February 7th, 2012

Death by Elevator

Posted in Interior Space, Transportation, United States by Christopher Szabla

Photo by Bartek Kucharczyk

It all happened so quickly. Suzanne Hart, a 41 year old ad exec, was heading to work in her Midtown Manhattan office building on a busy mid-December morning when, crossing the threshold of a filling elevator, her foot became stuck between the elevator car and the solid ground of the first floor. That’s when the unexpected occurred: the car, with its doors still open, suddenly shot upward, dragging her body into the narrow space between its still-open doors and the walls of the shaft it was travelling through. The passengers who had made it safely on board were forced to watch through the open door as, in the dim, grim crevasse outside, Hart’s life ended instantly. It took an hour before they were able to get away — about nine before anyone was able to extract Hart’s remains.

Like buses, subways, and cabs, elevators are a critical form of urban transportation, even if — outside of the handful of places where public elevators scale hills and cliffs — they’re much less likely to be thought of as such. For millions of people who live and work in vertical cities like New York, São Paulo, and Hong Kong, they’re more than mere appendages to morning and evening commutes. Workers and residents in particularly tall buildings may sometimes spend more time in elevator shafts than subway tubes; “the local” is how many New Yorkers jokingly refer to elevators that stop on every floor (many supertall skyscrapers, like the Empire State Building, actually do have local and express elevator systems that mirror the city’s two-tiered subway).

The density of a city like New York would scarcely be possible without transit that can transcend congestion by moving underground as well as ascend from it to the soaring towers above. When Haruki Murakami wanted to emphasize that a character in his latest novel, IQ84, had never experienced the city, he described her as having never ridden either a subway or an elevator. “As the world urbanizes—every year, in developing countries, sixty million people move into cities—the numbers [of those who ride elevators] will go up, and up and down,” writes Nick Paumgarten in a 2008 article for the New Yorker. “The elevator, underrated and overlooked,” he continues, “is to the city what paper is to reading and gunpowder is to war.”

And so each daily trip requires countless urbanites to place faith in the swift and safe conveyance of a vessel that defies gravity while shooting through a darkly-lit tube. And yet we reserve the balance of our fears for elevators’ horizontal cousin, the subway. It’s a reasonable (or at least understandable) apprehension. Subways and buildings are attacked by terrorists, not elevators. It’s difficult to think of an example of an elevator hijacking, while subway scenarios have spawned two versions of The Taking of the Pelham 1-2-3. We may fear that elevators won’t make the most efficient escape routes — the fact that few could be persuaded to use them in an emergency is the reason Los Angeles’ towers are all flat-roofed, since they each require, by law, helicopter landing pads — but we rarely fear that death may come from elevators themselves.

Our nonchalance toward what the world outside North America calls the lift, is, for once, an instinct backed up by fact. “Ask a vertical-transportation-industry professional to recall an episode of an elevator in free fall—the cab plummeting in the shaftway, frayed rope ends trailing in the dark—and he will say that he can think of only one,” Paumgarten writes. “That would be the Empire State Building incident of 1945, in which a B-25 bomber pilot made a wrong turn in the fog and crashed into the seventy-ninth floor, snapping the hoist and safety cables of two elevators.” It took an incredibly freak occurrence — a consequence of one of the safest means of transportation, air travel, affecting another, an elevator trip, to bring about what most imagine might be a common elevator failure. And even then, the person in the elevator at the time survived. Paumgarten continues:

[E]levators are extraordinarily safe—far safer than cars…An average of twenty-six people die in (or on) elevators in the United States every year, but most of these are people being paid to work on them. That may still seem like a lot, until you consider that that many die in automobiles every five hours. In New York City, home to fifty-eight thousand elevators, there are eleven billion elevator trips a year—thirty million every day—and yet hardly more than two dozen passengers get banged up enough to seek medical attention.

By contrast, even the elevator’s closest competitor, the escalator, is “scary”. Unofficial statistics indicate that direct vertical ascension is ten times safer than its diagonal cousin. And yet, Paumgarten observes, “elevator lore has its share of horrors: strandings, manglings, fires, drownings, decapitations”. Most of these miseries aren’t inflicted by the elevator so much as its riders, though — elevators don’t kill people; people kill people. As Paumgarten dryly notes:

Loading up an empty elevator car with discarded Christmas trees, pressing the button for the top floor, then throwing in a match, so that by the time the car reaches the top it is ablaze with heat so intense that the alloy (called “babbitt”) connecting the cables to the car melts, and the car, a fireball now, plunges into the pit: this practice, apparently popular in New York City housing projects, is inadvisable.

Just days after Hart’s demise, Dolores Gillespie was returning by elevator to her apartment in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights when she was doused with gasoline, battered by a Molotov cocktail, and burned to death waiting for her when her car arrived on her floor. The incident highlighted another risk elevators pose: their small size and lack of alternative exits leave their passengers vulnerable in dangerous situations. But these problems are inherent to any room built like an elevator car. Nor, hardly, could it mean that elevators could really be blamed for Gullespie’s demise — or anyone else facing a criminal’s assault on their life.

That there was no such malice involved made Hart’s death appear, in retrospect, all the more shocking. Single deaths don’t often inspire panic in a city of over eight million, but for days, even weeks after the incident, New Yorkers took more caution stepping into elevators, even those equipped with modern sensors that could stop to ensure they weren’t closing on someone angling to get inside (how, the reasoning went, could they be trusted?) The usual awkward jokes about slow elevators became, instead, nervous ones. “HIGH ANXIETY” blared the headline of the New York Post; its reporters rounded up workers and residents of high-rises who had become newly determined, however irrationally, only to take the stairs. A fitness trainer, alleging injury due to a minor elevator incident that occurred a month before Hart died, felt emboldened to sue the company that repaired his building’s elevator cords.

In its defiance of both statistics and the mundane, quotidian daily lives of elevators, in which a skipped floor often seems to be the biggest risk, the very unlikelihood of Hart’s death was what struck so much fear into those who began entering each elevator lobby with newfound weariness. Like a plane crash, it was the exception that proves the rule — and the fact that rules have exceptions. Death lurks even in the safest of circumstances. Random, unexpected carnage can come at almost any time, whatever the odds. Life, like an elevator, hangs by a string.

A few weeks after Hart’s death, I was on a 2/3 line train that was poised to dart uptown when I heard a voice call after the conductor as we were stopped at Borough Hall station in downtown Brooklyn. The announcement to stand clear of the closing doors had sounded and the gap between each set of heavy metal gateways was closing rapidly. But just before sealing shut, the train’s doors somehow stuck stubbornly open, with just a small gap remaining between them.

In a minute, they opened fully again, and the source of the voice strode aboard, gleaming. It’s a frequent vignette in subway stations across New York, and usually a harmless one; passengers forcing their way onto trains this way typically endure little more than a sharp rejoinder from the conductor to quit blocking doors. But not everyone is so lucky; despite sensors in the cars’ doors, conductors ultimately make the decision about whether there’s someone still trying to make it on, and, like all human beings, sometimes get it wrong. People have been dragged along platforms, nearly sucked into the tunnels where they might be crushed between the train and narrow walls — not unlike what happened to Hart.

It’s possible that if her death had some at the hands of a subway door rather than an elevator, the straggler boarding at Borough Hall wouldn’t have been so daring with his luck. For once, the subway must have seemed the safer trip. But it wasn’t as if he didn’t appreciate his chances. “I made it,” he announced to the rest of the train; “I made it on with just my toe”. He spent the rest of the ride on to the next station dancing in celebration.


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One comment

  1. Shaun says:

    There are door switches and sensors that stop the lift from operating when the doors are not fully closed.

    Building owners play a role in safety of elevator users. Security can be enhanced as a prevention.

    My thoughts and prayers for the victims.

    April 17th, 2013 at 9:34 am