test for its governor.

    So these inspection reports can be interesting reading. Just remember the Crockett Hotel and keep in mind you might not be seeing a complete picture of an elevator’s safety record.


  • San Antonio lawyer Alberto Acevedo says he bribed judge, got favorable treatment

    Express-News Reporter Guillermo Contreras, who covers the federal-courts beat, has been writing scoop after scoop about an FBI investigation at the Bexar County courthouse in San Antonio. The latest bombshell is a story about this plea deal for local defense lawyer Alberto “Al” Acevedo Jr., who lays out in excruciating detail how he bribed Bexar County District Judge Angus McGinty by giving him cash, paying for car repairs and selling the judge’s Mercedes for him:

    “In exchange for these bribes, Judge McGinty provided favorable judicial rulings which benefited me and my clients,” Acevedo says in the court document. “Judge McGinty provided these favorable judicial rulings as requested, and as opportunities arose. These favorable rulings included leniency at sentencing and less restrictive conditions of release.”

    San Antonio lawyer AcevedoThe clients included a man who was convicted of DWI and sentenced by McGinty to three years imprisonment. In court, McGinty had said the defendant had committed so many offenses it didn’t make any sense to put him on probation. Yet after Acevedo asked him to reduce the sentence, the judge did just that and sentenced him to four years community supervision:

    On Sept. 10, Gabriel A. Lopez stood before then-state District Judge Angus McGinty and received three years in prison and a $1,500 fine for his no-contest plea to drunken driving.

    He admitted his blood alcohol level was 0.21 — more than 21/2 times the legal limit. It was his third driving-while-intoxicated conviction.

    “There comes a time when someone has committed so many offenses that it doesn’t make sense to put them on probation,” McGinty told Lopez, 35, who appeared with attorney Leandro Renaud.

    The judge noted Lopez had 11 prior criminal cases and had received probation four times, while three of those were revoked.

    “That’s unacceptable, Mr. Lopez,” McGinty admonished. “I do not think probation is appropriate.”

    But just three days later, on Sept. 13, Lopez stood before McGinty again, this time with lawyer Al Acevedo Jr. And this time, he walked out a happier man after the judge changed Lopez’s sentence to four years of probation.

    “Mr. Lopez, when you were here last, and I sentenced you, it’s because I thought you had earned the right to go to” prison, McGinty said. “Your attorney has done a good job of pointing out some facts that I didn’t adequately consider before.”

    In reality, the FBI has alleged, Acevedo had the good graces of the judge because he had served as McGinty’s personal car service — paying for repairs on the jurist’s two luxury cars with the expectation that the scales of justice would tilt heavily in favor of Acevedo’s clients.

    Later, Acevedo’s law partner congratulated Acevedo. “I guess it does make a difference givin’, givin’ people money, right?”

    Acevedo laughed. “Sure does,” he replied.

    Other clients that benefited from the judge’s leniency included an alleged bank robber and a man charged with aggravated robbery.

    McGinty resigned after word of the federal investigation spread but hasn’t yet been charged.


  • Check out the San Antonio bars and restaurants that raked in the most money in alcohol sales

    Jen at Bohanan's
    Date night with no kids. Look how happy this woman looks.

    Last night Jen and I enjoyed a rare date night at one of our favorite restaurants downtown, Bohanan’s, a swanky oasis of cocktails, jazz — and no screaming Tedesco children.

    If you’ve ever wondered exactly how much money your favorite haunt makes in alcohol sales, there’s now an easy way to find out.

    Joe Kokenge, the Express-News’ database editor, put together this interactive data viz that shows total alcohol sales for San Antonio bars and restaurants last year. Some of these numbers are mind-blowing.

    The top seller in San Antonio was the JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa — the same project that sparked years of controversy for seeking exemptions from city taxes and for building on the environmentally sensitive Edwards Aquifer recharge zone.

    The resort raked in more than $11 million in alcohol sales in 2013. That’s more than the second-place venue, the AT&T Center, home of the San Antonio Spurs and overpriced macro brews.

    The sales data comes from the Texas Comptroller’s office, which doesn’t offer the information in a very user-friendly format. Joe combined a year’s worth of data and put together an interactive, easy-to-use table that you can sort and search.

    It doesn’t show who sold the most alcohol, only how much revenue was generated in alcohol sales. So expensive drinks might move a company up in the rankings.

    Out of curiosity, I checked Bohanan’s and learned it generated a whopping $2.2 million in alcohol sales in 2013.

    That’s a lot of fancy cocktails.

  • ‘San Antonio 4’ set free after doubts raised in bizarre criminal case

    Anna Vasquez, right, embraces her brother David Vasquez, as family and friends of Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera and Kristie Mayhugh gather in the 175th District Court in the Cadena Reeves Justice Center to hear that the 3 women will be released from prison. Monday, Nov. 18, 2013. The fourth women, Anna Vasquez, was released on parole from prison just over a year ago.Express-News reporter Michelle Mondo spent 18 months investigating the bizarre case of the “San Antonio Four” — four women accused of sexually assaulting two girls over the course of a weekend filled with debauchery and Satan worship. Michelle’s meticulously researched article raised questions about the evidence and the credibility of the accusers, who might have made up the whole sordid story.

    Since then, one of the accusers recanted, and one of the accused was released on parole. Today, the remaining members of the San Antonio Four were set free on bond.

    Amazing.

    (Photo credit: Bob Owen/San Antonio Express-News)


  • Former San Antonio official Fernando De Leon faces federal charges in alleged bribery scheme

    Fernando De Leon, assistant director of land development for the city of San AntonioIn March 2010, San Antonio police detectives and FBI agents visited the city’s Planning and Development Services Department, the place where real estate projects go to live or die based on whether the necessary permits are approved.

    One of the officials who signed off on those permits was Fernando De León, the department’s friendly, soft-spoken assistant director. Investigators headed to his office. De León wasn’t there, but they seized his computer and files. City Manager Sheryl Sculley later fired him, but De León wasn’t arrested.

    Until last week.

    A federal indictment made public Thursday sheds light on the case against De León:



    Longtime readers of the Express-News might remember some of the details we had discovered about the case through public records and lots of digging:

  • Authorities were scrutinizing De León and a permit-expediting company called Rapid Permit Services. Federal officials subpoenaed records at Pape-Dawson Engineers Inc., one of the largest engineering firms in town, to gather information about Rapid Permit Services and possibly others. Pape-Dawson was not the target of the inquiry;
  • Rapid Permit Services got a plum job at the Rim, an 800-acre shopping center;
  • De León reviewed and approved some of the paperwork for the Rim that had been filed by Rapid Permit Services;
  • De León’s sister and possibly his mother were tied to Rapid Permit Services;
  • At Pape-Dawson, the point of contact for Rapid Permit Services was a project manager named Oscar Rodriguez.
  • For the first time, the indictment lays out the actual allegations against De León, and describes how he is accused of teaming up with Rodriguez to defraud Pape-Dawson and the firm’s clients.

    Check out the most recent story here, and if you want to learn more, here are past posts about the case.


  • Road rage in Texas: Find accidents in your neighborhood with this interactive map


    Full map
    Crash with one or more injuries. Crash with no injuries.

    Braylon Nelson is one of the sweetest kids you’ll ever meet. Like any other 2-year-old boy with an insatiable curiosity, he asks a million questions and loves stories. When I visited him, a 400-page book of fairy tales was on his bed near the medical equipment that helps him breathe and eat.

    Braylon’s father was driving him home from daycare last year when a Ford F-150 crashed into their small Saturn SL2. Witnesses said the truck driver had been speeding during a dispute with another motorist, and police blamed the accident on road rage.

    The Nelsons had nothing to do with the altercation, but Braylon was paralyzed from the neck down.

    No other county in Texas has as many reported road-rage crashes as Bexar County. Police and sheriff’s deputies cited road rage as a contributing factor in 680 crashes from 2007 to 2011.

    That’s according to a public database of every vehicle accident in the state. The information comes from police accident reports, known as CR-3 forms, and are compiled by the Texas Department of Transportation in a massive database called the Crash Records Information System.

    The database tracks hundreds of details about each accident, and anyone can request this information from TxDOT. You can ask for specific locations or types of crashes, or request a copy of the entire database if you’re comfortable using spreadsheets or database managers. To get an idea of what kind of information is available, check out this TxDOT spreadsheet. Or you can read the annual reports of crash statistics published by TxDOT.

    Why does Bexar County have so many road rage crashes? It’s unclear whether we have more angry drivers, or whether San Antonio police are more apt to cite road rage than officers in other jurisdictions.

    Road Rage in Bexar CountyWhen I met with police officials about these statistics, they said they couldn’t comment on the reporting practices in other cities. But about 12 years ago they recognized San Antonio had a growing problem with aggressive drivers, and police started a program in which officers drive in unmarked cars to catch speeders, tailgaters, and other unsafe motorists like the ones accused of paralyzing Braylon.

    I’ve seen some crazy drivers in San Antonio, and when I was working on this story, it seemed like every day I saw someone driving like a maniac.

    If you want to learn more about road rage, you can check out the data for yourself in this interactive map that shows crashes in your neighborhood. You can also download the raw numbers here.

  • Wrong-way crashes on San Antonio highways happen more often than you might think

    Wrong-way crashes in San Antonio flew under the radar

    A few months ago, my boss, Express-News Projects Editor David Sheppard, asked me to see what we could find out about wrong-way crashes on highways. It seemed like there were a lot of these deadly accidents in the news lately, and local officials had recently unveiled a $500,000 pilot project to install flashing wrong-way signs and radar on a 15-mile segment of U.S. 281.

    I wrapped up what I was working on and teamed up with reporter Vianna Davila, who covers transportation. We had to answer two deceptively simple questions. How often do wrong-way crashes happen? And how does Bexar County compare to other counties?

    We turned to a giant database maintained by the Texas Department of Transportation called the Crash Records Information System. It’s derived from accident reports filled out by law enforcement officers, and it tracks hundreds of details about every accident in Texas — including wrong-way crashes.

    But we soon learned there was no quick and easy way to filter the data for the specific wrong-way accidents we were looking for — crashes on major divided highways with exit and entrance ramps.

    The database had a “road type” field, with categories that included interstates, tollways and U.S. and state highways. So far, so good. But some state highways are actually busy roads, such as Bandera Road. The wrong-way crashes on those boulevards are different from the type of accident we were examining. We weren’t writing about distracted drivers who cross a center line into oncoming traffic. We were writing about drivers who head up exit ramps and into oncoming traffic on busy highways and interstates.

    We ended up selecting the five Texas counties with the largest populations, mapped the wrong-way accidents with Google Fusion Tables, and then eyeballed each location to make sure it actually occurred on a major highway. Here’s how the finished product looked for Bexar County:

    It took hours of work but the result was a set of specific crashes we were looking for. And the final numbers were surprising — Bexar County ranked high in wrong-way accidents for the years 2007-2011. It even had more crashes than Dallas County, which is more densely populated and has more traffic. To our knowledge, no one has done this kind of comparison in recent years.

    If you work for a news organization and you’re jumping into data journalism (and you should be), it’s a good idea to share your methodology and findings with the government employees who oversee the data. You don’t want to be surprised by an error they catch after the story is published. And it gives the agency a chance to respond if your findings cast the agency in a harsh light.

    It was certainly surprising to learn Bexar County ranked so high. The other surprise was how long the deadly problem flew under the radar. Despite several high-profile, deadly wrong-way crashes, local officials didn’t start talking about ways to prevent them until the summer of 2010.

    To learn more, check out our two-part series about wrong-way crashes. And check back here when we see how the pilot program is working to stop wrong-way drivers.


  • Nickel and dimed: Find out which gas stations have faulty pumps that overcharge motorists

    Valero Station in San Antonio

    If you’ve ever suspected your neighborhood gas station is stiffing you at the pump, you might already know you can file a complaint with the Weights and Measures Program at the Texas Department of Agriculture. The agency’s inspectors verify the accuracy of gas pumps.

    But which stations rack up the most complaints, flunk the most inspections and cost consumers the most money?

    The answers to those questions lurk within inspection data collected by state employees. The information is public. But like many government agencies, Weights and Measures hasn’t been analyzing its own data to look for trends that could help consumers make informed decisions.

    So Express-News Data Editor Joe Yerardi downloaded a publicly available copy of the inspection data and took a look at it for himself.

    The result was an interesting Sunday story that told readers things that state officials probably should have known themselves.

    Joe learned that one out of five stations in San Antonio had at least one pump that failed inspections. The pumps that are more likely to shortchange customers are owned by one of the biggest players in town: Valero Energy Corp.

    Joe mapped the locations of the stations and their inspection results, so anyone can check out the track record of their neighborhood gas station.

    Joe told me it took nearly four weeks to work on the story. One of the difficulties he faced was sharing what he learned with state officials, who hadn’t analyzed their own database of inspection reports.

    “It’s not their job,” Joe said, describing the bureaucratic mentality of some government workers. “It’s not what they’re paid to do.”

    Not every government agency is like that, but it’s not an uncommon problem. When I found a San Antonio police database that documented every vehicle pursuit involving officers, I was a bit surprised to learn that SAPD had never analyzed the information, even though it shed light on an important public policy issue.

    These agencies probably paid some poor data-entry monkey to go through each paper report and type the details into a spreadsheet or database. Why not go the extra step and analyze that information?

    Joe described these kinds of stories as “low-hanging fruit” for journalists, who can step in and analyze databases that agencies aren’t scrutinizing.

    “If they would go above and beyond their actual jobs, there’d be less of a need for reporters,” he said.

    (Photo credit: Derrich on Flickr)

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