HOUSTON TX — Federal, state and city safety experts converged on Christus St. Joseph Hospital on Monday to scrutinize the malfunctioning elevator that Saturday decapitated a young doctor, but the cause of the deadly accident remained a mystery.

In a candle-lit meditation room, just feet away from the hospital's plywood-boarded Elevator 14, mourners prayed for the surgical resident's soul.

Nikaidoh was trapped between the doors, then decapitated as the elevator ascended.

Twenty-six wilting bouquets surrounded an altar bearing a framed photo of the victim, Dr. Hitoshi Nikaidoh, 35, of Dallas.

Memorial mass for Nikaidoh, who graduated this year from the University of Texas-Houston Medical School, will be at 6:30 p.m. today at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church.

Nikaidoh was trapped between the doors of the cable-propelled elevator, then decapitated as the carriage ascended about 10 a.m. Saturday. At least two people witnessed the accident. One was trapped in the carriage for 20 minutes and later hospitalized for shock.

"All of us at Christus St. Joseph are deeply, deeply saddened by the tragic death of Dr. Nikaidoh," spokeswoman India Hancock said during an afternoon news conference. Hancock said grief counseling is being provided to hospital employees and a memorial service will be held at the hospital sometime after today's funeral services.

Doors shouldn't close when something's between them, and elevators shouldn't move when the doors aren't closed.

Hancock said the elevator in the hospital's George Strake Building was last inspected in July 2002 by Elevator Technical Services, a private inspection service under contract to the hospital. Another inspection was set for next month in keeping with a city requirement for annual inspection, Hancock said.

Susie Hartgrove, spokeswoman for the city's Planning and Development Department, which monitors such private inspections, said the hospital has no recent record of elevator problems.

Rick Walsh, an ETS inspector who previously has examined Elevator 14, described it as a "pretty old" cable-style Otis elevator. He was unable to say if it previously had experienced problems.

Walsh said he believes the elevator is equipped with a system of "electronic eyes" that automatically open the door if a passenger is detected blocking its path.

While the age of the faulty elevator was not available, a spokesman for the Strake Foundation said the George Strake Building is about 30 years old.

Kone Elevators, which maintains St. Joseph elevators, would not comment on Elevator 14's mechanical history, noting that such comments must come from the hospital. Hancock said she was uncertain of the elevator's history.

Don Berman, a licensed professional engineer from California who has served as an expert witness in lawsuits involving elevators, said the Houston incident appeared to involve interrelated problems.

Elevator fatalities are actually quite rare.

"You've got multiple things going on," said Berman, who has handled major accident investigations in Texas. "You've got doors that shouldn't close if something is between them, and you've got a set of contacts in the door that should keep the elevator from moving if the doors are not closed," he said.

Those two things can happen simultaneously if there is a problem with the electric voltage reaching the elevator's components, he said.

Berman said investigators should examine whether the company making the elevator had received related complaints.

Elevator fatalities are rare.

William Kuntz Jr., executive director of the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, which oversees elevator inspections in most state communities, said there have been no fatal elevator accidents in the state in at least four years. In Houston, such inspections are overseen by the city's Department of Planning and Development.

Most accidents involve passengers tripping when elevator cars fail to properly align with floors as the doors open.

But deadly accidents do occur.

A Louisiana patient's gurney was pinned between the roof of an elevator and the second floor.

In late July, L.A. Brown, 76, of Kenner, La., was crushed when an elevator malfunctioned at the Kenner Regional Medical Center near New Orleans. Brown was a patient at the hospital, and was killed when he was pinned between the roof of an elevator car and the second floor of the hospital, according to published accounts.

In 1999, Mary Margaret Nowosielski, a 56-year-old Michigan woman, was being admitted to St. Joseph Mercy hospital in Clinton Township, Mich., for a stress test when she died in an elevator accident. The elevator rose suddenly as she was being rolled into it on a gurney. She was lodged between the elevator car and the shaft wall and dragged four floors, news reports said.

A Michigan patient was lodged between the elevator and the shaft wall and dragged four floors.

In terse, one- or two-sentence summaries, the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission has documented numerous other elevator deaths in the past three years. Many involve persons falling down an open elevator shaft when the car didn't arrive, or being killed while attempting to repair or maintain an elevator. In other cases, people were asphyxiated after being trapped between the elevator and the elevator shaft.

A federally financed Center to Protect Workers' Rights study found that elevator accidents claimed an average of 27 lives a year between 1992 and 1998.

By comparison, in a recent year 47 people were killed in accidents involving small appliances such as toasters and hair dryers. And elevator deaths are far fewer than the 350 persons killed in a recent year in all-terrain vehicle accidents or the 340 who died in fires caused by oven ranges, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The CPSC does not have jurisdiction to regulate elevators as it does some products, which means they are not subject to federal accident inspections or recalls of parts, said spokesman Scott Wolfson. But the commission does track accident reports involving elevators.

In 2002, 11,315 people reported an elevator accident, down just slightly from the 11,694 in 2000.