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When news of the Japanese earthquake reached Didier Michaud-Daniel on the evening of Mar. 11, the president of United Technologies' (UTX) Otis Elevator unit was at his Connecticut home. He suddenly had 80,000 elevators and 2,400 Japanese employees to worry about. So Michaud-Daniel instructed his head of Japanese operations, Eiji "Eddie" Esaki, to "keep me informed, second by second." The next evening, Esaki told him that all the employees were safe. Otis, the world's largest elevator maker, didn't yet know about all of those elevators.
Otis executives weren't sure whether people had been trapped inside their lifts during the earthquake or tsunami. In the 48 hours following the quake, the company received 13,000 calls from customers asking about their elevators. Otis funneled staff to its 21 call centers in Japan and moved technicians from southern Japan into the stricken region.
Michaud-Daniel knew Otis had technology on its side, since about half the elevators it maintains in Japan—including most in high-rise buildings and regions with severe earthquake risk—are equipped with seismic detectors. At the first vibration signaling the onset of a quake, these devices return the elevators to the ground floor so passengers can exit, then block them until Otis can check their safety.
The detectors worked. Some 16,700 elevators in the areas affected by the quake were shut down by the emergency systems. Otis, which had worldwide revenues of $11.58 billion in 2010 and manufactured about 40,000 of the 80,000 elevators it services in Japan, didn't receive any report of trapped or injured passengers. "All the elevators operated as they were supposed to," says Michaud-Daniel.
The next step was to restore service. In seven days, Otis technicians worked around the clock in shifts to restart 16,400 of the 16,700 stopped units. They continue to check equipment in cities and towns struck by the quake, though they haven't gone within 50 kilometers (30 miles) of the stricken Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant, well beyond the Japanese government's 30 kilometer ban. Because of the radiation threat, Michaud-Daniel says, "we don't know yet what's going to be the next step."
Otis's factory in Shibayama, 53 miles east of Tokyo, which boasts the highest elevator test tower in the world, temporarily suspended operations, but only on the day of the quake. Michaud-Daniel credits careful planning with helping the company maintain smooth operations during the disaster. He still gets twice-daily updates from Japan. "When you have to manage a crisis situation," he says, "you need to have your nose on the window."
The bottom line: At the quake's onset, Otis's seismic detectors shut down 16,700 elevators. Then its personnel rushed into the zone to restore service.