We don’t usually give much thought to elevators.

That is, until we’re unlucky enough to be in one that comes to an unexpected halt.

Maybe you’ve gone your entire life without being stuck between floors. An elevator jam seems like some alien concept, only witnessed in films, television, or the occasional odd news story. But for those who have experienced it (including this writer), the incident can range from mildly uncomfortable to a white-knuckle experience.

For the claustrophobic, in a hurry, or in need of a bathroom break, an elevator jam can be extremely unpleasant. Because jams can happen to anyone, it’s worth looking into how they happen and what steps you can take if you find yourself in such a predicament.

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Why do elevators jam in the first place? What are the odds you’ll get stuck in one? How are people rescued? And how can you stay safe and sane if you do find yourself stuck? Let’s explore those questions and some of my own personal pointers from being trapped in not one, but two elevators.

Why do elevators get stuck?

Dan Wilson, a retired elevator technician with over 37 years of experience rescuing stressed-out elevator passengers, says an elevator can get stuck for a variety of reasons: “There could be a power outage, or it could be just a malfunction in one of the mechanisms. …There are about 30 different fail-safe devices on an elevator that might be compromised, in which case it will shut the elevator down.”

The ultimate function of these jams, he adds, is keeping passengers safe: “[It prevents] any possibility of anybody getting hurt—the elevator will purposely shut itself down because it realizes that there may be some danger factor keeping it from moving.”

So if you get on the elevator with a lot of people on it and you’re the last person in, you should think twice about how big of a hurry that you’re in.

So what are the chances you’ll get stuck in an elevator in your lifetime? According to an article posted by KJA, an elevator-engineering consulting firm, “On the average for a well-maintained elevator installation, we would expect about 0.03 entrapments per month per unit. So if your exposure is … 80 minutes in 12,000 minutes of elevator operation then you have a probability of entrapment each month of 0.02 percent or 1 in 5,000. To put this in some sort of context, the odds that you will be struck by lightning in any given month are 1 in 3,360,000.”

If you didn’t get that, it means you’re about 672 times more likely to get stuck than you are to get struck.

You can further decrease those odds, Wilson says, by avoiding overstuffed elevators.

“All elevators have a weight sensor on them that’s set for a current way to correspond to the sides of the elevator,” he says. “So if you get on the elevator with a lot of people on it and you’re the last person in, you should think twice about how big of a hurry that you’re in. Because it will automatically come to a stop in between floors, and you’ll be there until someone comes and releases you and resets the mechanism.”

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Elevator jams can happen in any make or model, Wilson adds, with no one type predisposed to malfunctions.

How long do elevator jams usually last?

Nicholas White is one of the unluckiest souls to ever get on an elevator. In 1999, he was taking a work break at Rockefeller Center’s McGraw-Hill Building, but his brief respite from a late shift turned into a nightmare when his elevator came to a halt.

White was trapped for 41 grueling hours, and his entire confined stay was captured on a security camera. Footage shows him repeatedly hitting the alarm button and trying to remain calm. Eventually, his stress skyrocketed, and he began having auditory hallucinations and worrying he would never be freed. With no cell phone, food, water, or bathroom access, and no one answering the intercom, his anxiety was palpable.

White was eventually freed and filed a $25 million lawsuit against building management and the elevator company, which dragged on for four years. He eventually settled for an undisclosed sum that he said was hardly six figures, which mostly went toward legal fees. After the experience, White battled bouts of unemployment. He was working again in 2010, reported NBCNews.

Nicholas White/Photo by Tina Fineberg for AP (via NBC News)

White’s experience is about as horrific as an elevator jam can be, but Wilson says that’s not how these situations typically unfold. He says it usually takes about 15 minutes on average to retrieve the stuck passengers. If it occurs outside of regular business hours, he says it takes between 30 and 60 minutes.

What are the dangers?

“Contrary to [what] a lot of people think, you don’t want to try to get out of an elevator yourself,” Wilson says.

Footage shows that during White’s 41-hour elevator stay, he attempted (and failed) to open the emergency hatch at the top of the elevator. Wilson cautions against this.

“[Trying to escape from an emergency hatch] is one of the most dangerous situations imaginable, because it’s all programmed to move automatically. …So if you think you’re going to get out the emergency hatch on the top, and the elevator was to start moving, it’s highly likely to lead to a fall or fatal injury,” he says. “All it would take is for someone to accidentally step on something or trip a switch, which would reactivate the elevator and get it to start moving again.”

Wilson says one thing you never have to worry about is something we’ve seen in movies: having the cable of an elevator snap, sending it (and those on it) plummeting down the elevator shaft to their doom.

“You couldn’t break them if you had to,” he says. “So don’t worry about it falling—even if it did, the counterweight is heavier than the loaded elevator, so you’re more likely to go up to the top floor.”

In fact, there are only two notable instances of an elevator car completely free falling due to a severed cable. The first happened in 1945, after a B-25 bomber flew into the Empire State Building—the car was on the 75th floor when it happened, and the passenger inside survived. Oddly enough, another elevator cable snapped in the same building in 2000, sending Shamika Petersen’s elevator car falling from the 44th floor and past the lobby before shooting her back up to the fourth floor (she also survived).

It’s worth pointing out that elevators are ultimately more dangerous to technicians than passengers, as they make up the majority of fatalities in such accidents.

What should you do if you get stuck?

So what happens if you get stuck in an elevator? Aside from not trying to get out through the emergency hatch, Wilson says the first tip is to try to relax. He says his job isn’t just about freeing stressed occupants; it’s about learning how to soothe their jangled nerves.

“I find it best to go into the situation with a very calm and reassuring voice—I think that that takes away a lot of anxiety—and just tell them that they’ll be out soon,” he says. “[I also check to see] if there is possibly some kind of real unusual medical emergency type thing, [in case I need to contact a medical professional].”

But before that happens, it’s up to the trapped person to use the elevator car’s built-in phone to summon a technician. Wilson emphasizes trying not to worry, though he realizes those who suffer from claustrophobia, or people in a hurry, are the hardest people to keep calm.

Wilson also advises being nice to the person trying to free you from your metal cocoon, recalling one incident when a flustered attorney berated him.

“The first words that came out of his mouth [were] ‘I’m going to sue you, and I’m going to sue your company!’ I just thought to myself, ‘I think I’m just going to go down and have a bite to eat and a cup of coffee before I even do anything with this guy!'”

The rescue, he recalled, took about an hour. And he never got sued.

I got stuck in an elevator (twice).

It is here that I insert myself into the story. Having been trapped in both my college dorm elevator and an elevator in a shopping mall, I can tell you being stuck was incredibly stressful, primarily because I didn’t know when help would arrive or how long it would take to get there. And because I’m claustrophobic.

I have a feeling that if I had spoken to Wilson many years ago, I would certainly have kept a cooler head.

We have a lot of ups and downs in our business.

Luckily, what I did have in both instances were friends sharing the same experience, and being able to joke about the encounter makes any such situation easier to bear (and could provide a memorable story to share later).

My friend Damon Shell, who was also trapped in my dorm elevator, says, “The one thing I recall was how our initial anxiety was greatly lessened by making each other laugh. And realizing that we were in a crowded building was more reassuring, knowing that we weren’t isolated and people knew where we were.” I can certainly attest to this, as I might have gone to worst-case scenario mode if left to my own devices.

My second encounter was different: While I was also with a friend, we shared the elevator with a young, visibly anxious couple. I’d like to think my prior experience helped them feel a bit calmer as well.

I can personally attest to most elevator jams being resolved quickly. I recall being freed in 30 minutes or less.

Just remember these tips if you find your elevator trip gets delayed: Take a deep breath, think good thoughts, call a technician, and know that it’s not a question of if, but when you’ll be getting free.

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Wilson adds that he isn’t immune to getting stuck in an elevator, recalling an instance years ago where he didn’t have access to his tools and had to wait for a friend and fellow engineer to get him out. It was quite an embarrassing moment, he says, recalling an old trade joke: “We have a lot of ups and downs in our business.”

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