For those of us who work in tall buildings, riding in an elevator is boringly routine. We step on, push the button, space out, and then exit when we reach our floor. Occasionally, someone travels only one floor, and we make fun of them after they’re gone (“Guess the stairs are broken again”).
Billions of elevator trips are made every day without incident, but every once in a while, something goes horribly wrong. In 1999, Nicholas White stepped onto an elevator after a smoke break, and ended up spending 41 hours trapped between floors.. You can see his descent into madness via the security cam footage here.
Even more frightening is this 2003 story from Houston, where Hitoshi Nikaidoh got trapped in the doors of a departing elevator and was decapitated. His body plummeted to the bottom of the shaft and the woman in the elevator spent nearly an hour trapped inside with a lifeless head. Thankfully, these events are very rare. Only about 26 people per year die in elevator accidents, and most of these are technicians. To put it in perspective, the same number of people die every 5 hours in automobile accidents.
The New Yorker article about White also explores the unseen side of the elevator industry and examines some of the cultural quirks that surround our daily trips from floor to floor:
Passengers seem to know instinctively how to arrange themselves in an elevator. Two strangers will gravitate to the back corners, a third will stand by the door, at an isosceles remove, until a fourth comes in, at which point passengers three and four will spread toward the front corners, making room, in the center, for a fifth, and so on, like the dots on a die. With each additional passenger, the bodies shift, slotting into the open spaces. The goal, of course, is to maintain (but not too conspicuously) maximum distance and to counteract unwanted intimacies—a code familiar (to half the population) from the urinal bank and (to them and all the rest) from the subway. One should face front. Look up, down, or, if you must, straight ahead. Mirrors compound the unease. Generally, no one should speak a word to anyone else in an elevator.
I know that I find myself subconsciously annoyed when someone doesn’t follow these norms. I also find the cultural differences interesting. In East Asian societies, people are much more likely to shoehorn into elevators, then spill out in clown-car fashion. I wonder whether this is a result of overcrowding in Chinese and Japanese cities, and whether our expanded definition of personal space is due to the relative underpopulation of most of the US.
Anyway, the article is lengthy but well-written and fascinating – check it out when you’ve got some time to kill.
Links via dmd’s post on MetaFilter