When Karen and Patrick Grablin decided to install an elevator in their three-story home overlooking Palma Sola Bay, they had no reason to think it could be dangerous.
But after the holidays last January, their 12-year-old son Maxwell Erik Grablin was looking for his pet hamster in the elevator shaft — a regular occurrence in the Grablin household — when a horrible series of events left Max pinned under the elevator while his father relentlessly tried to open the elevator doors. Max suffocated before he could get out of the shaft.
“Losing a child, you feel like your insides got ripped out,” Karen Grablin said.
It all could have been prevented if a simple sensor, similar to that on garage doors, had been installed on the elevator to keep it from moving while Max was in the shaft. But the Grablins didn’t know such a sensor was available when they had the elevator installed.
“We had the elevator repaired after the accident, and the gentleman who owned the elevator company actually came personally to do the repair,” Karen Grablin said. “And when he realized what had happened, he said, ‘This shouldn’t have happened. This could have been prevented if there had been a safety device put in place, that probably wouldn’t have been that expensive.’ ”
The Grablins decided to push for legislation to make sure no other parent would have to suffer their pain.
Dr. Patrick Grablin talked to Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, in November and explained the preventable tragedy, and Galvano decided to take up legislation to mandate safety sensors in residential elevators.
“I’m the majority leader in the Senate, so I don’t typically sponsor bills,” Galvano said. “But this was a unique circumstance that hit my heart.”
The bill is simple, making such a sensor mandatory in all residential elevators. It applies to both new and existing elevators, and Galvano said he believes that standard is already required for commercial elevators. Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, is sponsoring the House version.
Elevator deaths are not common — incidents involving both elevators and escalators kill about 30 people every year and seriously injure about 17,000 people a year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The two major causes of death are falls and being caught between moving parts, like Max was.
Max was on his third hamster at the time, after his second had crawled into the elevator shaft and the Grablins found it later. Karen Grablin said the hamster would escape three times a week and almost always crawl into the elevator shaft, so they taught Max how to stop the elevator between floors so he could climb in and get the hamster. Since the elevator wouldn’t operate while the doors were open, they didn’t think it would be a problem.
But somehow, the door slammed shut, which a child fatality report by the Department of Children and Families attributes to wind. When Patrick Grablin heard his son yelling from inside the shaft, he instinctively hit the button to open the door, but it also made the elevator descend on top of Max.
“Max was my boy, he was the love of my life,” Patrick Grablin said. “That day I was just numb. I was sick.”
Karen Grablin had been out of town taking care of her father at the time, and was told about the accident by a local police department.
“It didn’t feel real,” Karen Grablin said. “I also felt numb, and I felt helpless, because I guess being so far removed in that moment that I couldn’t imagine that it was really true.”
Both of them described Max as their world. He was their only child and their “miracle baby,” because he came later in life for them. He was sweet and loving, enjoyed animals and building things and never treated anyone like a stranger. He had attention deficit disorder and high-functioning Asperger’s, and his personality was magnetic, they said.
Anyone who got to know him adopted him in some way, Patrick Grablin said. “I even had patients who just saw pictures in my office who would bring him gifts.”
“He would light up other people’s lives and he would draw them in, and they would just want to be a part of his life and his world,” Karen Grablin added.
They took Max traveling often, to more than a dozen countries and half the states. Though he only had a short time in the world, Karen Grablin said he got to see a lot of it. But they wish the world had seen more of Max.
That drove them to push for the legislation — reopening wounds that were far from healed — to make sure no other family would have to lose a loved one.
“We’ve tried many ways to honor his memory and make sure that his life mattered,” Karen Grablin said.
The Grablins also set up a memorial fund through Gulf Coast Community Foundation to help animals and children in need, because that’s what Max loved. They’ve had more than 250 donations made to the fund, and they put his college fund into it as well.
And even more than a year later, the Grablins say it feels like it just happened. Patrick Grablin said he might even think more about his son now than he did when he was alive, because he misses him all the time. Even everyday actions like cooking remind them of Max, because Patrick Grablin would let him taste the spices and Max would approve.
“When you’re a child who loses your parents, you’re called an orphan, and when you’re a husband or a wife who loses a spouse, you’re called a widow,” Karen Grablin said. “But they don’t have a name for when you’re a parent who loses a child, because it’s not supposed to happen.”