Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Trapped in an Elevator

ElevatorIf ever you feel that you're having a bad day, consider the plight of Nicholas White.

White was working late and decided to take a smoke break. After he finished his break, he got back into one of the elevators in the building and pressed the button for the 43rd floor. He would remain trapped in that elevator for the next 41 hours unable to escape and with precious little to occupy his mind.

I've been reading a book called The Black Swan whose major thesis is that a certain category of rare event can have a disproportional impact. White's case seems to be one such "black swan". Getting trapped in an elevator for nearly two solid days was something that was impossible to anticipate but the impact on his life was enormous. Traumatized by the event, he essentially quit his job, engaged in an ill-advised attempt to litigate for damages (which yielded only a pittance) and has been mainly unemployed for nearly fifteen years since then.

Of course, one could argue that he should have shaken the experience off, or that another person may have been able to cope better, or that the choices he made, after the event, were unwise, but the fact remains that if he had called in sick that day, or if the elevator had been maintained better, or if security had been more observant about monitoring the security cameras in the elevators, or if he had simply taken a different elevator, the course of his life would have been profoundly different than what it was.

It is a paradox that we all face. A prudent person tries to plan for the future but the very essence of the future is that it is unpredictable and that a single event can render any amount of planning moot.

The New Yorker has the full story of Wright's experience (in addition to lots of ancillary information about elevator technology and safety) as well as a compelling time lapse video of Wright's actual ordeal.

Elevator image courtesy of Flickr user annia316 ღ


Marvin the Martian said...

I agree, White should have sued the maintenance team and the security team of the building for failing to notice that he was trapped in a "blind" shaft without any way of getting out. But at the same time, he should have moved on with his life. Rather than focusing on the trauma of that event, it's better to focus on what he was supposed to learn from it. Perhaps patience, or trust that things will turn out okay, or perhaps a new method of quitting smoking. (I'm sure not having any cigs made it worse.) Nevertheless, White had a choice of what to do with his experience. It seems that he didn't make very wise choices.

Andrew Lias said...

While I do think that his decisions, after the fact, lacked wisdom, I have a hard time bringing myself to criticize him for making them.

I think that it's difficult for us to fully appreciate how traumatic this sort of event can be and I don't think that it's implausible that the trauma of the event left him in a state of mind where it may have been very difficult for him to make good choices.

The mind can be a delicate instrument and it doesn't take much to derange it. Perhaps it is the case the Write was the sort to make bad decisions anyway but given that he seemed to have a stable career, beforehand, I don't think that it's implausible that he really is experiencing the equivalent of post-traumatic stress disorder (or some analog of the condition). If that is the case, then moving on with his life might not be as easy as we might suppose.

Ultimately, until and unless I find myself in those same shoes, I'm inclined to withhold judgment on his actions after the event.

Marvin the Martian said...

True enough, he probably does have PTSD from this experience. It's unfortunate.

zulugrrl said...

My work hsa an automatic revolving door that you need to use after hours. Now i'm afraid to go through it!!!

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