Thursday, January 15, 2009

When Elevators Attack

If I told you that someone was injured when their elevator fell from the 27th to the 25th floor before the emergency brake kicked in, you might ask, "What happened?"

But if I told you someone jumped off a 2-story building, you'd probably ask, "Did they survive?"

It's essentially the same thing though.

Granted, elevator travel really is the safest form of travel in the world. The best elevators in the world will only fall 6 feet, even if the suspension cables hypothetically snapped. There are redundancies upon redundancies, and aside from accidentally falling in an open door into the shaft, the danger couldn't be less given that the car travels along a fixed path cleared of all obstructions in only 2 directions.

But still, like anything, systems fail. When I first read of the failure in the linked article, I thought it would be a clear example of how our nation's aging skyscrapers are falling into extraordinary disrepair in an ever spiraling need for greater maintenance to fight against the ravages of physical aging. Skyscrapers weren't built to last 100 years on their own.

But the building in question, in downtown Houston, was only finished in 2003. Instead of being of comfort, it only alarms me more.

I am convinced that the era for central business districts consisting of dense roads and tall skyscrapers is fated for an end. Whereas prior to the telecom revolution, businesses required physical proximity for efficiencies of day-to-day business, this is just no longer the case. The falling costs of telecom technology, its rising efficiencies and capabilities, and the inevitably rapid rise of transit costs - auto or mass - point clearly to the future trend, which doesn't favor the downtown skylines of 20th century American triumphalism.

I expect that one day American history books will have a chapter with awesome skyline photos of American cities in the same way they now have photos of the 19th century American West full of buffalo herds roaming on open plains.

Whether it's an isolated instance of failure or not, this recent elevator failure foretells I think the kinds of infrastructure problems we are certain to see more as the next few decades unfold amidst ever-expanding telecom technology, rising transport costs, and declining urban and municipal tax bases.

Beyond that, how many horror stories like the following will the public tolerate?

From The Houston Chronicle:
On Dec. 9, DeRouen, who has been working as a contract consultant for Rosetta Resources on the 27th floor, said she finished work about 5:30 p.m.

“I pressed one, and it started free-falling really fast,” DeRouen said.

Sent airborne during the descent, she slammed hard into the floor when the elevator suddenly halted at the 23rd floor.

Her tibia bone tore through her leg between her knee and ankle, creating a long wound. Her ankle and toes on her left leg were fractured.

The elevator door wouldn’t open, so employees on the 23rd floor could not come to her aid as she pierced the air with screams, Boutros said. They kept her talking, though, worried that she might lose consciousness otherwise, she said.

It took a half-hour for help to arrive, Boutros said.

She has undergone several surgeries on her leg and will undergo at least two surgeries to repair the fractured lower vertebra and ruptured discs, Boutros said.
Oh, and there wasn't just one instance -- there was another one shortly after in the same building.

Both incidents are still under investigation by the landlord and its elevator contractors (and where are the police?), while the other elevators are still in operation. Naturally, many employees are taking 25 flights of stairs now instead of using the remaining elevators.

Just this week, roughly one month after the first incident still under investigation:
On Monday, Carleen Naumann, a sales representative for Besco Tubular, and Allan Keel, president of Crimson Exploration, were injured when an elevator dropped precipitously from the 27th floor to the 25th floor.

They were trapped in the elevator for a short time. Keel said he suffered a minor back injury and declined to be taken to a hospital.

Later, called ambulance
Naumann, of Katy, also declined treatment Monday. But she said she called for an ambulance after she got up Tuesday morning and her nose was bleeding. Her ankle also was hurting, she said.

Staff at Memorial Hermann Hospital in Katy determined she had fractured a vertebra in her lower back, she said.

“The elevator was flying. I thought we went down 15 stories. I was shocked to hear it was only two,” she said. “I was airborne and then it was as if we hit bottom.”

The nation's urban infrastructure problems are piling up so quickly from accelerating deterioration and a long history of deferred maintenance -- one day the costs of renewing the systems of the buildings, water systems, roads, fuel, and air will exceed the capacity of the nation to pay them. This is one of the biggest secrets in American municipal government and civil engineering. Few yet appreciate the full scope of the problem.

And if anybody else gets killed in their car from an exploding old gas main, or falls to their death in an open road hole from a water main break, or simply plunges into a river from a failed Interstate bridge, or especially if other cities see executives with bones sticking out of their legs or crushed vertebrae after an elevator falls two or three stories -- well, let's just say the suburbs and exurbs and rural areas will suddenly find new federal resources to support low-rise commercial development, and brand new sewer, water, electrical, and gas lines.

One day telecommuting won't be an HR incentive - it will be our way of life. It is destined to become the only affordable option for the nation's economy.