Stuck in an Elevator

Scott Eric Kaufman, inspired by this piece in The New Yorker, relates his own tale of being stuck in an elevator:

At this point I was about five minutes into my own hanging. The damn thing wouldn't settle and so I panicked. I started pacing frantically and I checked my watch and I knew I would be late for class because you know and why am I still hanging inches above my point of egress but then wait a minute I'm an inch from the floor I want to be on but am in fact floating in an elevator shaft four stories up with a two-thousand pound counterweight aimed at my head and maybe I ought to take a breath or two and consider the seriousness of my predicament and so with great consideration I jumped in the air and slammed my feet into the floor.

I've also found myself stuck in an elevator, not once, but twice. Weirdly, both times were in Charlottesville, VA.

The first was in college, on a spring break trip with the rugby club. Several of us went out on a beer run (this despite the fact that I was 18 and had no ID), and on coming back, we all piled into the elevator of the dive-y little hotel we were staying in. Shockingly enough, ten rugby players and six cases of beer turned out to be more weight than the elevator could handle, and it got stuck between floors. We were rescued by a hotel employee who brought the other elevator up parallel to ours, and transferred a few people over to it through a connecting door.

That wasn't too bad, because there were a bunch of us, and we could laugh and joke about it. The other occasion, at a much nicer hotel, was after my cousin's wedding.

Kate and I had ended up with rooms on the top floor of the hotel, which required us to swipe the key card before we could press the button for our floor. She went up to bed a little bit before I did, as I finished my beer and said my goodbyes to various relatives.

I got into the elevator, swiped the card, hit the button, and watched the pretty lights. 1... 2... 3... 4... 5... 6... 7... 8... ... ... The "8" went out, but the "9" never lit up. The elevator had clearly stopped moving, but the doors didn't open.

I poked at a few buttons, and nothing much happened. I swiped the key card again, nothing. More button-poking. Nothing.

"OK. The elevator is stuck," I said. I'm incredibly perceptive-- it comes from being a scientist. "I'll just use the handy emergency phone to call the lobby and get it unstuck."

I'm not sure quite what I expected from the emergency phone, but a soft hissing noise wasn't it. And it's not like it had buttons to dial 911 with-- all I could do was jiggle the cradle, which did noting.

"OK, there's an alarm button-- I'll hit that." That turned out to set a very loud bell to ringing in the car. It didn't bring any help, and the noise got real old, real fast. "Emergency Stop" rang the same bell, as far as I could tell.

At this point, I started thinking about my situation, and recalled that the only things near the elevator on the ninth floor were conference rooms-- our room was one of the first on the hall, and it was four or five doors away. The chances of anybody hearing the alarm bell and calling the desk about it were pretty much nil (it was after midnight). So I set about getting myself out of the car.

Prying the inside doors open was easy enough, and revealed that the elevator had stopped two or three feet short of the ninth floor. The outer doors, however, were held by some sort of security latch, presumably to prevent people from opening them from the outside, and jumping or falling into the shaft.

If you ever find yourself in this situation, I can now tell you that the latch on at least one popular type of elevator is located about two thirds of the way up on the left panel of the external door as seen from inside the elevator. At the time, this required a lot of blind poking around up in the works-- I got one foot up on the ledge that was the start of the ninth floor, and sort of batted around randomly until I hit something.

That got the outer doors open, which left me the prospect of climbing through them. With the mental image of some idiot down at the unstaffed front desk noticing the "stuck elevator" light at last, and hitting the "unstick" button with me halfway through the door. I was pretty pissed off by this time, though, so I hit the "Emergency Stop" button, and climbed out as fast as I could manage.

To top it all off, when I got to the room, I couldn't get the key card to work. Natuarlly, I accepted this with grace and dignity, and pound on the door hard enough to rattle the walls. Kate was a little alarmed when she let me in...

The front-desk staff, when they finally answered the phone (after about twenty rings) weren't real happy about the yelling, either.

So, anyway, that's my stuck-in-an-elevator story. I can't say I recommend the experience, but it does add an interesting extra layer to the New Yorker story...


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Elevators can do worse than simply stop between floors. I was with a large group of students who entered the elevator at a university library one afternoon. It started to rise, then stopped before the next floor. As we looked forlornly at each other, and someone reached for the dead phone, the elevator then bumped up. And down. Making no headway.

And then did this again. And again.

And settled into a rhythm of upward bumps and drops, so that the entire car was being bounced up and down like an infant on an uncle's knee. Except the infants contained therein were not gurgling in joy, and the uncle showed no awareness that this really shouldn't go on much longer. The motion wasn't that bad. Not nearly that of a small boat in a lumpy sea. The problem was the motion combined with being trapped in a small box with a bunch of strangers. There was no breeze, and no leeward gunwale to be hugged by those who were starting to turn green.

Fortunately, the elevator made on final bump then resumed its trip before we had to make room for the end results of that.

Everyone chose to exit at the next floor.

I spent fifteen minutes stuck in an elevator on the way to teaching a class. Fortunately the emergency phone did work, help was dispatched, and I actually made it to class on time. (The elevators in this building were infamous, so I always set out early to allow time for disasters.) A much better story: Years ago I was in an elevator in my dormitory when some sort of braking mechanism failed and the elevator plummeted six floors. From the sixth floor on down, people reported having heard an "Oh shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit" receding into the distance as the elevator flew by.

Come to think of it I've only been stuck temporarily in an elevator, then never lasted more than a minute or two.

But there was one elevator that you always avoided on a Friday afternoon, the one in the old Providence Police HQ. Because if you got stuck you'd be there all weekend. On Fridays everybody used the stairs.

Otis Elevator has a building in Albany. It only has one floor. Is there a reason for this? ;-)

@chezjake: probably because if there was an elevator and it stopped working, the irony would cause the whole company to implode.

The one time I was stuck in an elevator, it was for an hour. I was in a hotel in Montreal; the music ensemble I was part of was on tour, and we were supposed to leave the hotel a for rehearsal in the concert hall where we would be playing that evening. We managed to get stuck between the second and fourth floors (for some reason, there was no third floor). Oh yes, our conductor was with us in the elevator. Since I was one of the librarians at the time, I had half of the music folders with me (the woodwind parts).

Ultimately, one of the buses took the non-woodwind players to the concert hall for a sectional, while the other bus waited for those of us who were stuck to be rescued.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 20 Apr 2008 #permalink

The arts tower at the University of Sheffield has a paternoster, rather than an elevator - the only one I have ever encountered. Getting stuck between floors was not a real issue, therefore; but there were *dire* warning labels about trying to ride around either the top or bottom of the loop. I never did try :(.