Trapped and Terrified in A Lift

What would you do?

Old Elevator Buttons Against Wooden Panels Inside A Vintage Elevator
This might be too modern a depiction of the elevator I was stuck in

I have to set the scene for you; although this happened 46 years ago, the experience is as fresh in my mind as it was the day it happened. I apology in advance for downplaying the fear I experienced then and continues to resonate. This is the first time I am retelling this story.

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Like many teenagers in Brooklyn, I worked at a grocery store. It was a good job for a 16 year old; it taught me many lessons about life I might not have learned otherwise. Little did I know, that on one particular brutally hot summer day, I would learn a lesson of survival.

Delivering groceries to neighborhood people was hard work, but when I laid on the charm and kept my clients happy, I could do pretty well financially. My earnings paid for room and board, clothing, and my education — we paid our own way in my house as soon as we were able. I either hustled or listened to my mother piss and moan about poverty and what it was like to raise seven kids on her own. She had a point.

My siblings would argue this self-assessment, but I recollect that I was a fairly happy-go-lucky teenager — especially when I was flush with cash. Tips were a good way for me to make money because I could hide a lot of it from my mother. I figure she was a waitress and practiced similar deception. That late morning in August, I was rode my delivery bike about two streets east to an old building I had visited often; truth be told, every building was old in Ditmas Park. When you’re sixteen and you think you know it all, old and rundown is not cool. I took the elevator to the 8th floor and dropped off the groceries; after awhile, you spend your time thinking about everything else than what you’re actually doing; I believe she was a regular customer, a detail that’s fuzzy.

I recall it was so humid, my clothing was soaked through and I was lethargic from the heat. I entered the noisy old elevator; you know, the ones that go clunk, clunk, clunk when they move. I pressed the button for the first floor. The door slammed closed and the elevator descended a few feet and stopped abruptly. I did what any human would do, I pressed all the buttons, I pressed them over and over again, thinking somehow, my persistence would restart the lift. There was an alarm button, a rather loud alarm I might add, but it felt like I was screaming help in a padded prison cell and no one was listening.

Thinking, this can’t be happening, doesn’t make it go away — this was a living nightmare. I took a deep breath and felt like I might cry. Perhaps my brain knew that crying would use up too much of my water supply, instead I stomped my feet and banged the walls. Clearly, there was no one anywhere near this piece of shit machinery. I sat down on the dirty elevator floor hoping an escape plan would come. I’m pretty sure I was close to panicking by this point. I’ve never been fond of small spaces; this elevator was tiny. In addition to that foul odors easily make me nauseous. This particular building had a gag inducing stench. I screamed “help” as loud as I could. I screamed repeatedly hoping someone in the building would come to my rescue. Could it be possible that the entire building was empty? And where was the lady I just delivered groceries to? I had watched way too much Twilight Zone for my own good. In my mind one of two things was going to happen: the elevator was either going to crash to the ground or I would die of heat exhaustion; neither would be a good way to go.

A good chunk of time passed before I starting screaming again. I was convinced my co-workers would miss me and someone was being sent to check what had happened. I would alternate between stomping and screaming and bargaining with God — whom I don’t believe exists by the way. Funny how that happens when you’re in a life threatening situation. You go through this, if you really do exist please help me — I’ll do anything, I promise, dialog in your head.

Dripping wet, long past the point of heat exhaustion, seeing double through pools of sweat, no voice, no help, and no hope; I recall at a certain point I began to enter the acceptance phase of my own impending death. At some point, I made the decision that being horizontal might save me some energy. The elevator floor was dirty and sticky, but I’m not sure it mattered much at that moment. Flat on the ground and feeling defeated, I believe I closed my eyes for a few minutes, the silence was deafening and my heartbeat was finally slowing a bit. I glanced at the ceiling and noticed an exhaust fan that wasn’t moving. Next to the fan was a panel. It was too high up for me, but offered new hope. I stood up in order to assess the situation and realized that I might be able to step onto the side rail and push on the panel. Desperation fuels hope — there were not many other options to choose from.

I jumped up with one foot on the rail and was able to touch the top of the elevator car. After a number of tries, I was dislodged the panel; quite relieved that it was not bolted down. I was able to eventually pop the panel off and push it over to the side, allowing me to see that I was only feet away from the elevator doors on the floor above the car.

It might have been more than an hour or perhaps only minutes; at this point I was pretty delirious. I faintly heard someone walking on the floor above and I shouted for help. The man walked up to the doors and called down to me.

“Is someone in there?”

I sunk down to the ground and responded with tremendous relief. Yes, I’m here, please help me get out.

“It’s the super, I’m going to shut the elevator down and start it back up.”

I don’t think I answered him. I may have thought it was in my head.

An eternity passed and the lift gave a jolt. It started moving but only about four feet. At this point the car was partially on the fifth floor.

“Give me a minute, I think I can pry the doors open.”

The super pushed the doors open and I could see him; I could breathe again. I expressed my gratitude and I told him I’d been there a long time. He apologized, his thick Spanish accent, more a part of my consciousness than earlier. He said something about being out of the building all morning. He asked for my hand, hauled me up, and I quickly crawled out onto the fifth floor. I don’t think either of us was thinking about the danger of what we were doing at the time. He could see I was dripping wet and he asked me if I wanted some water.

Please, I said and leaned my body against the wall.

He told me that his apartment was in the basement. He asked me if I could walk down the steps and I told him that I could. When we got down to the first floor he asked me to wait while he went to get some water. I thought he was kind. He returned with a tall glass and I drank the water in one gulp. I thanked him and left.

When I got back to the grocery store, I realized I had been gone three hours. None of my co-workers seemed to notice that I’d been missing. I walked over to Bob, the owner of the store, and found words almost impossible. He asked me where I’d been and I shared what had happened. He shrugged and told me he was glad I made it out of the lift. I thought he was matter-of-fact about the whole thing, but how could he know what I’d been through.

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Years later I was watching the news and there was a story about a woman who was on an elevator in a Manhattan hi-rise. The elevator stopped a few feet below the floor she had entered on. The elevator door and the door to the floor opened, she panicked and hoisted herself up. As she was crawling out of the elevator, it started back up and cut her in half. When the door opened to some people who had called the lift, they saw the severed lower half of her body. The news only showed the bloody car, but it didn’t take much imagination to see the gruesome scene in your mind’s eye. Apparently, there was some sort of glitch in the system that caused the lift to malfunction. I believe they have put new measures in place to ensure an elevator car could never move if any of the floor doors are even partially opened.

I will never shake the image of that woman’s severed torso and what her final moments must have been like. I’ve also thought about my own situation and how I was fortunate to get out of the lift I was trapped in. I should have asked the super to call the fire department; I wasn’t thinking. The events that took place that day in my 16th year, taught me a great deal about who I am and how fortunate I have been. I treat elevators with great respect and carry water with me whenever possible; you never know when you might need it.

I still wonder where all the residents of that building were that day? Why didn’t the woman I had just delivered groceries to, hear me? And why didn’t my co-workers notice how long I’d been gone?

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Hot dogs are one of my favorite foods and until recently I was convinced that a good, natural casing frankfurter, did not exist in Portugal. I was happily wrong — they sell them frozen at IKEA and I’m good now.

Trapped Under Ice

60 Seconds of Terror

Photo by Tembela Bohle

Completely submerged, I pounded the ice with my fist while panicked boys above me screamed for help. Weighted down by boots, a winter coat, and fear, I could only think of Dana. I was certain that if I didn’t find a hole in the ice I would never see my dog again.

My Scouting Days Were Limited

To say that I was a reluctant boy scout is an understatement. The thought of camping and eating dehydrated packaged foods was repulsive. I went along with the idea to show my aloof step-father that I was not a sissy. Our scout leader’s thinly veiled plan was to have us boys slip flyers under tenement doors in order to earn enough cash to leave the city for greener pastures. I’ll explain the scam later. This charade meant giving up Saturdays, for how long, I don’t recall; all for two insufferable nights with miserable scout leaders intent on showing us how to be real men.

I didn’t mind summer camping so much. Well that’s a lie, I hated the mosquitoes and I despised my pumped up, so called, leaders. But in the summer, I didn’t freeze my ass off and I could at least go swimming. When the leaders announced a winter trip, I asked my mom if I could sit it out. My mother was always concerned about my desire to spend more time in my room than out and about. She insisted that I go and demanded that I have fun. It doesn’t really work that way, but back then, kids did what they were told.

The Trip

We arrived at the campground in Alpine, New Jersey. It couldn’t have been more than an hour from the city; rural, desolate, and way too far from Brooklyn for my liking. I’m going to say, all in, there were around 15 of us. We got there on an old school bus; the same yellow jalopies still on the road today. The bus was damp and cold and you felt every bump to the point where it hurt your teeth. I’m not a delicate flower mind you, I just didn’t see the point in such nonsense.

It started snowing the night before we left for Alpine and I recall arriving at camp hoping that the cabins were buried so deep we’d have to turn back — no such luck. Upon arrival, we were told to put our things on top of our bunks and return to the dining hall (I use the term loosely), for further instructions. All the boys had boatloads of energy and were anxious to be outdoors; our leaders seemed just as anxious to coax us out. They told us we could play, but that we should stay close to the cabins and return before lunch. They were to remain in the dining hall so that they could map out the rest of the weekend.

My scout peers and I ran into the great beyond, not far from our home base. The snow was over eight inches deep and blanked the camp. Most of us were testing the snow to see whether or not could make snowballs with it. In fact, it was perfect for packing — we were all ready for war . . . boys will be boys. I started running toward the center of what I thought was a wide open field and I felt the ground beneath me crack open; in fact it was a lake, not a field. I was pulled into the frozen water, weighted down by my winter boots and a heavy wool coat. I must have started screaming, but this part is all a blur. I later learned that as soon as I took the plunge, a couple of the boys ran to alert our leaders.

Completely submerged, I frantically searched for an opening in the ice. It was dark under water due to the fallen snow. It felt as if I was moving in slow motion as I listened to frantic screams and tried to swim to the surface; my clothing was soaked through, weighing me down. After what I’m certain was a very long time, I heard splashing nearby. I moved toward the sound and found an opening in the ice. Each time I tried to hold on, the ice broke off. The other boy who had fallen in was thrashing two or three away. I heard panicked voices pleading for the two of us to stay calm, “Help is on the way.”

By the time our scout leaders arrived, we’d broken through quite a large patch of ice. I’d gone under numerous times. The men quickly laid across the ice, creating a human chain, and pulled the two of us out of the lake. We were carried back to the leader’s cabin and placed in front of the fire. My clothing was quickly peeled off of me and I was wrapped in a large blanket. I’m sure my lips had turned blue and I was shivering so badly I feared I would never stop. Looking back, I’m certain our leaders were more fearful of a lawsuit than hypothermia. I recall deafening silence as they attempted to warm us up. I was given a cup of hot chocolate, but I couldn’t stop shaking long enough to get it down.

A decision was made to cancel the weekend and take us all home to our parents. I don’t recall hearing the reaction of the other scouts. One of our leaders grabbed my backpack and took responsibility for getting me home. I didn’t know him very well, I didn’t like him, and I didn’t trust him. In the car, he questioned me about how I fell in the ice. I shared with him what I was certain everyone had told him, that I ran onto what I thought was an open field and fell into the lake. He just nodded and assured me that I’d be home soon.

When we got to my house my mother was anxiously waiting at the door. I didn’t realize they had called ahead and she was crying and obviously angry. She hugged me tighter than usual. I’m was pretty sure that it was all a show; drama was my mother’s specialty and this was a situation that called for plenty of it. The scout leader asked if he could come in. My brothers and sisters all stared at me as if I had some sort of rare disease. I was still bundled in blankets because my coat was soaked. My mother asked the scout leader to have a seat.

I recall her repeating, “How could you let this happen,” several times.

She made it clear that I would never be allowed to go away with the boy scouts again and threatened a lawsuit. This news made me very happy; almost making my submersion into the frozen lake, worth it. My scout leader told her about the snow covered lake and the human chain, but it fell on deaf ears. They spoke for a few more minutes, he apologized again and left. I wasn’t used to see him humble. Once he was gone, my mother reverted back to her old ways and sent me to bed; not before making it clear that falling into the frozen lake was all my fault and that I was lucky to be alive.

I never returned to the boy scouts after that incident and there was no lawsuit ever filed. It wasn’t because my mother didn’t think she had a case, it had more to do with the effort she’d have to make it happen. I have stayed away from fields covered in snow and never once, regretted leaving the scouts.

Prologue

The flyers work our leaders had us do, was a scheme to line their pockets. Arrests made local news and there were indictments. I recall feeling vindicated. To this day when I see flyers being slipped under doors, I have a visceral resentment for those boy scout “leaders,” and their intention to teach us how to lead.

fear quotes courage knowing what wisdom

São Miguel is less than two weeks away and if all goes well, I’ll be back in the States for a visit, by mid-May.

Question of the Week:

Have you ever had your life flash before your eyes? What did you see?