The longest smoke break of Nicholas White’s life began at around eleven o’clock on a Friday night in October, 1999. White, a thirty-four-year-old production manager at Business Week, working late on a special supplement, had just watched the Braves beat the Mets on a television in the office pantry. Now he wanted a cigarette. He told a colleague he’d be right back and, leaving behind his jacket, headed downstairs.
The magazine’s offices were on the forty-third floor of the McGraw-Hill Building, an unadorned tower added to Rockefeller Center in 1972. When White finished his cigarette, he returned to the lobby and, waved along by a janitor buffing the terrazzo floors, got into Car No. 30 and pressed the button marked 43. The car accelerated. It was an express elevator, with no stops below the thirty-ninth floor, and the building was deserted. But after a moment White felt a jolt. The lights went out and immediately flashed on again. And then the elevator stopped.
The control panel made a beep, and White waited a moment, expecting a voice to offer information or instructions. None came. He pressed the intercom button, but there was no response. He hit it again, and then began pacing around the elevator. After a time, he pressed the emergency button, setting off an alarm bell, mounted on the roof of the elevator car, but he could tell that its range was limited. Still, he rang it a few more times and eventually pulled the button out, so that the alarm was continuous. Some time passed, although he was not sure how much, because he had no watch or cell phone. He occupied himself with thoughts of remaining calm and decided that he’d better not do anything drastic, because, whatever the malfunction, he thought it unwise to jostle the car, and because he wanted to be (as he thought, chuckling to himself) a model trapped employee. He hoped, once someone came to get him, to appear calm and collected. He did not want to be scolded for endangering himself or harming company property. Nor did he want to be caught smoking, should the doors suddenly open, so he didn’t touch his cigarettes. He still had three, plus two Rolaids, which he worried might dehydrate him, so he left them alone. As the emergency bell rang and rang, he began to fear that it might somehow—electricity? friction? heat?—start a fire. Recently, there had been a small fire in the building, rendering the elevators unusable. The Business Week staff had walked down forty-three stories. He also began hearing unlikely oscillations in the ringing: aural hallucinations. Before long, he began to contemplate death.
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. 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. Both of them plunged to the bottom of the shaft. One of them fell from the seventy-fifth floor with a woman aboard—an elevator operator. (The operator of the other one had stepped out for a cigarette.) By the time the car crashed into the buffer in the pit (a hydraulic truncheon designed to be a cushion of last resort), a thousand feet of cable had piled up beneath it, serving as a kind of spring. A pillow of air pressure, as the speeding car compressed the air in the shaft, may have helped ease the impact as well. Still, the landing was not soft. The car’s walls buckled, and steel debris tore up through the floor. It was the woman’s good fortune to be cowering in a corner when the car hit. She was severely injured but alive.
Traction elevators—the ones hanging from ropes, as opposed to dumbwaiters, or mining elevators, or those lifted by hydraulic pumps—are typically borne aloft by six or eight hoist cables, each of which, according to the national elevator-safety code (and the code determines all), is capable on its own of supporting the full load of the elevator plus twenty-five per cent more weight. Another line, the governor cable, is connected to a device that detects if the elevator car is descending at a rate twenty-five per cent faster than its maximum designed speed. If that happens, the device trips the safeties, bronze shoes that run along vertical rails in the shaft. These brakes are designed to stop the car quickly, but not so abruptly as to cause injury. They work. This is why free falling, at least, is so rare.
Still, elevator lore has its share of horrors: strandings, manglings, fires, drownings, decapitations. An estimated two hundred people were killed in elevators at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001—some probably in free-fall plunges, but many by fire, smoke, or entrapment and subsequent structural collapse. The elevator industry likes to insist that, short of airplane rammings, most accidents are the result of human error, of passengers or workers doing things they should not. Trying to run in through closing doors is asking for trouble; so is climbing up into an elevator car, or down out of one, when it is stuck between floors, or letting a piece of equipment get lodged in the brake, as happened to a service elevator at 5 Times Square, in Manhattan, four years ago, causing the counterweight to plummet (the counterweight, which aids an elevator’s rise and slows its descent, is typically forty per cent heavier than an empty car) and the elevator to shoot up, at sixty miles an hour, into the beams at the top of the shaft, killing the attendant inside. 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.