The 41-hour smoke break and other elevator stories

April 18th, 2008 by Julie Ferguson

While working late one Friday night to meet a publication deadline, Nicholas White decided to take a smoke break. It lasted 41 hours.
White worked on the 43rd floor of the McGraw Hill Building in downtown Manhattan. His descent in the elevator on his way to the smoke break was uneventful, but on the trip back up, the elevator got stuck around the 13th floor. Despite ringing alarms and the fact that his frantic attempts to extricate himself were visible on security cameras, nobody noticed until Sunday, when he was finally released. You can watch a consolidated time lapse film of his ordeal as captured by the building’s security cameras.
The New Yorker article goes into some detail about White’s thoughts and actions during his entrapment, along with a great deal of detail on elevators – maybe more than you cared to know. The story of his confinement is pretty riveting, but the events after he was released are a story unto themselves. It’s understandable that White was traumatized. (You can discuss to what degree, as did the folks on Metafilter where we found this story – unfiltered language alert if your organization is strict about that.) Suffice it to say, 41 hours of solitary confinement and sensory deprivation while contemplating your potential – and increasingly likely – demise is probably against the Geneva convention rules for torture. People can survive for three days without water, but after that, things get tricky. So White most definitely had a stressful ordeal. One could make a case for PTSD.
White never returned to his job and is now unemployed – you can read the full details why in the article, but the short version is that he was again entrapped, this time by anger and entitlement. In retrospect, he recognizes that it was not the event itself that changed him but his reactions to it. There’s a lesson in his story that could probably be instructive to those who are helping people return to work after a physical injury. The psychological event of an injury can be as debilitating to recover from as the physical component. When trying to help people get well to and to resume their normal lives, the psychological trauma they have endured should not be overlooked.
Elevator tragedy: gruesome and horrifying death was not unique
In the same forum where we learned about White’s ordeal, we found a disturbing elevator-related article with a much worse outcome. In 2003, Dr. Hitoshi Nikaidoh stepped into an elevator at St. Joseph Hospital in Houston and wound up losing his life. If you read the article in full, it may make a lasting change in your future elevator behavior. If you were previously inclined to insert a shoulder or a leg in the door to catch the elevator, it’s likely you may think twice about that going forward.
Elevators are safe for most people most of the time, so we take them for granted. But when things go wrong, they can really go wrong. And they go wrong more frequently than you might think. According to Houston Press reporter Wendy Grossman, there were 256 elevator- and escalator-related accidents in Texas in the year before the article was written. Nationally, elevators and escalators kill about 30 people a year and seriously injure 17,100. Grossman notes, “There are no federal mandates on elevator safety. The U.S. government doesn’t require elevators to be inspected, or that elevator inspectors know what they’re doing. It’s up to individual states.”

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