By Chris Wright
Stuck between floors in a city of towers.
In disaster movies, it?s always the panicky guy who dies first. This occurred to me in a lift at a Dubai shopping mall last week, shortly after I?d started to waggle my forearms in front of my face as if shaking an invisible pair of maracas.
There were four of us in the lift ? a man, a woman, me and my baby girl, Molly ? and we were stuck. ?Well,? said the woman, gesturing at her shopping trolley, ?at least we have plenty to eat and drink.? Only Molly smiled at this remark. The other grown man and I were too busy unraveling to pay attention.
According to Nigol Madgashian, a veteran elevator technician, one should approach a stuck lift the way one does a wonky TV or broken toaster. ?It?s an inconvenience,? he said. ?It happens.? I spoke to Madgashian in a coffee shop on Sheikh Zayed Road a few days after my ordeal, and he radiated the composure of a man not facing the prospect of plummeting down to P4. ?The chances of an elevator falling,? he said, ?are about a zillion to one.?
Madgashian, who owns a company called Nigma Ltd, has been installing, repairing and maintaining elevators in the UAE for almost three decades. ?In all those years, we?ve had our share of problems,? he said. ?But ? touch wood ? we?ve never had any accidents.? He went on to list the catalogue of redundant safety features that make falling in a lift a virtual impossibility. ?There?s no way,? he said. ?Not a cat in hell?s chance.? He added, ?But you weren?t to know that.?
A bulky, robust 69-year-old, Madgashian is Lebanese Armenian. He was born in Egypt, went to technical college in England and emigrated to Canada in 1975. There, he got a job with the Finnish elevator company Kone, who sent him to Dubai to establish a Middle East office in the early Eighties. He founded Nigma in 1988, and has since worked on thousands of lifts, encountering pretty much every problem that can befall one of these machines ? from circuit-board glitches to rats chewing through wires. ?What makes a lift stop?? he said. ?Could be anything.?
On the scale of stopped-lift experiences, mine was relatively mundane. The elevator was clean and modern, I wasn?t alone, it didn?t last long (about a half hour) and, importantly, the lights stayed on (as Madgashian puts it: ?There?s nothing worse than a dark box?). On the other end of the scale is the unfortunate Finnish factory cleaner who, as Madgashian recalls it, got stuck in a lift one night and stayed there for three weeks. ?True story,? he said. ?She survived by drinking her bucket of water.?
When asked if he?s ever been trapped in a lift, Madgashian laughed. ?Yes, in Cairo, many years ago. It was awful.? The lift had broken down due to overcrowding. ?We were like sardines, people were sweating. This one woman started screaming. I told her to shut up.? The screaming woman, of course, had a point. The experience of getting stuck in a lift triggers a fight-or-flight response ? with no outlet for either.
Some people deal with stress better than others. The woman in my lift, who had an American accent, maintained a have-a-nice-day tone throughout. ?Excuse me,? she chirped at the intercom after the lift stopped, ?the lift has stopped.? The man who was trapped with us didn?t utter a word. Instead, he repeatedly tapped the door-open button, the way you might when shooting aliens in a Space Invaders game, pausing now and then to claw at the crack of the door with his fingernails. My daughter Molly just kept smiling and saying her new word: ?Wow.?
After 15 minutes or so, the doors opened. Hooray! Or not. In front of us was an expanse of pocked cement, with just a glimmer of outer door below. We were, to use the industry jargon, interfloor ? or, in layman?s terms, shafted. That did it for me. I jabbed the intercom button furiously. ?Hello! We need to get out of here,? I yelled, using various modern dance techniques to accentuate the point. ?Hello!?
?Yes, sir, the lift is broken,? responded a voice through the speaker, like it was the most natural thing in the world. ?Somebody will come.? Every time I punched the button, which I did about 300 times over the course of our internment, the response was the same: ?Somebody will come.? Increasingly, my pleas became screechy and staccato ? like a monkey bickering over a scrap of fruit. I was officially the panicky guy, which didn?t bode well.
When told about how our episode unfolded, Madgashian wasn?t impressed. First of all, the guy on the intercom should have been more communicative. ?Our company gives training to key personnel,? he said. ?We teach them how to relax trapped passengers, what to say. This is important.? Also, he added, our extraction from the lift, when it finally came about, was ?unacceptable?.
In interfloor breakdowns, Madgashian explained, the protocol is to move the elevator, manually if necessary, to the nearest floor, so people can walk to their freedom. In order to escape our lift, we had to wait for a group of guys to pry open the outer doors of the floor below, then squeeze out through the two-foot gap this created, landing with an undignified and slightly painful thud on the lobby floor. Not that any of us really minded.
Molly was the first to get out. I passed her to a bunch of waiting hands and then, surprising myself, told the American woman she should go next. ?Oh no,? she said. ?You have a baby. You go.? By the time the last words left her mouth, I?d already hit the ground.
Source: “The National”, Abu Dhabi, 12 November 2009