Stuck in an Elevator? Relax, Then Follow These 5 Steps

You use them frequently without a second thought, you ride them regularly to various destinations, from basement-level restaurants, to top-floor residential penthouses, to middle-of-the-building office suites. They are elevator systems — a sophisticated and technological combination of shafts, connections, weights and counterweights, which move people from floor to floor in buildings of varying heights.

However, the elevator cab can morph from a convenient vertical transportation enclosure to a claustrophobic prison in a heartbeat, should it grind to a halt en route to your destination. As frightening as being stuck in an elevator might seem, elevator systems, as a whole, are designed to keep you safe. You’re in more danger attempting to escape from the cab without the help from qualified personnel. If you find yourself stuck in an elevator, or in an elevator that’s free-falling, here’s what you should do stay safe.

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5 Things to Do if You’re Stuck in an Elevator

The following five suggestions will keep you safe if you should find yourself stuck inside a stalled elevator cab.

1. Remain calm

First and foremost, do not panic, because there is no reason to do so. The elevator will not fall, nor will you suffocate. According to the National Elevator Industry Inc., elevator cars have plenty of oxygen, both within the cab and throughout the shaft, so you won’t run out of air and find yourself breathing in carbon dioxide. In addition, it’s a good idea just to breathe. Breathing can help calm you down, which is important, as “stressing yourself out to the point of having a panic attack won’t be helpful,” said Preferred Elevator, a Maryland company that installs and maintains residential and lightweight commercial elevators. Preferred Elevator also cautioned that it could take some time to fix the problem, depending on what it is, meaning “patience will be needed.”

2. Let others know you’re trapped

Modern elevator cabs have some way to communicate with the outside world, should you become stuck. Some cabs offer an alarm button, which makes a loud, ringing noise. Others provide an emergency phone behind a panel, or a two-way call button. Find that button or phone, and use it to initiate the rescue process. Calling 911 on your cell phone is also a good idea, assuming you have phone reception.

3. Stay put, wait it out

It seems as though every television show, movie or book involving elevator entrapment shows the hero, or heroine, breaking through the trap door at the top of the cab, climbing out and then making his or her way to the next floor above. However, in the real world, this is a terrible idea and can be very dangerous. Even if you could get that trap door open — and many are bolted shut — one of two things could happen. The elevator could either start moving again, while you are perched on top of it, causing likely injury, or you could fall down the elevator shaft. The advice is to remain where you are. You’ll be safer this way.

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4. Keep the door shut

Another neat trick that elevator-entrapped individuals in movies, TV shows and books seem to know how to do is to jimmy open the elevator cab door, then climb out onto the next floor. If you are stuck in an elevator cab, once again, don’t do this. You could damage the elevator mechanism, making rescue more difficult. Additionally, elevator cabs could start moving without any warning, and that open elevator door could put you at risk.

5. Keep still, and get comfortable

Where to stand in a stalled elevator cab seems to be open to a lot of conjecture. Some experts suggest standing in the center of the cab, facing the door. Others suggest moving to the rear of the cab while waiting for help. Then there are those who indicate that sitting down at the back of the cab and relaxing until help arrives is the best bet. While there is no consensus on the best location, or whether standing or sitting is better, the one advice commonality here is not to jump up and down in a mistaken belief that it will cause the elevator cab to move. Doing so could impact the brake system or shift the car. In addition to feeling a stalled elevator car drop a few feet, such a shift could mean rescuers might have more trouble reaching you.

How to Stay Safe in a Free-Falling Elevator

There are elevator cab shifts of a few feet,  then there are the movie versions of free-falling elevator cars screaming down shafts at 60 miles an hour or more.

In reality, the chances of a free-falling elevator cab are extremely remote. Whether the elevator system operates on hydraulics or cables, enough redundancies exist to prevent an outright plunge to the bottom of a shaft. However, if you are that unlucky individual stuck in a free-falling elevator cab, your best bet is to lay flat on the bottom of the car, protect your head and hope for the best.

Standing with knees bent and bracing for impact will put enormous stress on your knees or back when the cab crashes. And, attempting to jump right before the cab hits the bottom sounds great in theory, but is next to impossible to time perfectly in real life.

The Bottom Line

Finding yourself stuck in an elevator is not one of life’s most pleasant experiences. In fact, it can be downright scary. But as long as you stay calm, communicate with the outside world and stay put, you will emerge from the experience unscathed. Remember: Attempting to escape from the stuck elevator on your own, without the help from qualified personnel, will only put you in more danger.

(Photo by Art of Photo / GettyImages)


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Amy Sorter

Amy Sorter is a journalist whose articles have been published in The Simple Dollar, The Business Journals, Dallas Innovates, among others.