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In the movies falling elevators aren't rare. However, given that elevators are protected by safety devices, is it even possible for elevator to fall?

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The OTIS company is big in that business as a consequence of inventing a system that protects against many classes of accidents that would cause an elevator to fall. –  dmckee Oct 30 '12 at 17:14
    
My dad was in a falling elevator car once. Not sure how long ago. It was before I was born, so at least 15 years. The cable snapped and the elevator fell 2 stories. –  Raghav Sood Oct 30 '12 at 17:44
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As someone who worked in the elevator industry, I can tell you that elevators are fitted with several independent safety systems which are subject to inspection after manufacturing, procurement, assembly and installation. Some of these devices, such as speed governors, are purely mechanically actuated, simple and reliable (hard to calibrate though). Most accidents are caused by neglecting safety precautions during installation and maintenance. Free fall of the cabin for a few stories in case of emergency is not unusual especially for fast elevators, as most safety devices are speed-dependent. –  mindcorrosive Oct 30 '12 at 21:41
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At the risk of piling on anecdotes, I have been in an elevator that fell 10 floors before the safety clamps engaged, then they slipped and fell another 2 floors (out of 16). This was in 1998 in a 1960s building. As a passenger and non-expert I can't speak to maintenance, installation, or expected behavior. –  Scott Pack Nov 9 '12 at 1:30
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1 Answer

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Falling Elevators

There are examples of elevators falling with fatal consequences

On the night of May 22, 1903, in Pittsburgh, PA, a large group of mostly young people who attended the Pennsylvania Electric Mechanical Institute were having a celebration party on the fifth and sixth floors of the Donnelley building. About 700 people packed the two floors for the ball, and at around 10 PM another group of seventeen passengers was loaded into the elevator on the first floor, bound for the party on floor six. Just as the elevator reached the floor, it suddenly let go and fell six stories, crashing into the elevator pit. The multi-ton elevator cable and assembly came crashing down onto the elevator, crushing the occupants. When the party goers heard the crash, they rushed to the elevator. In the panic, some nearly fell into the open shaft. Four bodies were pulled from the rubble and taken to a morgue. They were so badly mangled it was not until the next day they could be identified. So mangled were the bodies, they could only be identified by the cloths they were wearing. The others in the elevator, the youngest being only 3 years old, somehow survived. The accident was blamed on overloading of the elevator with 17 people when the maximum weight allowed for only 10-12.

From Ten Tragic Elevator Accidents

Also described in Pittsbugh Donnelly Elevator Accident 1903

Reports attributed to

  • Weekly Sentinel, Fort Wayne, IN, 27 May 1903
  • The Atlanta Constitution, Atlanta, GA 24 May 1903

Packed elevator goes into free fall at trendy NYC hotel

A late-night party at Gramercy Park Hotel in New York City for indie film "Janie Jones" last Thursday turned into a horror flick for 14 people - including the movie's star and director, the New York Post, New York magazine and others report.

Party goers had packed into the elevator on the hotel's rooftop terrace and then made one more stop on another floor, when the elevator went into free fall - with the door partially open.

It plunged eight stories before the emergency brakes stopped it, the stories say.

Safety Devices

Elevators do have many safety devices, however maintenance workers will sometimes disable them to facilitate their work.

Suzanne Hart's Midtown Elevator Death Due To Disabled Safety Device - Huff Post, New York, October 30, 2012

Elevator Work Blamed in Death of Suzanne Hart - New York Times January 23, 2012

It seems possible that, in recent decades, being crushed or decapitated in an elevator doorway by unexpected elevator motion is more likely than dying in a falling elevator car.

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