Is there anyone who hasn’t gotten into an elevator and wondered what would happen if the elevator cable snapped, sending the elevator plummeting to the ground? If that thought has crossed your mind, that shouldn’t be surprising, and it is good to consider what would take place. After all, it actually happened.
That’s right. In the long history of elevators, the scenario just described has only happened one time. This is remarkable when you consider that in the U.S. alone, there are an estimated 900,000 elevators. Each of these serves an average of 20,000 people per year. Collectively, U.S. elevators generate 18 billion passenger trips per year.
While there are approximately 24 elevator-related deaths in the United States each year (more details to come soon in a future article), there has only been one time when an elevator went into free fall as a result of the cable breaking. That incident miraculously did not result in the passenger’s death.
The remarkable event occurred on July 28, 1945.
Betty Lou Oliver worked as an elevator attendant at the Empire State Building. She had given notice that she would be leaving her job. In fact, this was her last day to work there. She arrived at work on a particularly foggy day, totally unaware that her last day on the job would be the most eventful of her life.
As she went about her duties, Captain William Smith was piloting a B-25 service bomber, bringing servicemen from Massachusetts to New York’s LaGuardia Airport. Smith apparently got disoriented in the fog and struck the Empire State Building, crashing between the 78th and 80th floors. Smith and the two crew members on board, as well as 11 people in the building, were killed in the accident.
Oliver was on the 80th floor at the moment of impact. She was thrown out of the elevator car by the blast, resulting in severe burns, a broken neck, back, and pelvis. She received treatment from first aid workers, who then placed her in an elevator on the 79th floor for transport to the ground level so she could be moved to a hospital for further treatment. Unbeknownst to them, the elevator cables had been badly damaged by parts of the B-25’s engine.
As soon as Oliver’s stretcher was placed in the elevator, the damaged cables snapped. She was in free fall. The 20-year-old woman who spent her working day operating an elevator was moments away from dying in one.
The elevator plummeted 75 stories — approximately 1,000 feet. The odds of surviving such a fall are beyond minuscule.
That’s where one bit of good fortunate appeared in an otherwise unfortunate day. The 1,000 feet of broken elevator cable fell to the bottom of the elevator shaft and created a buffer to catch the falling elevator. Additionally, the rapid compression of air between the elevator and the bottom of the shaft worked to slow the descent and soften the landing.
The result was that Oliver suffered further serious injuries from the fall and had to be cut out of the wreckage. It took eight months, but she made a full recovery from her injuries. She lived out the rest of her days in relative obscurity, despite being designated by Guinness World Records as the person who survived the longest elevator fall. She died on November 24, 1999, at the age of 74 years.