How To Survive A Free Falling Elevator – It’s Monday morning and you’re back at work after a weekend of sweet, sweet freedom. With coffee in hand you walk into the elevator lobby and then step into the first available car going up. After thirty seconds of moving steadily upwards, your elevator suddenly jolts to a stop.
Confused, you press the button for your floor again but the elevator doesn’t respond. Then, suddenly, you hear something very worrisome- a distinct snapping sound followed by a loud crashing sound against the top of your elevator. You realize that one of the steel cables holding the elevator up has snapped, and come crashing down the shaft.
You can hear a second cable starting to break, and nervously you reach for your cell phone-you need help, and you need it now! Unfortunately you never changed your cell phone service provider from T-mobile, so you don’t normally get service through a wet paper towel, let alone the steel walls of the elevator and the concrete shaft beyond it.
In a full-blown panic now, you reach for the emergency call box, a land line that’s typically wired directly to emergency services, but as you open the box you’re horrified to discover that T-mobile runs this line too! Even the landline has no service, because T-mobile!
Now you hear three more cables snap, and in a heartbeat, you’re stuck inside an elevator very quickly plummeting to the basement level. Can you survive the next few seconds? Can you really survive a falling elevator?! Every year ten million people die from falling elevators. Just kidding, elevators are actually one of the safest methods of transportation, and have a fatality rate of .00000015% per trip.
In the United States, only 27 people die on average each year in elevator accidents, and almost all of these either involve people accidentally stepping into an empty elevator shaft due to a door malfunction, or getting caught between a floor and the moving elevator.
The latter can be quite horrific, as the upwards or downwards moving elevator shears the victim in half. The good news is that almost no fatalities occur due to elevators actually falling, which is pretty impressive given the estimated 18 billion elevator trips Americans take every year.
Compare that to the 12,000 people who die every year from falling down stairs. That’s right, stairs are the real killer here, and right now they’re plotting to end you. Just think about that the next time your friend shames you for wanting to take the elevator up two flights instead of the stairs, you’re not being lazy, you’re just playing the odds on how not to die.
So what are the odds realistically that an elevator would fall out of control? Well, pretty negligible to be honest. The vast majority of accidents that have occurred due to falling elevators have almost all been during the construction phase, or during maintenance, when some key safety features may not have been implemented yet or taken offline temporarily.
Before the elevator falls, it must suffer a failure of all four to eight cables which keep it held aloft. That’s because just one of those cables is strong enough on its own to hold the elevator,so unless they all go, there’s just no way that elevator is going to come crashing down.
If by some miracle all of the cables keeping the elevator suspended are sheared off, perhaps because of Godzilla or Decepticon attack in your city, then the elevator must still experience a failure of the electromagnetic brakes on the car itself. These brakes are designed to automatically kick in when the elevator exceeds a certain speed, making them almost foolproof.
They can even slow a free falling car down within just two or three stories, making the odds of a catastrophic crash pretty low. Automatic switches on the track itself can also kick in if an elevator is moving too fast and help stop the car. If though all these should fail, then finally at the bottom there is typically a crash padof sorts which is designed to crumple when struck by an elevator and help decelerate the elevator to what is hopefully survivable speeds.
In fact many modern automobiles feature crumple zones, or areas on the front of the vehicle that are designed to give way structurally in a high speed collision and ‘crumple’, thus reducing the kinetic energy being transferred to the cab, and inevitably, you.
Hydraulic lift elevators lack some of these safety features, but these elevators only have a maximum height of three to four stories. You can often find these elevators in apartment buildings, and due to their limited height,even if one of these were to fail there’s little chance of the fall being fatal.
Let’s say though that you’re one in a trillion. You have the worst luck in the universe, maybe you were born under a ladder while your mother opened an umbrella indoors and a black cat crossed her path. Unlucky you shows up to work one day, gets inside the elevator, rides up a few floors and suddenly, you’re in free fall. Can you survive? What’s the first thing you think about when you think about surviving a falling elevator? Odds are it’s probably trying to jump for your life.
In theory, it’s a solid move- the fall isn’t what’s going to kill you, but rather the sudden stop at the end. If you can somehow lower the speed your body hits that basement floor with, then you’ll suffer less injury. Thus, by jumping at the last second before impact, you’re negating some of your downwards velocity with muscle-powered upwards velocity.
Pretty solid science. Except, it kind of isn’t. That’s because unless you’re an NBA player with serious ups, you’re only going to decelerate by about two to three mile an hour, which is going to do exactly diddly squat versus your fifty seven mile an hour falling speed.
Also there’s the fact that when you’re in a free falling elevator, you yourself are also at free fall, and gravity isn’t keeping your feet firmly planted on the ground. You’ll feel weightless, and you might as well be, because trying to plant your feet on the ground and get enough upwards push to actually jump is going to be nigh impossible.
Then there’s also the more obvious problem- how in the world are you going to time your jump? Most elevators have no way of showing you which floor you’re currently falling through-that fast count down you always see in the movies is there to build tension and drama. In real life you’d have no idea what floor you’re even on, and no way to judge when you should jump once you near the bottom.
Jump too soon and you’ll come back down having negated zero of your downwards velocity. Jump too late, and well, you know, you’re dead. If jumping isn’t the answer, then maybe you can take a tip from paratroopers and simply flex your knees? This theory states that you should square your body up and then flex your knees so your legs are at about forty five degrees.
This then should allow your legs to act like springs, lessening the force traveling up your body from the impact. Paratroopers often use this flexed knee approach, and when they’re falling at a leisurely six to eight miles an hour, it helps them avoid ankle injuries or broken legs.
You however, are making a mad dash to the bottom of the elevator shaft at dozens of miles an hour. Flexing your knees in this way isn’t going to reduce much of the force traveling up your body. Worse, it’s actually placing most of your bones perpendicular to the floor and making them much more prone to shattering like toothpicks.
Clearly, not an ideal situation. So then how can you survive a fall? Well, it turns out that the best way to survive a free falling elevator is to lay down flat on the floor, placing your hands behind your head to protect your skull from falling debris after the sudden stop.
By laying flat on the floor you’ll spread out the force of the impact across a much larger area of your body, and it actually gives most of your bones a decent chance of making it intact, even if smaller bones like your ribs snap like twigs. This technique comes with its own problems though, mostly that just like trying to jump at the last second, because you’re in free fall it’s going to be incredibly difficult to lay down flat.
Also there’s the issue of putting your brain basically inches away from the impact, and the brain is one of two organs you really want to keep intact to have a chance of surviving. All in all though, this technique really does offer the best chance for survival- especially if you’re on the chunkier side.
If that’s the case then you want to lie down with your chunkiest bits towards the floor,as all the body fat will act like a shock absorber and dramatically increase your odds of survival!So there you go, next time someone complains about your weight tell them that in an elevator crash you’ll live, and they’ll die.
Also, ignore them, because you shouldn’t be friends with anyone who complains about your weight. Free falling elevators are kind of one of those catch-22s of life, and even if you do everything right, there’s no guarantee of survival. The bottom of the elevator floor may turn into a tangled mess of shattered steel on impact, and with you lying directly on it, you’ll end up impaled in a dozen or more places.
Sometimes, just staying upright can save your life, such as the case of Betty Lou Oliver,world record holder for longest fall survived in an elevator. In 1945 an American bomber accidentally crashed into the Empire State Building, and the crash severed the cables holding up Betty Lou’s elevator car.
She fell a whopping 75 stories and crashed into the basement floor, and incredibly survived with some broken bones. That just goes to show you that life can be so random that sometimes, it just makes no sense at all. Laying flat on a falling elevator though is scientifically speaking the best way to survive a free falling elevator.
With so few elevator accidents of this type around the world though, what you should really be on the alert for is accidentally stepping through open doors and into an empty elevator shaft. Or getting caught by closing doors and being trapped there when the car starts moving.
What we’re saying is that really it’s not the car who’s the real threat here, but rather the doors. Though even elevator doors don’t compare to the body count that regular old stairs have,making them the number one killer amongst devices to move us up and down buildings.
Kind of makes you wonder if it’s even worth it to use the stairs instead of the elevator in case of a fire, the way signs always tell you to do. . . . Hopefully after watching this episode the next time you get stuck in an elevator you’ll breathe a little easier.
Now you know that there’s virtually no chance of disaster, though you don’t want to end up like Nicholas White either, who spent 41 hours stuck in a New York City elevator in 2008. Sometimes though it’s not the fall in the elevator that might kill you, but rather all the mechanical bits above the elevator that make it work.
In 1903 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a party was being thrown at the Pittsburgh Electric Mechanical Institute on the sixth and seventh floors. Eager party-goers, most of them young and in their twenties, packed an elevator on its way up. Once getting to the sixth floor, the elevator suddenly jerked violently, and with a horrible snap the wires holding it up snapped.
The elevator car plummeted six floors down and crashed in a heap of metal- though most of the occupants survived. Sadly, that’s when the heavy steel cables and machinery used to hoist the elevator came crashing down and crushed the survivors. Most of the bodies were so badly mangled they could only be identified by the clothes they had been wearing, though miraculously a few of them did survive.
The cause of the accident? Overloading of a 12 occupancy elevator with 17 passengers- so take note next time you’repacking in on an elevator. How would you try to survive a falling elevator?