Trapped in an Elevator

Elevators have transformed our cities and our lives, but how safe are they? Airing November 2, 2010 at 9 pm on PBS Aired November 2, 2010 on PBS

Program Description

(Program not available for streaming.) New Yorker Nicholas White was trapped in an elevator for 41 hours. How did it happen? How do elevators work? Are they safe? Why are so many people afraid of them? Across North America, elevators move 325 million passengers every day, most of the time without problems. But will the elevator-wary be comfortable handing over the reins to computers? Once brawny but simple machines, elevators are now getting a brainy makeover and reaching new heights. "Trapped in an Elevator" reveals the secrets of these ubiquitous machines and investigates personal stories of those who have been caught inside when they do fail.


Trapped in an Elevator

PBS Airdate: November 2, 2010

NARRATOR: A man goes into an elevator on a Friday night and spends 41 desperate hours trapped inside.

NICK WHITE (Survivor of Elevator Failure): It occurred to me I was going to die in there.

NARRATOR: Riding elevators is an inescapable fact of life. The elevator industry says they move at least 10 billion passengers a week - more than the world's population.

LEE GRAY (University of North Carolina at Charlotte): They are one of the most dominant forms of transportation in modern life.

NICK PAUMGARTEN (Writer, The New Yorker): It's like going into a magic box.

JOHN MENVILLE (Elevator Consultant): It's a machine. You can't ever forget it's a machine.

BRUCE POWELL (Mathematician): Everybody has an elevator story.

RICHARD K. PULLING (Otis Elevator Company): What would the world be like if there weren't elevators?

PAUL GOLDBERGER (Architecture Critic, The New Yorker): The elevator made skyscrapers possible.

NARRATOR: We can't see how they work, so we don't really think about elevators, unless something goes wrong.

CARL ROBBINS (Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute of Maryland): If you're trapped on an elevator, you can't get to a safe place.

SALLY WINSTON (Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute of Maryland): For the time that you're in it, you're stuck in it. You really can't climb out.

NARRATOR: So what's up with elevators? How safe are they? What are your chances of getting trapped? Right now on NOVA.

Being trapped in an elevator is a real nightmare. For a young man who's working late at his New York office, this nightmare is about to become a reality.

It's Friday, October 15, 1999; 11 p.m.; the McGraw Hill Building, in midtown Manhattan.

NICK WHITE: I was the production manager for Businessweek magazine. I was working up on the 43rd Floor. I'd worked for the company for 15 years. It was a typical manic New York Friday, and we were just trying to get it done as fast as possible, so we could get out of the building and go do our weekend thing.

NARRATOR: Nick White decides to go outside for a quick smoke.

NICK WHITE: I went down for a cigarette break, and little did I know that, when I walked back into the elevator, it was going to be the unluckiest day of my life.

NARRATOR: White goes back in the building. He says "Hi," to the man buffing the floors and heads for the elevator bank he's been using for 15 years. He enters car 30, the third on the left, and presses floor 43. The elevator begins to ascend.

NICK WHITE: And on the way up, it sort of jolted while it was in the middle of its acceleration, and the light kind of, like, went out for a millisecond. And I realized that, you know, some...there was some kind of malfunction.

NARRATOR: White's trip should have taken less than a minute, but it would take longer than that, much longer. Seen through the eye of a security camera, White, in car 30, starts pressing buttons.

NICK WHITE: I hit the intercom button, expected to hear the man at the desk say, "What's going on?" But there was no response on the other end. Where is this guy? Why doesn't he answer the intercom? I didn't have a watch, and didn't have a cell phone either. And I began to feel frustrated. This was really inconvenient.

NARRATOR: Locked in a box, Nick White is completely alone, and his long nightmare has only begun.

Nick White was riding one of 58,000 elevators in New York City, which, together, make 30 million trips a day. You can't see them from the street, but without them this modern city would grind to a halt. In fact, it wouldn't exist at all.

PAUL GOLDBERGER: In the 19th century, if you were standing here and looking at this skyline of lower Manhattan, the tallest things were church steeples.

Then, when the combination of elevator and the steel frame came into existence, we began to get tall buildings, and then, suddenly, it was a whole other world.

NARRATOR: Elevators helped transform New York from a village to a city.

PAUL GOLDBERGER: The elevator also completely changed the economics of real estate, too, because, in the days before elevators, the top floor was the least expensive, because it was the one that was the biggest hassle to get to. You had to walk up the most stairs. Suddenly, all that turned upside down, literally, and the top floors became the most valuable, 'cause they were just as easy to get to as the bottom floors, but you had the view and the light and all the great stuff that comes from being high up that elevators made possible.

NARRATOR: Over the years, elevators have changed the entire fabric of urban life. The city limits haven't changed much since 1898, but the population has more than doubled, thanks to elevators.

Born and raised in Manhattan, Nick Paumgarten has written about elevators and their impact for The New Yorker magazine.

NICK PAUMGARTEN: Without elevators there wouldn't be this kind of a city. There wouldn't be density and everything that comes with density. You know, cultural ferment, you know, economic activity, just people living on top of people makes the city interesting, great, strange, difficult, all those things.

NARRATOR: Inside every tall building, deep in the core, are the elevators that bring life to the steel and concrete that surround them. Hidden from our view, elevators create the heartbeat of New York and, for that matter, every modern city in the world.

In the United States, elevators carry a staggering 325 million passengers a day. Next to our cars, they're the most common form of transport. But we take them for granted, perhaps because we can't see how they work.

NICK PAUMGARTEN: It's like going into a magic box, where you walk in and then, a few seconds later, you come out into a totally different reality.

NARRATOR: If elevators are magic, then John Menville knows all the tricks. He's maintained elevators in New York City for 47 years.

JOHN MENVILLE: This is the normal world of elevators that the public sees every day. You push a button, you get in the elevator, and you go to your floor. However, there's another world of elevators that no one ever sees.

This box that you stepped into, the elevator cab, is part of a larger system that includes the elevator itself; the counterweight; the motor that drives it; the pulley, we call the sheave; the cables that suspend it; the governor, which monitors the speed of the elevator; and the controller that tells it where to go. When you move in, the elevator doors close. The elevator will move, so that when the cab moves up, the counterweight moves down. And as the elevator moves down, the counterweight moves back up.

The cables that suspend the elevator are steel cables, but we call them ropes. One rope has to, by code, be able to hold the entire elevator plus its full load. But we can use four, five, or six, or eight or ten, to maintain the traction that we need.

This is the elevator motor that drives the elevator. And this is the sheave that the ropes run around.

We use steel guiderails to keep the elevator in position. Along those rails, we have rubber rollers that ride, that guide the elevator on that rail and gives us a nice smooth ride.

Okay. At the bottom of the hoistway, we have a buffer, which is like a large shock absorber. Now, if the elevator comes down and, for some reason, passes the bottom floor, it would hit the buffer so no one gets hurt. As the elevator approaches, it slows down, and it will stop approximately six inches before it touches that buffer. The car is now level with the lobby floor.

NARRATOR: That's it: "Elevators for Dummies." One thing's clear: with all those cables, elevators are built to deal with gravity in a serious way. And they'd better.

NICK PAUMGARTEN: There's something about being in that box which obscures the fact that you're in this dark shaft hurdling upwards at, you know, however many miles an hour, in a state of muted terror.

NARRATOR: Such terror was justified long ago. When elevators were young, they were dangerous.

LEE GRAY: Safety was the key issue in the 19th century, because elevator accidents were fairly common. There were instances where machines failed, and because of that, cars fell partially or down shafts.

There's an accident where a young man looked into the shaft to see if the car was coming up. It wasn't coming up; it was coming down. They found his head three floors below.

NARRATOR: Elevators are derived from mechanical hoists. Since ancient times, they've been used to haul freight up and down, powered first by hand and later by machine. In 1852, man named Elisha Otis revolutionized elevators by inventing a way to make them safe.

LEE GRAY: What we're looking at is a model of Elisha Otis' original safety device. One of the wonderful things about the device was its simplicity. It consisted of three primary components, and it operated automatically.

The first was a series of long teeth that run all the way down both sides of the elevator. The second component was a wagon wheel, spring-mounted underneath the crossbar of the freight platform. The third and final component were a series of levers that were attached to the spring, that could engage and catch on the teeth. The spring, when it was kept in tension by the weight of the car, held the levers up away from the teeth, such that, when the platform operated, it could move up and down the guide rails operating like a normal elevator.

If the rope would break—and this was a very common occurrence in warehouses in the 1850s and 1860s—the spring would push down, forcing the levers into the teeth, holding the platform in place and keeping everyone safe.

NARRATOR: In 1854, at the New York World's Fair, Otis demonstrated his new invention on himself. Every hour, he was hoisted high and the rope was cut. For this spectacle, Otis was allegedly paid $100 by the fair organizer, P.T. Barnum.

LEE GRAY: Scientific American reported on it, the New York Times...that here is a device that really will prevent elevator accidents.

NARRATOR: Once they were no longer death traps, elevators began to appear in extravagant mansions, like the Biltmore estate, constructed by George Washington Vanderbilt, in the 1890s.

To keep himself and his guests from breaking a sweat, Vanderbilt installed two electric passenger elevators that were among the first in the country.

LEE GRAY: Well, the excitement of riding an early elevator, like this, is the transparency of the car, where you see the walls moving past you, you see the cables, you pass by windows on the outside. Being in a machine like this is absolutely amazing.

NARRATOR: In its heyday, this elevator was cutting-edge technology, but, by today's standards, it's slower than molasses.

LEE GRAY: It's not about speed; it's about this wonderful, gracious movement from floor to floor, almost a kind of movable room.

NARRATOR: This elevator has been operating without accidents for a hundred years, with most of its original parts intact, including the motor in the basement.

LEE GRAY: It was both state-of-the-art—powered by electricity, this dynamic new power source—and it was as safe as anything could be for that time period.

NARRATOR: Thanks to Elisha Otis, passenger elevators like these became indispensible to modern life. Based on the success of his invention, Otis went on to found what it is still the largest elevator company in the world.

MAN IN ELEVATOR: We're going faster, is this normal?

WOMAN IN ELEVATOR: Jesus, Ann, you pushed the button too hard.

NARRATOR: Elevators are no longer deathtraps, but when it comes to the movies, falling elevators are a surefire crowd pleaser.

JOHN MENVILLE: It only happens in the movies.

They get everything wrong.

There isn't a safer way to travel. There really isn't. It's the only way to go.

NARRATOR: Standing 28 stories tall, this windowless monolith is packed with elevator shafts, 14 to be exact. It's the North American test site for the Otis Elevator Company. Here, elevators freefall every day, as technicians develop and refine safety brakes.

An empty, stripped down elevator platform is weighted down with 12,000 pounds of lead, which is the maximum load rating of the elevator. The car will be hoisted and dropped, repeatedly, to test the two brakes, or safeties, mounted under the car against the rails.

The two brakes are activated by a cable attached to the cab that loops up and over a device called the governor, at the top of the hoistway, in the machine room. When the car goes too fast, centrifugal force moves the arms on the governor outward and locks the wheel. The cable jerks tight and yanks a lever that pulls the brake's shoes against the guiderail.

OTIS ELEVATOR SERVICEMAN: Okay, John. It's test three; bombs away.

NARRATOR: It's not like the movies. The car stops in less than four feet with a force of one G or less.

Like the first safety brake invented by Otis, the modern brake system is completely mechanical, so it'll work, even if there's a power failure, because it doesn't have any electrical parts.

Otis is one of a handful major companies that manufacture elevators. The industry spends a lot of energy to make sure that elevators never fall.

NEWSREEL ANNOUNCER: July 28th, 1945: New York City was smothered in a blanket of fog.

NARRATOR: People in the industry say the only known freefall, in the entire history of the modern elevator, occurred when an Army bomber crashed into the Empire State Building. It severed the cables of an elevator, sending a woman 78 stories to the basement, and she survived.

NICK PAUMGARTEN: The people in the elevator business will tell you, you know, it's the safest thing in the world. You know, I think we have to take everything with a grain of salt, but, as far as modern living goes, elevators are pretty safe.

NARRATOR: Statistics underscore that cars can be dangerous, and that airplanes are relatively safe, but only 26 people die in elevators every year, mostly service personnel. Odds are you won't meet your fate in an elevator, but that doesn't mean that nothing bad ever happens.

After a smoking break, Nick White tries to return to his office and gets trapped in an elevator. Several hours have now passed, and, for some reason, the security guard in the lobby hasn't noticed his frantic movements on the video monitor or answered his calls for help on the intercom. Increasingly desperate, he goes for the doors. Some elevators have door locks, but these open easily.

NICK WHITE: And there it was, just a cinderblock wall, straight in front of my nose, with three 13's there. That was marked around, I would guess, the 13th floor. There was one chalk; there was one in a, in, like, a Scripto, one of those permanent pens; and one in red spray-paint, all on top of each other.

NARRATOR: Car 30 is an express elevator that goes from the lobby to 39th floor, and White realizes he's stuck near the middle of a long concrete shaft. He rings the bell.

NICK WHITE: It's just a little brass bell, going "ring-ring-ring." I think they all have the same note and the same tone, and we all know it, and it's really annoying. But when you're on the 13th floor of a shaft from 0 to 39, how are they going to hear this little bell?

So then I would, like, turn it off for a minute, and I'd open the doors, and I'd look up and I'd look down. It was literally like an abyss. I'd go through sessions of yelling up and down, louder and louder, different things. Instead of like, "Excuse me, is anybody there?" to like, "Yo! Help! I'm stuck in an elevator."

NARRATOR: Elevators get stuck for good reason. They're designed to shut down when they sense something's wrong, which means sometimes people get trapped inside. Rob Tinworth is one of them.

ROB TINWORTH (Film Editor): I walk out of the office, and I come and hit the elevator button to take my two stories down to the bottom. We're on three here, we're going down to one. So I hit the button for one, the door closes, and then the lift drops what must be a foot, two foot, stops; drops another foot, two foot, and then nothing happens. I hit the door open button, and the door doesn't open.

And I'm quite clearly stuck in a lift. "Ah, I'm stuck in a lift." So, first thing I do is get my phone out. It's completely dead. So I turned to...every elevator has that mysterious phone. So I think, "There's got to be something in here." And sure enough, under here, there's a telephone. And I'm expecting, you know, bat phones to go off in some place. I'm expecting people to start roping in through, you know: "Oh my God! There's someone stuck in the lift! Let's, let's get him out!" And so I pick this phone up, and on the other end of the line there's just this, "Hello?" Like, "Yes, what can I do for you?" Which is fair enough. I've, I've just called them. And she says, "Great. We'll send someone around tomorrow afternoon." And I say, "I don't think you're entirely understanding the situation. I'm stuck in the lift now."

CHRIS (Otis Elevator Company): Otis service, Chris speaking. How can I help you?

NARRATOR: Instead of speaking to someone in his building, Rob Tinworth was speaking to an operator at a remote call center, like this one.

FEMALE OPERATOR 1 (Otis Elevator Company): And it won't come down? It's stuck on what level? Do you know?

NARRATOR: Otis pioneered this service. And here, in central Connecticut, Otis operators answer between 5, - and 6,000 daily service calls about the elevators they maintain in North America.

MANON COLLINS (Otis Elevator Company): Personally, on a daily basis, I average about 100 to 150 calls. We cover all of the United States and Canada, including Guam, Saipan and Bermuda, and nine different time zones, as you can see behind me on all the different clocks.

FEMALE OPERATOR 2 (Otis Elevator Company): I have a trapped passenger there, in the elevator. She's not sure what floor she's on.

NARRATOR: Otis won't say how many daily calls involve trapped passengers, but claim they can dispatch local mechanics within 15 minutes.

RAYMOND ESTEVES (Otis Elevator Company): The most stressful calls is when you have people stuck in elevators, obviously. This should be a fairly basic call.

NARRATOR: This call, like many, involves a stuck elevator, but no one's trapped inside. Elevators have moving parts that get heavy use. A shutdown could be triggered by a number of things: a power failure, a loose chain, a worn switch, even a small object, like a dime, that gets wedged in the door.

JOHN MENVILLE: The most common problem is that the doors don't close. The doors don't close, the elevator won't move. There are parts that have wear and tear, that break. It's a machine. You can't ever forget it's a machine.

You don't get too mad if you car doesn't start; you get somebody to come fix it.

NARRATOR: Fair enough, but when your car won't start, you're not locked inside. Which brings us back to Rob Tinworth, who's been on the phone with a small independent service company. He's been told help will arrive in two hours. But after waiting 15 minutes, rescue comes in the form of a friend.

ROB TINWORTH: I hear voices from outside, and one of my colleagues. I can recognize their voice. So I shout out. I say, "Tristan, I'm stuck in a lift! I'm stuck in a lift!" He says, "What?" So I say, "I'm stuck in a lift!" And he starts to open the door from his side, and I can see a crack of light. It turns out I haven't dropped 10 feet. I've probably dropped about six inches. So I just step out of the elevator, onto safe, steady, happy land.

NARRATOR: There are no available statistics on stuck elevators, but odds are good you'll never get trapped. But for some, the dice, it seems, are loaded the wrong way.

SHERRY DAVIS (Financial Advisor): My name is Sherry Davis, and I have been in, stuck in elevators three separate times. I just think that the forces of nature wait for me to get in an elevator by myself, and something bizarre happens.

Ohhh, scary.

I have not, since that third time, been in an elevator by myself. And that has been over 10 years.

INTERVIEWER: Could there be a cure to make you feel good about them again?

SHERRY DAVIS: Well, a friend of mine said that I should try going into an elevator with someone I was close with and have sex with them. And that would wipe out all the bad memories.

INTERVIEWER: Did you try that?

SHERRY DAVIS: I haven't found somebody I want to do that with, but I am looking.

NARRATOR: There are other, more conventional remedies for curing elevator fears.

At the Anxiety and Stress Disorder Institute of Maryland, Sally Winston and her colleagues try to help people who are truly terrified of elevators, even if they've never been stuck.

SALLY WINSTON: A fear of elevators is actually quite common. It comes to our attention when it interferes with somebody's life.

COLLEEN KISTNER (Anxiety and Stress Disorder Institute of Maryland Client): There were years that I couldn't even get on elevators. It had nothing to do with thinking I was going to, you know, go up to the 10th floor and plummet to the bottom. It was more about the doors closing and never opening again.

NARRATOR: After taking the stairs for many years, Colleen Kistner decided to face her fear, a form of claustrophobia.

CARL ROBBINS: So where are you on a scale of one to 10, where one is completely relaxed and 10 is the worst panic you ever had?

COLLEEN KISTNER: I'd say I'm at an eight.

CARL ROBBINS: You're at an eight right now? Okay, alright. Well, why don't we...

NARRATOR: Carl Robbins has been treating Colleen by using elevators to induce her fear in a controlled way.

CARL ROBBINS: Okay, now this is a little different. Let yourself feel the peak. Ride the wave of anxiety. You're doing great.

COLLEEN KISTNER: The door's not opening. I didn't like that.

SALLY WINSTON: In the treatment, you deliberately go and you induce the anxiety, and then you learn to relate to the anxiety in a different way.

CARL ROBBINS: What are you feeling now?

COLLEEN KISTNER: It's scares me.

CARL ROBBINS: It's really scary?


CARL ROBBINS: There's anxiety, and then there's the fear of the anxiety, which amplifies it, which makes one more afraid of it. And so it's this self-perpetuating, self-amplifying loop, until it escalates into this sort of all-hell-break-loose experience.

COLLEEN KISTNER: It's that...see, the door's not opening. Ugh.

I'm afraid I'm going to faint. I'm afraid I'm going to vomit, I'm going to have to change my underwear. I'm afraid I'm going to start screaming. And ultimately, depending on my stress level, there is a fear of death.

CARL ROBBINS: Did you die, go crazy or lose control?

COLLEEN KISTNER: No, but I came close.

CARL ROBBINS: You came close to what?


CARL ROBBINS: Oh, you came close in your mind?


CARL ROBBINS: The goal of treatment is not getting rid of symptoms, but it's getting to the point where the symptoms are okay.

NARRATOR: To look down on the world, Colleen must accept the fact that, for a few brief moments in her day, her life will be controlled by a machine.

SALLY WINSTON: The elevator triggers the fears, because, for the time that you're in it, you're stuck in it. You really can't climb out. And if something happens, even though that's a very unlikely event, you could be trapped for a while, at the mercy of something or someone else.

NARRATOR: Nowhere could this have been more true than in the Twin Towers, New York's tallest buildings until that terrible day in 2001.

JOHN MENVILLE: If you looked across the street, here, to the east, this whole skyline was filled with the two enormous towers. They're, you know, a hundred and ten stories high. They covered the entire skyline. It was really impressive, and we really miss it.

NARRATOR: In the late '60s, when construction began on the towers, John Menville helped install the elevators and would spend 30 years maintaining them. These would be the tallest buildings in the world, but, elevators, it seemed, had reached a limit.

JOHN MENVILLE: In order to get people up to the top, you need a significant amount of elevators. That creates a problem. When these elevators now all have to come to the lobby, you've used about 90 percent of your space in elevators, okay? So the first portion of this building is basically useless, which means nobody's going to build it.

NARRATOR: But build they did. The architect believed elevators could be used in a completely new way.

JOHN MENVILLE: His idea was to start out by building a 44-story building, which only uses 30 to 40 percent in elevator space. We added on another 44-story building on top of it. And then add another building, on top again, which used the same elevator space, again, as the two below it.

So now, when you wanted to go to someplace from 44 to 74, you took the express elevator—this blue one. They went from the lobby to 44, the first sky lobby. Then you had to change, and you took one of these other elevators, again, to get to your floor.

And if you worked above 78, you took another express elevator to the 78th floor, which was the second sky lobby. Take you less than a minute, about 50 seconds, and then you would cross over and you would travel on these orange elevators to your floor.

If the building wasn't built with the sky lobby concept, it wouldn't've been done at all.

NARRATOR: Using sky lobbies, the designers cut the number of elevator shafts in half. There were 99 elevators in each tower, moving up to 100,000 passengers every day.

JOHN MENVILLE: Very rarely did you ever wait for an elevator, but there was a constant movement of people. I mean it was just like a factory, spitting out people or sucking them in.

CHRISTOPHER YOUNG: It was a beautiful day. And it was really pretty views from up there on the 99th floor. I was leaving the tower. I switched over down at the 78th floor, which was like the sky lobby, into one of the large elevators. I was all alone when I got onto the elevator. I was taking it down, and right as I was getting down to the lobby floor, and starting to slow down...but then there was a huge jerking of the elevator, and it was followed by a big gust of wind and a boom.

...really didn't know what was going on, so I hit the emergency button. Someone eventually responded to it and told me just to stay in there.

I would occasionally hear some sirens or something. But I never really knew what was going on outside the elevator.

The next real big event was when there was just a huge shaking of the elevator. I was pretty scared at that point. I was trying the doors, couldn't get the doors to open. And finally, when the power went out, apparently that released the locks. I could open the doors myself.

I was literally about a foot off the lobby floor at that point. Everything was covered in a huge amount of this sort of grayish pinkish dust.

I just started walking out the huge blown-out windows of the building...saw a couple firefighters. They were leading me away...rumble...someone says, "Run." And I did. I ran.

NARRATOR: One minute after Chris Young steps out of the elevator, the building starts to collapse, and he runs for his life.

CHRISTOPHER YOUNG: And the dust cloud came over me, and I balled up on the ground until it passed and really dissipated.

NARRATOR: Among the thousands lost on 9/11, an estimated 200 died in the elevators. But Chris Young's elevator carried him to safety, leaving him to wonder what it means to be among the lucky ones who survived.

CHRISTOPHER YOUNG: That's been very sobering, trying to figure out what that means in your life, because it's almost overwhelming how profoundly the world changed in the time that I was in that elevator.

NARRATOR: Compared to the epic tragedy of 9/11, Nick White's nightmare may seem trivial. But after 14 hours in an elevator, his situation has actually become quite serious.

White is stuck in a six-foot-square box, with no food, no water, no bathroom. Security cameras show workers maintaining elevators nearby, but, amazingly, no one hears his shouts or sees him on the monitor or answers the phone at the security desk in the lobby. He fears he'll dehydrate before he can be rescued.

NICK WHITE: So thoughts started coming to my mind, after all the yelling and after all the signaling, how severe could this be? It occurred to me that I was going to die in there. And what a way to go. They'd say like: "What happened to Nick?" "Well, he got in an elevator and never got out."

NARRATOR: With thoughts of death his only company, White is scared and alone, but thankful his elevator was not full of people when it got stuck.

Studies show people are comfortable surrounded by a minimum of three square feet of empty space. On crowded elevators we have only two square feet, if that, which may explain a few things.

PAUL GOLDBERGER: A bunch of strangers are all pushed together, like sardines, in this little tiny space. If they're not already talking, and they don't know each other, they just kind of stand next to each other and kind of wait it out.

NICK PAUMGARTEN: Your mind kind of goes blank. You just stare into the middle distance. It's like sleeping.

PAUL GOLDBERGER: In other words, you're just sort of putting everything on hold, and then you get out.

NARRATOR: Otis Elevator Company estimates that up to 85 percent of all high rise buildings have no 13th floor. Superstitious people feel safer without it, or maybe there's a secret floor the government doesn't want us to know about. And speaking of buttons...

JOHN MENVILLE: As you'll notice, there are a lot of buttons in the elevator. However, there's one button that doesn't work. The "Door Close" button will not close the doors no matter how many times you push it. Actually the "Door Close" button does serve a function: it lets people think that they have some control over the elevator, although that's not the case.

NARRATOR: Waiting for an elevator may sometimes seem like an eternity, especially if it makes you anxious, but the average wait time for an office elevator is about 20 seconds. So here's a question: when you push that button, what happens while you stand and wait?

JOHN MENVILLE: This is the elevator controller. It's the brains of the operation. It knows where the elevator is, where the elevator was, and where it wants to go. If you get into an elevator and push a button, you'll activate a relay that'll tell the elevator where you want to go, and it will take you there.

NARRATOR: Relays are electromechanical switches grouped together to perform like a simple computer. For over a century they've been used to decide which car to send when you press the button.

BRUCE POWELL: The logical answer is to send a car that's closest. But what if that car has 10 people on it? Would you want to get on that car?

NARRATOR: The car that could get there first always answered the call. This formula made wait times short, but could lengthen travel time if the car had to make a lot of stops. But elevators have become a lot smarter with the advent of modern computers.

In Times Square, a revolutionary new control system was adopted at the Marriott Marquis, one of the busiest hotels in New York. Tourists and conventioneers ride to the lobby on the eighth floor. Here, the 45-story atrium is a surreal contrast to the busy street below, and elevators are the main attraction.

MICHAEL STENGEL (Marketing Vice President, New York City Marriott Hotels): On average, over the last 10 years we've run more than 90 percent occupancy. Any given day, we have probably between 4,000 and 8,000 people in the building. It's quite a busy place.

NARRATOR: The hotel has been a cash cow for Marriott since the day it opened, but the architects hadn't planned on all the elevator traffic, and guests had to wait forever.

CHRISTOPHER RAWSON (Theater Critic): I just want be able to get out of my room and go down to the show, and so I'm pushing the button. I can look out the window and there they are, all the Broadway theaters laid out below me, but the damn elevators don't come!

MICHAEL STENGEL: We had nothing but complaints of people waiting for elevators. We had to find something different.

NARRATOR: You can't add elevators to existing buildings without tearing them apart. So instead of adding muscle, Marriot added more brains by adopting a new control system called "destination dispatch."

MICHAEL LANDIS (Schindler Elevator Corporation): Instead of just an up or down button, you have a keypad, and the keypad wants to know what floor you want to go to. It's as simple as pushing your destination, in this case, 33. It's telling us to go to our left to elevator B. The elevator is identified by the insignia over the top. Also, as you step into the elevator, you'll notice that there is a destination indicator, so you confirm where you're going. And now you step in and simply enjoy the ride.

NARRATOR: For passengers, it's simple enough, but the change is profound. Before destination dispatch, control systems never knew where people were going until after they boarded the car and hit the button.

MICHAEL LANDIS: The main thrust, there, was to get the elevator to the demand as quickly as possible...really wasn't looking to the second part, which was, "How do you get you to your destination?"

NARRATOR: When passengers enter their floor on the keypad before they board, the system uses totally different formulas, or algorithms, to decide which car should answer the call.

BRUCE POWELL: The control system takes the information from each of the waiting passengers, and tries to put people with...who are going to common destinations on the same car. So that will minimize the number of stops.

NARRATOR: The number of stops was cut in half, making travel times shorter, and boosting the capacity of the whole system by a whopping 30 percent.

MICHAEL STENGEL: The customers are tremendously happy, especially customers who stayed here for the first 15 years or 16 years the building was open. They feel like they've come to a new hotel.

NARRATOR: Destination dispatch is here to stay. But for some, it's a problem, because there aren't any buttons to press in the car.

NICK PAUMGARTEN: I guess this is the new-fangled elevator. There are no buttons. You push the buttons in the lobby and it takes you someplace. Supposed to be cutting edge...makes me uncomfortable. I'm used to pressing the button and having the illusion of control over the elevator.

NARRATOR: Putting your fate in the hands of an elevator can make even seasoned veterans feel helpless and trapped. For Nick White, that helpless feeling intensifies, and there's no end in sight.

White has been trapped for 24 hours and fears that no one is downstairs to monitor this enormous building. He's running out of ideas and opens the doors to urinate down the shaft, hoping that if there is someone in the lobby, they will somehow notice he's trapped.

NICK WHITE: So little by little, my, my options were running out, and it all became a mental battle. I did drift off into kind of a half-state of consciousness, if you call it sleep.

Then I would actually be waking up, and the cliche of waking up into your own night-, nightmare? This was it. This was, you know, there's just, like, no other way to describe it. It was like: Boom. I'm still here? Boom, I'm still here? And the bells going off. Boom, I'm still here?

NARRATOR: White hopes he'll be rescued on Monday morning. But without a watch, he doesn't know that Monday morning is still 34 hours away.

Elevators can give us nightmares, but they can also make dreams come true. On the Persian Gulf, in Dubai, sprouting high rises are transforming marsh and desert into a kind of Vegas on steroids. Here, one quarter of the world's construction cranes are being harnessed to put this city on the global map.

All modern cities have an iconic centerpiece, and Khalifa Tower, Burj Khalifa, is the tallest building on the planet, a half-mile high. It's a vertical city filled with apartments, stores, offices, and a fancy hotel.

The Burj Khalifa has more floors than any other building.

And it's got the highest rising elevator in the world.

RICK PULLING: When you see it just standing there, it's really tough to tell that it's over 800 meters tall, twice the height of the old World Trade Center.

NARRATOR: It will take more than five years of construction before Burj Khalifa can open for business. Rick Pulling, from Otis, oversees the finishing touches on the elevators, which enable the world's tallest building to actually function.

RICK PULLING: As buildings reach these supertall heights, we run into the mechanical limitations of elevator technology.

We're on the 141st floor entering the B.S. machine room, where we have our 100-ton machine. It's the largest machine made by Otis. And when we say 100-ton machine, that's not the weight of the machine, that's the amount of mass that it can support.

NARRATOR: As elevators rise higher, cables get longer, and therefore heavier. In the world's highest rising elevator there are six and a half miles of cables, weighing almost 30 tons. Because of this weight, this elevator is approaching the practical limit of how far elevators can go.

If elevators continued to rise, their cables would get so heavy they'd eventually snap under their own weight. And in tall buildings long cables have other limitations.

Skyscrapers sway in heavy winds, making elevator cables vibrate like giant guitar strings, which may cause snags and damage to the walls of the shaft. Motion sensors are installed at the top of the tower to detect sway and slow down the elevator to avoid problems.

But slowing elevators creates its own problem, because speed is crucial to high-rise living.

RICK PULLING: The higher you go, the faster you need to go. No one would want to spend five and six and seven minutes in an elevator. We can turn the machine as fast as we can supply power. We could be 15 meters a second, 20 meters a second, 30.

NARRATOR: But speed must be limited to eight meters a second in the down direction, so the middle ear has time to adjust to the changing altitude, just the way it does on airplanes.

RICK PULLING: So while, technically, we can go very, very fast, human factors—ear pressure—say, "No, we can't accommodate that. We don't feel comfortable. My ears feel a little bit clogged as a result of this ride.

NARRATOR: So elevators can only go so far and so fast. As Burj Khalifa reaches completion, Otis engineers spend their days adjusting the elevators to optimize the limits of the technology.

RICK PULLING: These are really the magicians. They set doors, leveling, acceleration. Ultimately, the goal is to not know you're moving, and yet actually be moving at eight meters a second through this building.

NARRATOR: For tenants paying thousands of dollars per square foot, the ride must be smooth and quick.

Inside this narrow spire, 57 elevators are linked with several sky lobbies to carry an estimated 3,500 occupants to and from their floors. Two elevators are "double deckers" which take passengers to two floors at once, effectively doubling their capacity. But even with all the clever engineering, elevators and tall buildings may be reaching another limit.

PAUL GOLDBERGER: Most of the super supertall buildings today are usually built for vanity reasons, not for real economic reasons. They're so expensive to build, and there's so much wasted space with all those elevators. So it's strange that the elevator, which is the necessary thing to make skyscrapers possible, also kind of gets in the way when you get really, really, really tall.

NARRATOR: But wherever size matters, the urge to go tall will no doubt persist. As skyscrapers grow higher, people must discover new ways to get to the top in a quest for the elevator of tomorrow.

The elevator of tomorrow may be installed, not in a skyscraper, but on a ship. In the not too distant future, the "advanced weapons elevator" will be lifting bombs to the flight deck of a new aircraft carrier. It's the first and only elevator in the world held up by magnets, and it doesn't have any cables at all.

INTERVIEWER: What's, what's holding this thing up? You're just telling me there are no cables?

DOUG RIDENOUR (Federal Equipment Company): There's no cables whatsoever.

INTERVIEWER: It sounds sort of sketchy to me. How can this possibly work?

DOUG RIDENOUR: Well, it's, it's not black magic—there is a lot of science that goes behind that—but the size and weight of this elevator is by far one of the largest. We raise and lower about 36,000 pounds on this elevator platform.

NARRATOR: It all sounds a bit farfetched, but think of it this way. Conventional elevators are lifted on cables, by spinning motors. This elevator is also lifted by motors, but they don't spin. They're linear motors, and instead of using cables, they're attached directly to each corner of the elevator.

DOUG RIDENOUR: This is the motor that we see right here, this and one, two, and, over in this corner, three and four. That's in four corners of the elevator.

NARRATOR: Inside each motor are magnets that interact with electric coils lining the shaft. As current pulses through the coils, the magnets and the platform are lifted.

DOUG RIDENOUR: These magnets have an attractive force of about 50,000 pounds. They are permanent magnets, just like you would have on your refrigerator, but if you had it stuck to your refrigerator, you'd never get it off.

NARRATOR: Linear motors now provide power to high-speed Maglev trains. They're the hidden force behind high-tech roller coasters. But they've never been used to propel elevators, not to mention an elevator on a rolling ship loaded with tons of bombs.

If it survives the rigors of Navy life, someday we might all be passengers on elevators powered like this one. But someone has to be the first to ride it, and Doug has drawn the short straw.

DOUG RIDENOUR: I think we've cycled this thing probably up and down 4,- or 5,000 times so I feel a little bit confident that Charlie will get me back down.

INTERVIEWER: Charlie, it's in your hands. What do you think?

CHARLIE: I wish him luck!

NARRATOR: Although the Advanced Weapons Elevator doesn't go all that far right now, without cables, there's no practical limit to how far it could go in the future.

DOUG RIDENOUR: There's no limitations on the overall height. We could make this, you know, in a 2,000-foot building, if we wanted to. It's not a problem.

The elevator industry's been basically the same for the last hundred years. I see, in the next, you know, 10 to 20 years, with the increase of much taller buildings out there, this is the way you're going to need to go.

NARRATOR: It's Sunday, 4 p.m., and Nick White has now been trapped for 41 hours. He's exhausted and scared to death, when the voice on the intercom pulls him out of his delirium.

NICK WHITE: I heard a voice, saying, "Is there anyone in there?" And it was sort of a bemused voice, and I said yes. And they-the person, said to me, "What are you doing in there?" And I said, "I, you know, I work here. I was going, I was going to my job." And I said, "What time is it?" And he said, "It's 4 p.m." And I said, "What day is it?" And he said, "It's Sunday."

NARRATOR: A mechanic gets the elevator working, and soon White puts his ear to the door and hears Car 30 moving toward the lobby.

NICK WHITE: And I was like, "Yes, yes!" I saw that I was at the lobby level. The light hit my face, and I sprung out of the elevator. And a security guard came up to me, and I said, "Someone could have died in there." And he said, "I know."

NARRATOR: After 41 hour trapped in an elevator, Nicholas White's ordeal is finally over. White filed suit against Rockefeller Center Management, which maintains the building, and the New York Elevator Company, which serviced the elevators. Both companies admitted negligence. White settled for $200,000 dollars.

Rockefeller Center Management said the elevator shutdown was most likely caused by a voltage dip in the power grid that occurred at 11:21, Friday night. But the question that they've never answered is why no one came to White's rescue.

NICK WHITE: I never found out what exactly happened with anybody. I know what didn't happen. They didn't see someone on a security monitor for 41 hours. It's common sense. That's why the monitors are on the desk. I have no clue what the heck they could have been doing.

NARRATOR: The lengthy ordeal of Nicholas White was the result of human error in not detecting the problem for so long. Elevators are machines that sometimes fail, but this unusual case may be a sign that they have, in a sense, become a victim of their own success. We trust them to always do what we want, because they do...most of the time anyway.

Broadcast Credits

Trapped in an Elevator

Narrated by
John Lithgow
Produced by
Joseph Seamans
Janet Driscoll Smith
Written and Directed by
Joseph Seamans
Edited by
David Cohen
Mark Knobil
Andreas Bjí¸rck
Sound Recordists
Christopher Strollo
Chad Djubek
Rich Pooler
Matt Mayer
Brooks Reid
Elevator Models
Brandon Barber
Assistant Camera/Electricians
Ali Wehbe
Jamison Acker
Gerry Polinsky
Brandon Plonka
Michael Seamans
Online Editor
Eric Ramistella
John Crowley
Audio Mix
Susan Hartford
Location Support - Dubai
Atlas Television
Location Coordinator
Ali Wehbe
Elevator Consultants
James Fortune
Matthew Yeschke
Archival Material
ABC News VideoSource
AP Archive
Atlas Television
CNN ImageSource
Getty Images
ITN Source
Maurer Sí¶hne Rides GmbH
NPG.93.154, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Print Collection, New York Public Library
Skidmore Owings & Merrill, LLP
Fritz Stoiber Productions GmbH
Streamline Films, Inc.
Transrapid International GmbH & Co KG
United States Navy
Special Thanks
Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture
Alexander Hotel
Anne Werth
Bill Me Later, Inc.
Dina Zavdi
Emaar Properties PJSC
Jim Bos
Johannes de Jong
Kathleen Duffy
Kevin Nance
Kone Corporation
LeeAnn Donnelly
Matt Yeschke
Newbury Street Management
Otis Elevator Company
Oxford Development Company
Pittsburgh Filmmakers
Richard King
Richard Thornton
Robert Caporale
Rabbi Manish & Mrs. Shelley Spitz
Sandi Tracy
Silverstein Properties
U.S. Equities Asset Management, LLC
United States Navy
Zmira Levin
NOVA Series Graphics
yU + co.
NOVA Theme Music
Walter Werzowa
John Luker
Musikvergnuegen, Inc.
Additional NOVA Theme Music
Ray Loring
Rob Morsberger
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Michael H. Amundson
Closed Captioning
The Caption Center
Eileen Campion
Victoria Louie
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Steve Sears
Kate Becker
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Linda Callahan
Sarah Erlandson
Talent Relations
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Janice Flood
Legal Counsel
Susan Rosen
Post Production Assistant
Darcy Forlenza
Associate Producer Post Production
Patrick Carey
Post Production Supervisor
Regina O'toole
Post Production Editor
Rebecca Nieto
Post Production Manager
Nathan Gunner
Compliance Manager
Linzy Emery
Development Producer
Pamela Rosenstein
Supervising Producer
Stephen Sweigart
Business And Production Manager
Jonathan Loewald
Senior Producer and Project Director, Margret & Hans Rey / Curious George Producer
Lisa Mirowitz
Coordinating Producer
Laurie Cahalane
Senior Science Editor
Evan Hadingham
Senior Series Producer
Melanie Wallace
Executive Producer
Howard Swartz
Managing Director
Alan Ritsko
Senior Executive Producer
Paula S. Apsell

A NOVA Production by New Wrinkle, Inc. for WGBH Boston

© 2010 WGBH Educational Foundation
All Rights Reserved

Image credit: (elevator) © WGBH Educational Foundation


Manon Collins
Otis Elevator Company
Sherri Davis
Financial Advisor
Raymond Esteves
Otis Elevator Company
Paul Goldberger
Architecture Critic, The New Yorker
Lee Gray
UNC Charlotte
Colleen Kistner
Michael Landis
Schindler Elevator Corporation
John Menville
Elevator Consultant
Nick Paumgarten
Writer, The New Yorker
Bruce Powell
Richard K. Pulling
Christopher Rawson
Theater Critic
Doug Ridenour
Federal Equipment Company
Carl Robbins
Anxiety & Stress Disorders Institute
Michael Stengel
Marketing VP, NYC Marriot Hotels
Rob Tinworth
Film Editor
Nicholas White
Sally Winston
Anxiety & Stress Disorders Institute
Christopher Young


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