As Cities Become More Vertical, Are Elevators Really Safe?

For city dwellers, elevators are are a fact of life, but as these accidents show, they're not always safe.
Marcia Wendorf

The latest buzzword seems to be "vertical cities". Lots of articles have been written about how vertical cities will improve life, allowing for more green space in large cities. But, getting to your home in a vertical city relies on one thing — an elevator.

Every time we get on one, we assume we are going to have a safe and uneventful trip, but that isn't always the case. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Consumer Product Safety Commission, U.S. elevators make 18 billion passenger trips each year, resulting in about 27 deaths annually. Thus, the fatality rate for an elevator trip is 0.00000015% per trip, making elevators a safe mode of transportation.


In a September 2013 report, the Center for Construction Research and Training revealed that, between 1992 and 2009, there were 89 elevator-related passenger deaths. Here are 17 cautionary tales that designers of the coming vertical cities should take into consideration.

1. August 22, 2019 - New York City

On that early Thursday morning, 30-year-old Sam Waisbren stepped into an elevator in his high-rise called Manhattan Promenade. When the car arrived at the lobby, people exited the car, but when Waisbren exited, the car suddenly dropped, trapping Waisbren between the car and the wall of the elevator shaft between the lobby floor and the basement.

In their story about the accident, the New York Post included surveillance video of the accident and quoted another resident of the building who said that "... the one so-called working elevator that was supposedly fixed Friday started skipping floors again. Someone told me it started skipping floors."

2. May 9, 2017 - Madrid, Spain

On that day, two 17-year-olds, a boy and a girl, entered an elevator in a luxury building in Madrid's Salamanca district. The area is known as one of Madrid's most expensive neighborhoods.

Somewhere between the ninth and sixth floors, the floor of the elevator separated from the rest of the car, and the two occupants plunged down the elevator shaft to their deaths. 

Emergency services had to attend to friends and relatives of the victims who were understandably in shock. Residents of the building told emergency services that the building had recently undergone renovation work, and that the elevator's safety certificate was in order.

3. January 14, 2016 - Moscow, Russia

When a woman entered an elevator at the elite Alye Parusa residential complex in Moscow, the elevator stopped too abruptly on the seventh floor. Suddenly, its floor gave way and the woman fell into the elevator shaft, killing her.

Prior to the accident, the residential complex had won numerous design awards.

4. December 25, 2011 - New York City

At 10:00 a.m, 41-year-old advertising executive Suzanne Hart entered an elevator at the Madison Avenue office building housing Young & Rubicam, her employer.

Somehow Hart's foot or leg became caught in the closing elevator doors. The car then shot upwards, dragging Hart's body into the elevator shaft and killing her. Two people in the elevator who witnessed the accident had to be taken to a hospital and treated for psychological trauma.

5. December 9, 2011 - Long Beach, California

48-year-old Annette Lujan was an employee of university Cal State Long Beach when she stepped into an elevator at the university's Foundation Building.

When the elevator got stuck between the second and third floors, Lujan attempted to climb out of the elevator, but it started moving again, and the 2,000 pound (907 kg) car dropped onto Lujan.

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Cal State Long Beach
Cal State Long Beach Source: Tom Ipri/Flickr

It took rescuers over an hour to lift the elevator off of her, and it was too late. Officials said the incident illustrates why people should never try to climb out of an elevator if it gets stuck.

6. November 8, 2009 - Brooklyn, New York

Jerry Fuchs was a drummer in such independent rock groups as Turing Machine and Maserati, and with the artist Moby.

That November day, following a benefit concert, Fuchs entered an elevator in Brooklyn that stalled. Growing impatient for help to arrive, Fuchs attempted to jump out of the elevator and fell to his death in the elevator shaft.

7. June 2006 - Tokyo, Japan

16-year-old Hirosuke Ichikawa was backing his bicycle out of an elevator in the City Heights Takeshiba public housing complex. Suddenly, the elevator shot upwards, pinning Ichikawa against the door frame.

When police arrived, they cut power to the elevator and pulled Icikawa out, but even with no power, the elevator shot up to the top of the elevator shaft, stopped only by a collision prevention device.

8. December 2005 - Toronto, Canada

Toronto's Four Seasons Center
Toronto's Four Seasons Center Source: Greg Heal/Wikimedia

18-year-old Louis Tornero Moffit was already well known as an adrenaline junkie. Moffit regularly BASE jumped in which jumpers leap off buildings, antennas, and bridges with a parachute strapped on to stop their fall.

On this day, Moffit and his friends wanted to BASE jump inside Toronto's five-story theater complex, the Four Seasons Center, but before jumping, Moffit couldn't resist doing a little "elevator surfing". This is where someone rides along the roofs of elevators while they're in motion, something we've seen in countless movies.

Unfortunately for Moffit, he was still wearing his parachute when he climbed onto the elevator's roof, and somehow, his parachute opened. Both the parachute and Moffit's harness then became entangled with the machinery in the elevator shaft, causing Moffit to strangle and be crushed.

9. August 16, 2003 - Houston, Texas

Saturday, August 16, 2003 was a regular day for those working at Christus St. Joseph Hospital in Houston, Texas. In the bank of elevators, elevator #14 had been out of service for most of the week, but when it arrived on the second floor, physician's assistant Karin Steinau stepped on and pressed the sixth floor button.

Before the elevator doors closed, popular resident Hitoshi Nikaidoh rushed to join Steinau, but he was only half inside the elevator car when its doors slammed closed on him. In normal operation, when something prevents an elevator's doors from closing, they automatically reopen, but that's not what happened to Nikaidoh.

As he frantically tried to extricate himself, the elevator rose, slicing Nikaidoh's head in half, with the top half falling into the elevator shaft. The elevator stopped just below the fifth floor, and it took rescuers an hour to free Steinau who had been trapped with Nikaidoh's body for all that time.

10. September 11, 2001 - New York City

World Trade Center in March 2001
World Trade Center in March 2001 Source: Jeffmock/Wikimedia Commons

The two World Trade Center buildings had between them a staggering 198 elevators. These carried the thousands of people who worked in the two buildings up and down the buildings' 110 stories every day.

When the first airplane hit the North Tower on that terrible day, it severed many elevator cables, sending the elevator cars and anyone who happened to be in them into free-fall. In other cases, burning jet fuel entered elevator cars, burning those inside, and others who were trapped in elevator cars died when the two buildings collapsed.

While the elevator shafts played a part in spreading the fire both vertically and horizontally throughout the buildings, they also played a part in saving lives. The 78th floor of the South Tower housed the elevators' mechanical rooms which contained the elevator motors and cables.

When the second plane hit the South Tower, those mechanical rooms prevented the plane from penetrating completely through the building. This preserved a single stairway which people then used to escape. It was the only stairway in the two towers that was not crushed by the impacts of the planes.

11. September 7, 1999 - Yongin, South Korea

On that day, five women house painters entered an elevator in a building that was under construction by the Hanyang Construction Company. On the 10th floor of the building, the elevator suddenly plunged and crashed to the ground. All five women were killed.

The building was one of 12 apartment buildings being constructed by the builder.

12. January 6, 1995 - Bronx, New York

That morning, 55-year-old James Chenault was going to his job of 20 years at the Kingsbridge Welfare Center. After Chenault and several other passengers entered the elevator in the lobby, the car shot up too quickly to the second floor, and stopped slightly above the floor.

Chenault lodged his back against one of the elevator doors to keep the doors from closing, and began handing several female passengers out onto the second floor.

Chenault had one foot in the elevator and the other foot on the second floor when suddenly the car shot upwards, beheading Chenault. With his head in the elevator along with two remaining passengers, and his body on the second floor, the elevator shot up to the ninth floor.

13. May 21, 1989 - Barcelona, Spain

Seven people who were visiting patients entered an elevator at the L'Hospitalet de Llobregat hospital. At the seventh floor, the elevator fell. Witnesses described the accident as: "It was heard as the noise of a full speed train and a subsequent explosion."

L'Hospitalet de Llobregat  Barcelona Spain
 L'Hospitalet de Llobregat Barcelona, Spain Source: Ssola/Wikimedia

According to a technical report, the piece that connects the elevator pulleys to the elevator car broke and the safety brake also failed.

Overloading was not an issue since the elevator's capacity was between 15 and 20 people. Six people died instantly and the seventh died later in the same hospital.

14. July 20, 1973 - Sydney, Australia

Dugald Munro was a 43-year-old member of parliament when he was crushed to death between the safety cage and the door of an elevator in a building in Sydney.

The elevator operator, Munro's brother and a 16-year-old girl were unable to free Munro as the elevator rose from the ground floor to the first floor.

15. December 1946 - Dover-Focraft, Maine

The American Woolen Company textile mill was in the midst of switching over from the wartime effort to peacetime production when 12 women stepped into one of its elevators to begin their morning shift at the plant.

Suddenly, the elevator operator, Mrs. Banche Foss, heard something break overhead, and she jumped out of the elevator before it crashed down three stories. Falling three stories didn't do much damage to the elevator's occupants, but what came next did.

The elevator cable and its drum support assembly came tumbling down the elevator shaft and landed on top of the elevator, crashing through its roof. Two of the women were killed instantly, and the other 10 survived but were seriously injured. When asked, the mill's superintendent told authorities that the elevator was "in fine working condition" and that he saw no reason for the accident.

16. July 28, 1945 - New York City, U.S.

Lieutenant Colonel William Smith, Jr. was piloting a B-25 from Boston to LaGuardia Airport. That day was extremely foggy, and Smith was told there was zero visibility. Instead of going to a different airport, Smith continued on and his plane slammed into the north side of the Empire State Building between the 78th and 80th floors.

Empire State Building, New York City
Empire State Building, New York City Source: Sam Valadi/Wikimedia

The plane punched an 18 foot by 20 foot (5.8 to 6 mt) hole in the building, killing three people on board the plane and 11 people in the building. Just below the crash site, on the 75th floor, elevator operator Betty Lou Oliver was inside her elevator when it shook violently and burning airplane fuel entered the car, injuring Oliver.

When rescuers sent Oliver's elevator down to the ground floor to try to evacuate her, the elevator's cables snapped. The car fell 75 stories which undoubtedly would have killed Oliver except thousands of feet of elevator cable had hit the bottom of the shaft before her car did, and it acted like a giant spring, cushioning the impact.

Incredibly, Oliver survived and holds the record for the longest survived descent in an elevator accident.

17. 1890 - Cincinnati, Ohio

One of the founders of the Sigma Chi fraternity in 1855, Isaac Jordan was a self-made man. Born on a farm in Mifflinburg, Pennsylvania, Jordan became a lawyer, and in 1883, he went on to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for the 2nd District of Ohio.

One day in 1890, Jordan was leaving his law office in downtown Cincinnati, and while waiting to enter the elevator, he turned to greet someone. With his back to the elevator, Jordan continued stepping backwards, unaware that the elevator had risen to another floor but the doors had remained open.

Jordan fell into the elevator shaft and became the only U.S. Congressman to have ever been killed in an elevator accident. 

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