By now everyone has heard about the woman trapped for three days in a swanky Manhattan townhouse elevator. A deliveryman was not able to drop off a package and called the homeowners (who were out of town) to find out why no one answered the door. They then had a family member go to the townhouse and discovered their housekeeper had been trapped inside the elevator car for three days with no food or water. Firefighters were called to the scene and forced the doors open to the elevator that was stuck between the second and third floor.
Believe it or not, although extremely rare, this is not the only time a person has been stuck for prolonged periods of time in an elevator.
In 1999 Nicholas White, who was returning to his office after a smoke break, was trapped for some 40 hours in an elevator in New York City’s McGraw-Hill building. The timelapse video of his time while stuck is truly compelling. You can absolutely empathize with a person that patiently tried to call for help, then waited as best he could, but desperately pries the car doors open, only to find a concrete slab on the other side with the number 13 ominously scrawled on cement block wall. That wall was like a punchline to a sick joke; how demoralizing! The reason for the wall was he was in an express elevator. He was stuck around the 13th floor of an elevator that starts on the first floor with the next stop being the 39th, so when he got his doors open in the car, there were no hoistway doors to be found. I can’t even imagine what it must have felt like. Here is Mr. White’s story in detail in an interview with comedian Daniel Tosh. It was interesting to note he tried the doors and the escape hatch to no avail.
Lastly, in 2005 Ming Kuang Chen, a delivery person in the Bronx for a Chinese restaurant, was stuck for 80 hours in an elevator. He was reported missing when his unaccompanied bike was found outside a high rise. Emergency personnel were scrambled and went door to door in the apartment building looking for him and even called in a dive team and cadaver dogs to search a lake in a nearby park. Despite searching everywhere, he was found stuck in the elevator and, due to poor communication, stayed there until help arrived. To make matters worse, he had just finished his last delivery so he didn’t even have any Chinese takeout to eat.
The circumstances in each episode vary regarding the cause of the entrapment, but one thing remains the same. They could not get out of the elevator car and, to the possible shock of people reading this and not familiar with elevator code, that is exactly how elevator cars are designed to work. Once you are in, you cannot get out unless you arrive at your floor and the doors open. If you are stuck…you are stuck.
That is why elevator folks always snicker a bit when they see the latest Hollywood production that has a person stuck in the elevator or has a character that wants to get on the top of the elevator car for some nefarious or crime-fighting purpose, and they easily find their way to the car roof. The leading man or woman just reaches up and pushes the secret hatch on the ceiling of the car and like magic swing up through the opening. Despite being cliche as kissing in the rain, aliens knowing perfect English, or guns that have an endless supply of bullets, it just can’t happen; and it can’t happen for a good reason. The safest place to be when there are technical problems with your elevator is inside the car and the stats back it up.
The U. S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reported that between 2003 and 2016 there were 117 elevator related deaths. 53 of those deaths were due to being struck by elevators or by the counterweights (usually elevator technicians) outside of the car. Additionally when you leave the elevator car there is a risk of falling, being electrocuted, crushed between the hoistway wall and a moving elevator or being hit by falling debris. Even if you can pry the doors open, do not leave the elevator car. You never want to be half in and half out of the elevator car if it starts moving. So what do you do? Contact the person on the other end of the emergency phone and then wait. Waiting, even if for three days, is probably your best bet.
So ultimately, every few years we will continue to hear about people being trapped in elevator cars because that is the design by intention. How the passengers got in elevators that broke down is a completely different subject for a different blog. But do keep this in mind: because there is no way out, maintenance, procedures, and attentiveness is crucial for all elevators.