Alarms but no surprises

Yesterday, I had a new experience that tested my scientific mettle to the limit: I got stuck in a lift.

There I was, dropping smoothly from the 7th floor of the Huxley building on my way to a student viva, when the lift suddenly jerked to a halt. The metal box then announced, in soothing female — almost Adamsian — tones, “This lift is out of service.”

She wasn’t wrong. The doors remained clamped shut and the lift did not respond when I jabbed at the buttons. I guessed I’d only got about as far as the 6th floor but clearly I wasn’t going any further.

Time to raise the alarm, I told myself. The instructions beneath the alarm button said, “Press for 3 seconds.”

I pushed the button and flinched as a loud bell clanged in the lobby outside. My natural instinct for not drawing attention to myself kicked in and made me let go.

Ah, silence.

But no assistance. So I gritted my teeth and pressed the button again, holding it for the full three seconds until the little yellow alarm light came on and a voice spoke from the intercom: “Yeah?”

I gave my location and the disembodied voice said, “OK, I’ll send a couple of guys.”

The intercom went dead again.

I looked around and considered my situation. I tried to be rational.

Lift Interior

Don’t panic, I told myself.

First off, I put the papers I was carrying on the floor. No sense in needlessly wasting energy.

I briefly considered what would be the best position to adopt should the lift suddenly plunge. I know enough physics to discount the ‘jump up just before impact’ fallacy. In the first place, judging the time of impact would be impossible in a windowless box. And secondly, the relative upward motion would only have taken the the tiniest smidgen off my downward momentum, soon to be imparted to the planet.

I figured the chances of surviving such an impact would be miniscule but wondered if spreading myself on the floor of the lift, head cushioned by my arms, would have brought me closest to surviving the fatal drop.

But in any case, I told myself, that’s ridiculous. These lifts have fail-safe mechanisms. Even if the cable were to be severed, there must be a braking system of some kind. Right? People only plunge to their deaths in lifts in the movies. But this isn’t The Towering Inferno or The Omen or Speed. No wait, in Speed Keanu Reeves and Jeff Daniels turn up to rescue the terrified elevator occupants.

Thinking of movies caused me to look up. Surely there had to be a hatch in the ceiling though which, if push came to shove, I could clamber to safety? In the movies, there’s always such a hatch. Always.

But there wasn’t one. The ceiling was composed of two sections joined by a metal strip. It looked fairly immovable. If I needed to, I figured, I could try to climb onto the hand rail to see if I could dislodge it. But what then? I have no head for heights and wouldn’t want to ruin my jacket on an oily cable.

“Hello? Hello?”

The voice came from outside. Slowly the doors were prised open revealing the floor of level 6 at about one metre above my feet. I tossed my papers through the gap and clambered out to the two engineers who had come to my rescue. Neither of them looked remotely like Keanu Reeves or Jeff Daniels.

But I guess that was a relief. The real world is more prosaic but also more lawful than in the movies.

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18 Responses to Alarms but no surprises

  1. Ian Brooks says:

    Nasty mate! But yes, lifts have locking mechansims to keep you safe. And ceiling hatches are locked from the outside to keep you in because it’s safer than gung ho professors getting all keanu in an emergency 🙂
    By the same token, the “door close” button usually doesn’t do anything. It’s the appearance of control that makes us feel better.
    I remember reading all this after that chap in the US was trapped in a lift for 27 hrs.
    In my old dept. at Leicester we were waititng for a prof to join us for his birthday celebration. We waited and waited and finally the phone in the Common Room rang.
    “Save me some cake. I’m stuck in the lift…”

  2. Anna Vilborg says:

    Scary! Good thing you did get some help in the end!
    The two lifts in our building (at work) goes in-and-out of service so regularly that I’m a bit reluctant to use them at nights or weekends. But then I do anyway because those are the occasions when you are the most tired. So I guess I’m about to experience something similar one of these days…

  3. steffi suhr says:

    My reaction would be to press the button, sit down on the floor and start wondering when I would have to pee…

  4. Stephen Curry says:

    To be truthful, it wasn’t a scary or nasty experience, but amusingly irritating, if that makes any sense.
    Naturally I was quick enough off the mark to live-tweet about my predicament. This elicited hasty replies from BobOHara and Blue_wode, the latter directing my attention, somewhat disconcertingly to a many who was stuck in a lift for 41 hours!
    I guess it’s in the video but I haven’t seen how he dealt with the urination problem…

  5. Heather Etchevers says:

    Glad you’re out, anyhow. And such a shiny, modern lift, too!

  6. Andreas Forster says:

    Ha, what an experience, Stephen. I’m glad you got out quickly and safely. The article that Ian Brooks mentioned was published in the New Yorker and is well worth a read:
    However, not everything in it is true. The elevators in our building (Biochemistry at Imperial) do in fact close the doors when you press the close-the-door button.

  7. Richard Wintle says:

    A real danger that a friend of mine once encountered was being stuck in an elevator with the guy delivering the dry ice. Packed in insulation or not, sooner or later that thing would probably have filled the car up with gaseous C02.
    She complained to occupational health and safety. They were not at all amused, let me tell you.

  8. Sean Seaver says:

    @Richard was thinking along the same lines except with liq Nitrogen, which is used quite a bit in crystallography
    Amusing to follow the thought process:
    1) best position to live
    2) don’t want to get oil my jacket
    3) papers before self (like a true scientist, hehe)

  9. Stephen Curry says:

    Thanks for the link Andreas (hyper-linked now, just in case anyone is too lazy to cut-and-paste). I also retain the belief that I can operate the doors with the close-door button!
    Fortunately I did not have to worry about the risk of evaporating carbon dioxide or liquid Nitrogen – that would have been seriously hazardous!
    Glad you liked my set of priorities Sean… though to be honest the papers went first because I wouldn’t have been able to retrieve them once I’d climbed out.

  10. Cath Ennis says:

    Steffi, the lifts in my building were notorious for trapping people in the first month or two after the building opened. I took to peeing before every trip! (We were on the 13th floor, with those nice high lab ceilings making for many, many stairs per floor).

  11. Sara Fletcher says:

    As someone who travels in many lifts I consider myself very lucky
    to have never got stuck in one but it’s only a matter oftime! My
    problem is if the lift does break in our office I am marooned in the office until it’s fixed, which is an arse!

  12. Stephen Curry says:


  13. Andreas Forster says:

    Intolerable cruelty, Stephen. How dare you expose my technical ineptness so cold-heartedly?

  14. Stephen Curry says:

    If I’d wanted to be cruel, Andreas, I’d have trapped you in a lift…

  15. Alyssa Gilbert says:

    Scary! Although the thought about not wanting to get oil on your jacket was amusing.
    One of the elevators (I can’t bring myself to use “lift”) in our apartment building tends to get stuck between floors. Usually it takes a few minutes and corrects itself, but I always think about what the best position would be if it started to fall. Lying down always comes to mind.

  16. Stephen Curry says:

    I’ve just had a thought – some bright spark should be able to fit lifts/elevators with airbags…

  17. Matt Brown says:

    See, I’d have been more worried about clambering out of the half-aligned lift. What if it had chosen that moment to move? It does happen
    When I worked at Elsevier we had a bank of six all-male-voiced lifts. One day, we came into work and three of them had had a sex change. Not sure what was going on there.

  18. Stephen Curry says:

    That possibility did cross my mind so I made sure to execute my climb out swiftly (I’m not entirely unathletic!). I was also re-assured by the fact that the lift hadn’t budged for a quarter of an hour and that there were two blokes on the floor who could have grabbed me if it had started to move.

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