Getting Stuck in an Elevator in Athens

It was pretty much the worse case scenario: no water, no phone reception, 100 degrees outside and no air conditioning, no emergency bell, no way to alert anyone, and getting hotter by the minute. Read on to find out how we survived this traumatic ordeal and my husband MacGuyvered a way out for us. I’ve been taking the stairs ever since.

After it happened, we had a new point of reference for all terrible things. It would become our shared refrain: “Well, at least it’s not as bad as getting stuck in an elevator.”

That elevator was located in a quiet, three-story apartment in the Athenian neighborhood of Kerameikos. The building itself was old, but not run down, a heavy concrete block, typical of most apartment buildings in Athens. It’s the thickness of the concrete block apartments that actually makes the Athenian population density bearable: the walls block out the city noise, making it feel like you’re all alone. You don’t even hear the neighbor’s doors opening, or people walking up and down the stairs.

When we first arrived, our host, a wiry Greek journalist, politely put us in the elevator and ran up the four flights of stairs to meet us at the top. I didn’t like it from the moment I saw it. It was little more than a wood-paneled, American-sized refrigerator, its mechanical press-buttons atmospheric of the 1970s. It’s one of those elevators where the front of the cabin is actually open, so you can see the inside of the shaft passing as you ride up and down. It rode up ploddingly, like a grumbling beast of burden.

The door to the elevator. The door will only open if the cabin is at that floor. Otherwise, the door is locked to prevent people from falling into the shaft.

I’ve never much liked elevators, especially small ones, and I generally force myself to take the stairs to incorporate more ambient exercise into my life. But the real reason is that elevators make me nervous. There’s this moment I always find myself holding my breath between when the elevator lines up with the floor and when the bell rings to announce our arrival. It’s the silence in that moment before the bell goes off and the doors open that they still might not.

Being locked in a box is terrifying, and once you strip away the hum-rum familiarity and routine of it, that is exactly what riding an elevator is. When I was a kid, I was always transfixed by the magic act when the magician locks himself in the glass box filling with water. Even watching it on TV, you somehow also find yourself short of breath, inching up higher in your chair, subconsciously elongating your neck and spine, too. The magician plays on an instinctual, inherited fear shared by everyone in the audience. It’s something we know without having experienced it ourselves.

The elevator we were trapped in wasn’t much bigger than the magician’s glass box. There were three of us inside, that afternoon in the middle of the scorching Athenian summer.

The atmospheric wood paneling of this tiny elevator.

On the day it happened, I had just returned from a few hours of window shopping from Monastiraki to Syntgema Square, fending off aggressive salesmen trying to tempt me into their shops with sales and shade. By the time I arrived back at the apartment, I was a worn out from the shopping and dazed from the sun.

Monastiraki Square, in the heart of Athens.
Shopping in Monastiraki.

I plodded up the stairs to our apartment on the fourth floor, and met Dominik and our Greek coworker Makis. Want to get some lunch? they asked.

We put on our shoes, leaving behind everything but a few coins for a sandwich. We’re just going to the bakery on the corner. We’ll be right back.

Dominik got into the elevator to ride down first. I followed, thinking about my knee, still twitching from a long and hot run the day before. Going down the stairs is harder on the knees than going up. After a split-second of hesitation, Makis stepped in, too. It was a tight fit, and everyone kept their eyes averted up or down—the unwritten rule of riding in a packed elevator. Dominik pressed the button and it jolted slowly down.

“I wonder what the weight limit on this is?” Dominik said absently.

Makis, the Greek, looked at sign posted on the mirror behind my head. I tilted my head to the side so he could read it. I had seen it, too, but had stopped reading after the first line, as it was all in Greek.

If I had continued reading down to the last line on the sign, I would have recognized the number 150 amidst the collection of foreign Greek characters. That can only mean one thing: 150 kilograms, Makis confirmed. Just over 300 pounds.

Room for two European adults. Not three. But anyways, we were already on the ground floor.

Then the bell didn’t ring. Dominik pushed on the door to open it, but it didn’t move. I didn’t breathe.

He pushed again. It didn’t budge.

We overloaded the elevator, he said, reporting the news completely detached from it, as it were a distant fact that had no bearing on him.

Wait, what? I asked. It’s not possible. Try again.

He pushed against the door, but nothing moved.

(And so began the worst 15 minutes of my life. It was only later, weeks after autopsying each moment, looking for the source of my lingering unease, that I began to understand what had happened in there. In 15 minutes, I would advance between nearly all stages of the cycle of grief. Here we go. First comes denial.)

No, this isn’t happening. Elevators don’t break. People don’t get trapped in elevators. You’re just not pushing hard enough. This the butt of a joke: two guys and a girl walk into an elevator. But they never actually get stuck in there, right? Well, if I have to be trapped in an elevator with any of my colleagues, at least it is my husband, and Makis, who is a decent and noble human being. People worth being trapped in an elevator with. But people don’t get trapped in elevators. Come on, just push the door harder. It’s probably just a bit stuck.

He keeps pushing on the door, throwing his considerable strength into it. Each time, the door rebuffs us.

My thoughts are runny. I can’t get a hold on them.

I feel myself reaching out, pressing my palms to the walls—I don’t know whether to steady myself or push my way out. This is a nightmare. Is this really happening? It can’t be. I’m frantic. My hands go numb, vibrating with terror. I’m lightheaded, dissociated from the panic response.

Dominik looks down to examine the doorframe, his shoulder now having taken a dozen or so blows from the door. The elevator cabin is sagging several inches below the bottom of the doorframe. “So, we’ve definitely overloaded it. The door won’t open because the cabin doesn’t line up with the door.”

Apparently people do get stuck in elevators. Us.

(Denial was over quickly, and I marched on to anger.)

“Does anyone have a phone with them?” I hear my voice say. I hadn’t thought to bring my cell phone with me. The pockets on my shorts are tiny. Women’s pants aren’t designed for carrying phones. We were just stepping out for a minute.

Dominik shook his head, and I feel a new layer of sweaty anger coat the sweat from the heat already dripping down my back.

It is so hot. He’s gone and forgotten his phone. It’s because he hates filling up his pockets with essential stuff like phones or wallets. Ugh, but that’s his job: men’s clothing has bigger pockets than women’s! Why should it be my responsibility?!

Makis pulls out his phone, and I feel my rage pull back from its ruthless march towards Dominik. After some discussions about who to call (our Airbnb host? But we don’t have his phone number here. We can get it if we have Internet, though. Makis’ wife? But she doesn’t have a key. The police? But they’ll have to break down the door, and that will be a to-do. Is that really going to be necessary?), Makis flips on the phone and finds it has neither Internet nor telephone reception. He keeps swiping at the phone, his finger moving increasingly frantically, like a passerby trying to arouse an unconscious person on the street not knowing if time has already run out.

He says, almost disbelievingly “I don’t have reception.”

I look down at the useless device in his hands. It’s a Window’s phone. Who has a Window’s phone!? It’s not an iPhone. If he just had a damn iPhone, it would probably work – the reception is always better on iPhones – and at worst we would just have to wait a bit until his wife could come and get us and we could just forget this whole thing ever happened. Why the hell do people buy Window’s phones anyways? They’re total junk! I hate Microsoft!

My anger jumped from person to person and thing to thing like a flea: Makis should have read the sign in the elevator (he’s Greek, after all!), Dominik should have brought his phone (he has an iPhone), the Airbnb host should have warned us about this crappy elevator, Samsung should make better phones, ladies first, right, so why didn’t one of them do the gentlemanly thing, which would have been to take the stairs…I should never have come on this trip. I don’t even need to be here. I’m not supposed to be here. If I had just stayed out shopping today, I should have bought us a snack on my way home, then we never would’ve had to leave the apartment in the first place…

(Next, anger merged into bargaining—us planning how we would break out of the elevator.)

Dominik interrupts my internal monologue of furious blame-laying, asking, “Does anyone have an idea?” We furiously brainstormed some ideas: maybe I could hold myself up jimmied between the back wall of the elevator and the door to take my weight off of it. Maybe the elevator would bounce back up without the extra weight. This didn’t work. Maybe there’s a way to push out the ceiling of the cabinet and get into the shaft someway. Nope, it’s sealed. Maybe Dominik and Makis should both throw themselves at the door. That doesn’t work either. We could shout for someone to hear us – maybe the noise will travel up through the shaft and the neighbors will hear. We try this too, and no one comes.

“What about the emergency buzzer? It might alert the police. Or someone.” Yeah, and then they might have to break down the door from the outside. Embarrassing. Expensive. It would be a whole thing. But maybe we’re getting to that point? It’s hot. Makis nods, and I think I do too.

Dominik presses the red emergency button in the elevator over and over again. Each mechanical buzz is swallowed up in the empty hall.

It’s not connected to an outside line.

There’s no one listening. Here or anywhere else.

Nothing’s working.

We really are in trouble.

(With the possibilities for escape looking increasingly dire, bargaining was no longer viable, and depression set in. The miserable regret of being in that situation. The sour beginning of true realization that we were trapped.)

Dominik says quietly, clinically: “We have to try to get this window out. It’s going to get very hot in here.”

He’s right. We’re going to drown. In heat.

The “window” is a thin, narrow panel of what looks like thick glass on stubborn elevator door. “If we can break out the glass, we can get some fresh air here in,

“Are we going to suffocate?” I asked. I don’t think we will, but I feel so wretched that I have to get it out, even if it means burdening the others with my misery. I’m aware there is only so much room in this claustrophobic space for thoughts like these, especially once uttered, and I’ve already taken up maybe more than my fair share. But I need someone to show authority, to grab the unfairness of this all by the horns.

“No,” Dominik replies. “There’s enough air circulation in the cracks between the door.” He turns his attention back to the glass window panel. “I can’t just punch it, but I might be able to kick it out. And then I could stick my arm out into the hall – maybe the phone will be able to pick up a signal if we can get it out of this shaft.”

“Yeah, but what if you cut yourself and we are trapped here with you bleeding in the elevator? That could get serious,” I found myself saying, darkly imagining him dying here of blood loss. There has to be another way. “Does anyone have something we can use to open these screws?” Makis asks. It looks like the screws are holding the glass panel in place.

We look through our pockets. Nothing suitable. The Euro coins are too thick. I look down at my hands. My engagement ring. It’s thin, and platinum is a strong metal. I take it off and give it to Dominik. He puts it into the groove and tries to turn the ancient screw, but doesn’t manage to get it to go more than a half rotation.

He hands it back to me wordlessly. I slide it on, the outer band now coarse with scratches.

Out of ideas, we stand there silently.

I think about a horrifying story I’d seen in the news last year during the height of the refugee migration across Europe. A truck packed with over 50 refugees bound for Germany was abandoned by the driver on the road in Austria. Locked inside, the people suffered horrifically in the heat before they all died. They had to be identified by dental records. Its unspeakable cruelty and suffering. It was one of those stories that hung gloomily over me for a long time.

I feel myself sliding towards despair. Is this happening to us, too? Are we going to be one of those stories?

I never imagined that my life was going to end in a hot elevator, dying standing up next to my husband and coworker. And not just because of the sauna-hot heat. There’s no room to move, or sit down. Torturers sometimes put people in cages that are too narrow for them to sit as a form of torture. This will be torture.

Meanwhile, I noticed Dominik eyeing something in the space between the cabin and the door. Apparently, he hadn’t given up looking for a way out yet and began pushing bottom left hand corner of the door, sweating and straining as he put all he had into pushing the steel door. (He would later explain that he was looking for the mechanism that locks the door and saw a bolt in the the top right hand corner. Normally, it would unlock when the cabin lines up with the floor, releasing the bolt. Being an engineer, he hypothesized that if he pushed the bottom side if the door in, it might leverage the top and pop it out of place from the bolt keeping it locked. Turns out he was right, because)

The next thing I knew, the door burst open. I must have trampled them as I catapulted out of the back, and burst out of the door. I stood in the street, blinded by the light, shaking, astonished and still terrified. What I had very nearly accepted was going to be a long haul, at best, was over.

The aftermath of the overloaded elevator. The cabin is nearly a foot below where it should be.

Makis and Dominik joined me on the stoop. Makis wiped his brow, and Dominik just smiled and gave me a hug. “See, didn’t you know I was going to get us out of there? Piece of cake,” He smiled and gave me a kiss.

I looked at him, astonished. Hadn’t we both just experienced the same thing? “Weren’t you terrified? We could’ve died in there!” I shouted, dumbfounded. He just shook his head, smiling a bit, “No…we weren’t gonna die in there. I knew we would get out. Let’s go get lunch”

Just like that, it was over. We got lunch and went back to the apartment. This time, though, everyone took the stairs.

Later, the experience came to feel like a turning point, and it took me a long time to figure out why.

I’m someone who worries a lot. I’m preoccupied with the “what-will-happen-ifs” of the world. Because bad things are definitely going to happen. What will happen if my loved ones die? What will happen when the glaciers melt? What will happen if I lose my job? What’s more will be destroyed if Trump wins again? What will happen if I get a horrible disease? More honestly expressed, the question is really: what will I do? How will I react? Will I be able to deal with it?

We typically talk about these stages of grief in the context of death and loss, as first described by psychologist Kübler-Ross, but maybe this process is actually just the way we instinctually react when things go badly. Maybe it’s this psychological response that prepares or even enables us to survive.

There’s a tension between the individual and the group to this process that I hadn’t ever thought of before. In the first stage, the denial is yours alone until the reality becomes such that you can no longer reject what is happening. This then turns into anger, which is external and shared socially. The anger brings you out of yourself, and energizes you. This energy is then channeled into the next step: the collective actions of bargaining, the social planning to get out of an awful situation together. Maybe someone has a good idea: I’ll take off my ring, and Dominik can use it to unscrew the window, and then we can use Makis’ phone to call for help.

But when all of those joint interventions fail, we retreat back to ourselves in disappointment. Depression, and the self-reflection that comes with it, is the prerequisite for acceptance, which means finding a way to live with the situation. That’s something only you can do for yourself.

Acceptance means finding a way to survive: I’m going to find a way to live with it until it kills me. What continues to astonish me about this experience is how quickly I came to that point.

So the answer to the question of “what will I do if I get trapped in an elevator” or something similarly horrible is simple: I will find a way to deal with it, or it will kill me. I’ll get out, or I’ll get through. Unless I don’t. After all is said and done, it’s a relief to know this about myself.

The real end to our elevator story took place in the hours after we busted out.

When I think back to the experience itself, neither Dominik nor Makis were as shaken as me. They went back to work, and I took the rest of the afternoon to come down from the experience.

That afternoon, I had tried to bridge the gap between my reaction of mortal terror and their subdued one by searching for narratives online about being trapped in an elevator. As it turns out, getting trapped on an elevator is extremely uncommon. For the billions of elevator rides per year, there are vanishingly few cases. There were some freak accidents of elevators falling to the bottom of the shaft in skyscrapers during the early 20th century, but modern elevators are pretty damn near foolproof. Not quite as statistically uncommon as getting hit by lightning, but somewhere in that ballpark. So there wasn’t much out there on the Internet for me to process my experience through someone else’s.

I had a nagging feeling that we had just escaped something terrible, and I couldn’t shake what seemed to me a near death experience. And I just couldn’t understand why Dominik and Makis weren’t as rattled as I was.

Later that evening after they had finished working, Makis left to go home, and Dominik and I decided to take a walk. We happened upon a promising-looking farm-to-table restaurant, and there was a free spot outside, so we sat down and ordered a feast in the glow of the sunset. There we were, in this wonderful city, with the cool evening breeze and two glasses of wine, talking about everything other than what had happened earlier.

The waiter soon brought us the mains. We both picked up our forks, smiling at each other, anticipating the first bite of what looked like it was going to be a fantastic meal. As I took my first bite, I saw Dominik freeze.

He put his fork down, and it clattered noisily on the plate. Stricken, he looked up at me and conceded: “We could still be in there right now.”

If only we had noticed the sign warning us of the weight limit on this ancient elevator.

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