Monday, November 19, 2018

Plummeting Elevator Sticks in My Mind


For seven years, from 1978 through 1986, I took the express elevator to the 95th floor of the John Hancock building in Chicago. From high above North Michigan Avenue on a clear night one could see for miles the straight as an arrow grid street pattern of the Second City laid out below. It was an exhilarating venue for a cocktail reception sponsored by my magazine, Chain Store Age, during the annual National Housewares Show in January. 

It was an express elevator in that very building (no longer called the John Hancock) that plummeted some 84 floors early Monday morning after two cables broke. Six passengers were traumatized by their near death experience before the elevator came to rest. As it was an express elevator there was no door in the shaft near the 11th floor where the car finally stopped its dramatic descent. 

Normally, when an elevator gets stuck between openings, rescuers align another car next to it, then unscrew the adjacent panels of the two cars to allow passengers to gingerly walk across the void to the safety of the functioning elevator. 

That’s what I had to do when an elevator I was riding in got stuck between the 13th and 14th floors of 425 Park Avenue. 

About 30 years ago, on a rainy work day, I decided not to venture outside to secure my lunch. Instead, as I had done on numerous occasions, I chose to fop my way off as one of the lawyers of Finley Kumble, a large legal firm with multiple floors in the building with a short-order staff cafeteria on the 14th floor. I descended from my sixth floor office to the lobby and entered the elevator bank that would take me to the 14th floor. Sandwich and soda in bag in hand, I re-entered the elevator with two Finley Kumble associates, one man, one woman, no wiser to their fellow traveler’s interloper status.

The doors closed. We started our controlled descent. Suddenly, we stopped. Between floors. No panic. Building security quickly contacted us through the elevator telephone. They’d have us out in no time, they said.

“No time” dragged on for more than half an hour. It was now close to 1 pm. I was hungry. I had my lunch with me, but reasoned if I broke out the goodies I’d be obligated to share with my elevator companions. I’m embarrassed to say I was not in favor of that option, at least not then. Perhaps if hours went by and everyone had expressed hunger pains I’d be more forthcoming with my food. I opted to hold out. 

Almost an hour after our interrupted journey, building security advised the elevator could not be restarted. To extract us from our vertical shell, they would have to line up another elevator next to ours, remove the side panels of both transports and have us walk across the exposed elevator shafts to the working elevator. 

Trepidation, not yet panic, set in. We joked it would be like walking across a log over a stream. Of course, the stream would be about 10 or more stories below. When the technicians entered our car, they cautioned us not to look down, to just walk naturally across the chasm into the adjacent elevator. 

In truth, the distance was probably no wider than two feet, a regular stride, for me, at least. Still, I was sufficiently repentant to believe someone was sending me a message my not-so-legal use of the Finley Kumble cafeteria was not kosher, if you get my drift. I never returned to the Finley Kumble cafeteria.

Returning to the present elevator mishap, extracting the passengers was not as easy. Rescuers had to cut a hole through the concrete wall of the shaft to pull the passengers out.  

Will those six passengers ever again be able to comfortably ride in a high rise elevator? Perhaps. Keep in mind, survivors of airplane crashes fly again. Car crashes don’t stop people from motoring again. Train wrecks don’t keep survivors off the rails. Still, I just wonder …

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