There are some elevators so rickety you can't help but fantasizing about the worst case scenario every time you step in them. What would you do if the cables suddenly snapped? Would you survive? Or would you be flattened like a pancake?
Believe it or not, if an elevator goes careening out of control, you can survive the fall. And no, you're not going to exit looking like an accordion, as if you were a cartoon. There are simple survival steps you can take should you ever find yourself in that moment of danger.
The good thing about modern elevators is that they have a ton of safety features to prevent you from plummeting to your death. Traction elevators (the ones that use steel cables, pulleys and counterweights) rely on a speed-sensing governor to keep everything a-okay. If the car is moving downward too quickly, the governor will activate breaks to prevent a nasty accident.
Hydraulic elevators (ones that use a piston jack to move the elevator up and down) lack a governor the way traction elevators do. Even though they're less likely to break, it's scarier when they do. But the silver lining is that hydraulic elevators aren't really built in buildings taller than six stories. So if you do fall, it's not going to be very far.
So if you do find yourself quickly hurling towards the ground floor of whatever office building you're determined not to die in, there are a number of different methods you could take. The first method is to jump just before the elevator hits the ground. This method, however is not entirely practical.
You can try to jump a split-second before the elevator hits the ground. The logic behind this is that it will reduce your impact speed. However, you have to have a super good reaction time to pull this off. On top of it, jumping doesn't actually reduce your impact speed by that much — maybe two or three mph. So jumping isn't the method you're probably going to want to go with.
The second technique is to stand with your knees bent, kind of like a skydiver. This is to absorb the impact. When the elevator hits the bottom of the shaft, your knees would theoretically flex, which would spread your body's deceleration out over a longer period of time.
Unfortunately, standing with your knees bent might actually be putting them at risk for a greater injury. Additionally, holding your body parallel to the lines of force actually increases the likelihood that you could break a bone when you fall to the floor. Ouch!
The general consensus among experts is that the best thing to do if you ever find yourself in a plummeting elevator is to lie on the floor of the car. Placing your body on the center of the floor will distribute the force of the impact. Plus, we imagine it would be pretty hard to stay standing!
Not only does standing spread out the force of impact, it also serves as a way to protect yourself. Keeping your bones perpendicular to the impact protects them from being crushed during the fall. Your spine and long bones will stay safer, however, thinner bones (like your ribs) are still at risk for breakage.
However, there are some drawbacks to even this method. Because you're free falling, there's the possibility that you won't have any force pulling you to the ground. So, lying flat on the ground would be easier said than done, and you'd have to find some way to pull you down. There's also the risk that, you know, the car could get completely demolished as soon as it hits the ground, destroying everything in it — including you. Yikes!
That said, lying on the ground is still the technique that experts say you should go for. “This will distribute the force of impact over the greatest area of your body so that no particular part of your body is subjected to the weight of any other part of your body,” said Dr. Eliot H. Frank, a research engineer at the Center for Biomedical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“The impact of the elevator at the bottom of the shaft would subject you to extreme gravitational acceleration, or G-forces. The number of G’s you experience multiplies your normal weight, so if you experience 10 G’s, you would experience 10 times the weight of your body," said Dr. Frank. “You might think that bracing yourself or bending your legs would help, but at high G-forces, your legs would simply not be able to support the weight of your body. Even the weight of your own head would be too much for your neck to support." So there you have it. From the mouth of an expert.