Elevator Plunges Are Extremely Rare

Ask elevator professionals to recall an episode of an elevator in free fall — the cab plummeting in the shaft, frayed rope ends trailing in the dark — and they will likely say that they can think of only one. That would be the Empire State Building incident of 1945, in which Army Air Forces B-52 bomber pilot Lt. Col. William F. Smith Jr. made a wrong turn in the fog and crashed into the 79th floor of the skyscraper, snapping the hoist and safety cables of the elevator and plunging it to the bottom of the shaft. The sole occupant — 20-year-old elevator operator Betty Lou Oliver (pictured below) — survived, though she was severely injured. In reality, elevators are extraordinarily safe, far safer than cars. In New York City, where there are 58,000 elevators making 11 billion trips a year — 30 million every day — there are no more than two dozen passengers injured and requiring medical treatment each year. Much of the misinformation we receive about elevators comes from the movies, including seeing trapped passengers climbing through the escape hatch. The truth about the escape hatch on an elevator is that it can’t be opened from the inside. By law, it’s bolted shut from the outside. In fact, the hatch is only there so that emergency personnel can get in, not so passengers can get out. If an elevator is in trouble, the safest place to be is inside of it, and absolutely not in the elevator shaft.