It was, in the words of one neighbor, a "horrifying'' death, the kind of accident that anyone might fear, just for a moment, when they enter any elevator.
A Boston University instructor, apparently carrying a package in her apartment building at 1140 Commonwealth Avenue, was killed when the elevator she was riding in malfunctioned, authorities said.
She was identified Tuesday as 38-year-old Carrie O’Connor, a French language lecturer at BU. The cause of death was traumatic asphyxia, and it is considered accidental, Boston police Sergeant Detective John Boyle said.
Leanne Scorzoni, a tenant in the building, said she spoke Monday night with a man who had been helping O’Connor moments before her death.
“It was horrifying,” she said.
"I heard it, he saw everything,” Scorzoni said. “He was helping her with a box into the building, and he was going up the stairs, and he had told her, ‘Hey, just be careful because it’s an old fashioned [elevator].’
“I don’t know what type of elevator it is, but you have to pull the door across and then step in and then press the button,” she continued. "However, if you have something in there, it can trigger a sensor. And . . . he told me, he believes that whatever she was trying to get in there hit the sensor, and then it started moving.”
The state is investigating the death. The elevator had been inspected recently, officials said.
O’Connor had just started her second year teaching French full time at BU, where she hoped to bring a greater sense of community and inclusion into her classroom.
She discovered her love for the Romance language in middle school, and took her first trip to France while in high school in Virginia. Her academic journey would lead her to a doctorate in French, and to teaching jobs at several Boston-area universities.
O’Connor’s death stunned family and colleagues who remembered her love for French and world travel.
“She said you shouldn’t be able to graduate college without traveling,” her mother, Christal O’Connor, told BU Today, the university’s official news site, Tuesday. “I don’t even know all the different countries she’s been to.”
Last month, as she prepared for fall classes, O’Connor sent an e-mail to colleagues with the subject line, "The joy of learning French,” according to BU Today.
“I just came across this video of Ta-Nehisi Coates giving a little interview in French at Middlebury, and I plan to find some way to incorporate it into my classes this fall,” O’Connor wrote. “For me, it encompasses so much of what we have been discussing in the French group (and [romance studies]) about inclusion, diversity, encouragement, and building community for our students.”
Kevin Bongiorni, an associate professor of French and Italian at Louisiana State University, was O’Connor’s dissertation adviser and her supervisor in planning and leading undergraduate trips to Paris.
“She was wonderful,” said Bongiorni, 61, by telephone Tuesday. “She was just always engaged with the students; she was always taking them around Paris and showing them unique things she knew . . . because she had been to Paris many times before. She just had a commitment to them, and the students really liked her.”
While studying for her doctorate, O’Connor had a busy schedule of teaching, coordinating activities, and research, but she was always upbeat, Bongiorni said.
“She was positive, she was enthusiastic, she had a wonderful smile and a great sense of humor,” he said. “I have had a very hard time replacing her. . . . There was just a spirit about her that was just so genuine and just so happy, joyous, and that came across to everyone.”
Neighbors were still trying to make sense of what exactly happened on the elevator. Shortly after 5 p.m. Monday, police responded to a “report of trauma” in the five-story building, police said. O’Connor was found dead in the elevator on the first floor, according to authorities.
Boston property records show the building dates to 1920. The landlord could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
The Division of Professional Licensure in the state Office of Public Safety and Inspections released a statement Tuesday indicating the elevator had been recently inspected, though the precise date wasn’t provided.
“The incident is under investigation and the department will continue working with first responders and other authorities to determine the cause of this accident" the statement said. "The elevator was recently inspected and was certified in accordance with state regulations.”
Scorzoni said she’s lived in the building with her husband for a year and a half and hasn’t had any issues with the elevator, though it is old and only fits two people at most.
“I will say it is extremely heavy to pull it, to pull the door shut,” Scorzoni said. “And when you are waiting downstairs and press the button, it doesn’t always descend. And when it does descend, the floors sometimes do not automatically line up.”
Scorzoni said the man who helped O’Connor was using a staircase located next to the elevator.
“So he was walking up the staircase and was just talking to her. And he just said, ‘Oh, I don’t think that’s gonna fit in there.’ And then she’s like, ‘Oh, I’ll try it one more time,’ ” Scorzoni said. “And then I heard her screaming, and I heard him screaming.”
The man, Scorzoni said, was shouting and pointing when she came out of her first-floor apartment.
“I thought someone had fallen down the staircase,” Scorzoni said. “When I looked at the elevator, it was not there. Only the ceiling of the car was on my floor, so all the cables were there.”
Scorzoni said she didn’t know O’Connor personally.
“She was only here for a few weeks,” Scorzoni said. “I don’t know who she was. . . . But everyone is horrified, everyone is. We feel awful, especially since this was someone who was just moving in and just going about her day-to-day business.”
Another building resident, Eric Carmichael, said his wife heard screaming during the accident.
“She said it was terrifying," Carmichael said. "All she saw from her angle was just some arms [of the victim] holding the package.”
Travis Andersen, Jeremiah Manion, and Matt Rocheleau of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
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