If you’ve ever watched a disaster movie, listened to that old Aerosmith single or nervously glanced at a maximum load placard, you’ve probably pondered what you would do if you were ever trapped in a falling elevator.
Statistically, elevators are quite safe, as long as their safety features function properly and passengers remain fully inside the car. Most elevator-related injuries and fatalities happen to construction or maintenance workers, followed by people who fall down shafts or are crushed after being caught in elevator doors or between floors.
Modern elevators incorporate safety features to help prevent fatal falls.Traction elevators, which move cars up and down using steel cables, pulleys and counterweights, have a speed-sensing governor. If the car zips downward too quickly, the governor activates brakes on the elevator’s travel rails. Traction elevators also locate switches along the elevator shaft, which detect cars as they pass and initiate slowdowns and stops at the appropriate points in their travel, whether during a normal stop or because the car is moving too fast. Each of the four to eight steel cables in a traction elevator is strong enough by itself to hold the car.
Hydraulic elevators, which lift and lower elevator cars using a piston jack similar to the one auto mechanics use to lift automobiles, generally lack the safety features of traction elevators (unless the builders install special aftermarket safety brakes). Although they are unlikely to fail, if they do, they are more likely to fail catastrophically than traction elevators. On the plus side, it’s impractical to build a hydraulic lift higher than six stories, so you’re only going to fall 60 to 90 feet. Then again, that means you’ll hit the basement doing a brisk 48 to 53 mph. Ouch.
What to do
So, you’re in a falling elevator. Life has given you proverbial lemons, and you have seconds to make some lemonade or end up as pulp. What to do?
Some people advocate jumping upward a split-second prior to impact to reduce your impact speed. Assuming you retain the presence of mind and Olympic reactions to pull this off, however, the best speed reduction you could hope for would be 2 or 3 mph. More likely, you’d hit your head on the ceiling and land badly, exacerbating your injuries.
Another suggestion holds that you should stand with your knees bent to absorb the impact, like a skydiver. Theoretically, your legs would flex as you and the elevator touched down, spreading your body’s deceleration over a longer period (impact force is proportional to speed and mass, and inversely proportional to time and stopping distance the longer the time spent stopping, the less the force). The effectiveness of this approach at high speeds, however, remains unclear, and research shows that you would likely be subjecting your knees and legs to greater injury risk at low speeds. This approach also keeps your body parallel to the lines of force, which increases the chance of bone breakage as you crumple to the floor under high load.
With these factors in mind, the consensus view holds that your best bet is to lie flat on your back on the floor and cover your face and head to guard against debris. Hitting the ground floor in this position spreads the force of impact across your body; it also orients your spine and long bones perpendicular to the impact direction, which will better protectthem from crushing damage. Your thinner bones, like ribs, might still snap like twigs, but you’re picking your poison here.
Unfortunately, several problems plague even this approach.
1. Making gravy without the lumps: With your body positioned flat on the floor, your soft tissues including your brain and organs absorb the full impact. Considering that even low-speed fender-benders can cause severe damage, it’s easy to imagine the consequences of a sudden stop at 50-plus mph would be dire indeed.
2. The tiger trap: There’s always the possibility that no matter how well you cushion for impact, something else will do you in. For example, the elevator car might be destroyed on impact, transforming the floor into a zone of impaling, lacerating and crushing debris. Betty Lou Oliver, who holds the Guinness World Record for Longest Fall Survived in an Elevator, lived through falling 75 stories (more than 1,000 feet) in an Empire State Building elevator in 1945. Had she been lying on the floor, she probably would have been killed. (In her case, the disconnected elevator cable coiled at the bottom of the shaft softened her landing.) Some elevator shafts feature cushioned buffers designed to soften the landing of an elevator that travels past its bottom floor, but these are not designed to catch free falling cars.
3. Because you’re free free falling: In a falling elevator, you are in free fall relative to the car; in other words, you feel weightless and experience no force pulling you toward the floor. In order to lie down flat, you would have to find some way to pull yourself down and then hold yourself there without bouncing off the floor.
Even taking all these factors into account, lying flat on your back, if you can manage it, is still probably your best bet for surviving a falling elevator. Realistically, you’re just trying to survive, and the supine approach gives the best odds. It might also be the statistically best option for reducing injuries over a shorter drop.
Of course, it’s extremely unlikely you’ll ever need to find out if this approach works, but in case you do, at least it’s easy to remember.
Common Elevator Myths and Truths:
There are many myths and misconceptions about elevators. This is because the majority of all elevator equipment is hidden from public view, which thus leaves much to the imagination of a passenger.
The following are some of the most common myths and their corresponding truths:
MYTH – Many people believe elevators are held up by only one rope that can break, leaving passengers in a free falling car.
TRUTH – Elevators are supported by multiple steel cables. Each cable alone can support a fully loaded car. The only elevator fall due to a complete cable system failure occurred during the 1940’s when an airplane crashed into the empire state building and severed all the cables on a particular elevator.
MYTH – Some people believe that an overcrowded elevator will fall.
TRUTH – An overloaded car will normally not move. The doors will stay open and a buzzer may ring until enough people get off of the elevator to reduce the weight.
MYTH – Some people have claimed that they have been in an elevator that fell several floors and then “caught itself”.
TRUTH – This feeling is a mystery. Elevator experts believe people may think this has happened as a result of the following:
They boarded an elevator that was traveling in the opposite direction they thought it was traveling.
They saw the elevator floor indicator lights flash by quickly which gave the visual impression of falling.
MYTH – Some people believe the hall doors will open when an elevator is not there.
TRUTH – The elevator is designed so that the car controls the opening of the hall door. When the car arrives at a landing, the car door engages the hall door and the car door operator then opens both sets of doors. If the car is not at the landing, it cannot trigger the hall doors to open.
MYTH – Some people believe that if an elevator is stuck between floors that they are in danger of falling and should try to get out.
TRUTH – Attempting to leave the car on your own could result in serious injury. Elevator cars are designed to be “safe rooms”, and the safest place is inside the car. You should ring the alarm and utilize the emergency telephone if the elevator is equipped with one. You should only leave the car with the assistance of professional rescue personnel.
Harmless elevator myths and truths:
MYTH – Pushing the call button repeatedly will make the elevator come faster.
TRUTH – Once the call button is pressed, the call is registered by the elevator controller. Pressing the call button again does nothing.
MYTH – Pushing the Door Close button will close the door faster.
TRUTH – It may cause the doors to close sooner but not faster. If a buzzer the sounds, the doors may actually close slower.