Monday, April 11, 2016

The Elevator

Have you ever nearly died?  Or felt like you were going to die?  Have you ever felt your heart pounding so hard and fast that it sounded like subwoofer speakers exploding in your ears?  Has panic ever cascaded throughout your body and over your skin like piercing poisonous pins?  I have.  Once.  Well twice but that is another story...

Yipping and yahooing echoed the halls of the hotel.   This was the best part of the conference: the conference dinner.  All of my colleagues were attending the annual 'uLearn' conference, this year held in the gorgeous city of Christchurch, pre-earthquake.  We were dressed up in glitz and glamour, glitter and sparkles.  The scene was set for an EPIC night.

Out the door and into the hall we spill and swoosh towards the elevator.  Our rowdy company of nine met an unfamiliar team of four at the elevator door.  Glistening glitter in their hair proved that we were all going to the same destination.  The excitement was contagious.  We laughed and joked like old friends.  The elevator door opened and we squeezed into the small stainless steel cube.   Slowly, the silver door slid closed.  At the last few moments a familiar face appeared.  It was Martin, the Koputoroa School principal.  A split second decision saw Martin angle his body through the narrowing gap.  The door sealed shut. Twenty-eight shoulders adjusted to make way for a new body.  Suddenly, the sickening sound of metal groaning vibrates in the shaft.  The elevator drops with us inside.

Around me I could see everybody's excited expression evaporate from their faces.  Their eyes widened with fear.  Panic surges through my blood.  I freeze.  Seconds pass.  My heart feels as though it had enlarged into my throat, making it impossible to breathe.  The noise was unbearable.  A thousand images of elevator movies gone bad flood through my mind.  Elevators full of people... mothers, husbands, daughters, nephews... shrieking people plummeting to the ground.  Lights flashing like strobes in a grey shaft.  Zoom!  The lift screams past.  KaBOOM!  Lights out.  Dust.  Darkness.

I snap myself out of my daze.  I tell myself to focus.  If I focus, I can survive.  My eyes dart all around me.  Adrenaline is pumping through my veins as my body is preparing for "fight or flight".  Where the hell am I going to run to?  I ask myself.  I look at the faces of my companions.  Does my face look as petrified as theirs?  I make eye-contact with some, others are just staring at the ground.  Another morbid thought stabs my mind; this tiny tin box is a can of baked-beans and we are the squirming beans inside, waiting for the inevitable.  Snap out of it, Nic... We feel scared but we are alive.  Suddenly, an idea pops into my brain.  The door!  I am standing next to the door!  I place my quaking hands up to the crack and squeeze my fingers inside.  Martin, who is standing next to me, sees what I was doing and joins in.  I stand on one side of the lift and he is on the other, arms extended using our legs as leverage.  We heave.  The elevator doors remain sealed. We heave again.  Beads of sweat build up on my forehead.  I clench my jaw and give one final blast.  Ever-so-slightly the doors open just enough for me to slip off one shoe and shove it into the crack.  I stare at the gap.  It's no wider than a crack of mortar between two bricks.  But it's something; a blast of fresh air whistles through giving us a sign of hope.

What about the phone? Shall we use the elevator phone to call for help!  We press the button that dials the operator.  A lady greets us and we explain that we are trapped in an elevator in the hotel Novotel in Christchurch... She pauses.  We all seem to lean in, waiting with baited breath to hear that help was on the way...
"Um, we don't have a Hotel Novotel in Christchurch..."
"You're kidding!"
"Oh my God..."
"You're joking, right?"

Words and thoughts of disbelief scattered throughout our silver tomb. How could this actually be happening? What are we going to do? 

"RIGHT! THIS IS RIDICULOUS! I'M CALLING 111!" Announced Mark from somewhere at the back. Words and thoughts of hope returned. Some even burst out laughing at the mere simplicity of the answer. "Why didn't we think of that earlier?" somebody joked nearby.
"Hello, yes. Fire brigade please.  Yes there are 16 people trapped in the elevator at the hotel Novotel, Christchurch and we need help right away." 
There was a slight pause then Mark said thank you as he slid his phone back into his pocket. "They're on their way" he said.

Now it was just a waiting game. The previous 10 minutes had turned our can of baked beans into a sauna. It was hot. I looked at people's red and wet faces. Balls of sweat rolled down my back. It was sweltering.  One by one, we each tilted back and forward, left and right as we tried to take off our coats in an attempt to cool down. We must have looked funny. Bumping and bobbing about like bits coral waving in the ocean.  Seconds turned into minutes, minutes turned into hours and my thoughts slipped in and out of consciousness.  I thought about my wife.  I thought about our 14 month old daughter.  I wondered how their life would be different without a father; a husband... Who would go to my funeral?  What would they say? How would my daughter ever really know what I was like?  I would never get to experience watching her learn to ride a bike, read books, play sports, drive a car... I thought of all the family holidays I would miss, graduating high school, university, marriage, kids, grandchildren.

It was now melting in our little hot-box so that condensation was dripping down the walls.  My clothes stuck to my skin.  The air was thick and fuzzy.  It was hard to breathe.  Erupting from the back a young woman burst out: "I CAN'T TAKE IT ANYMORE!!!" Startling everyone back to life, we made way for her to come up to the front.  We positioned her next to the small gap with fresh air whistling through.  She rested her forehead on the drenched silver door with the tip of her nose sitting in the crack.  With her eyes closed, she breathed in a few deep breaths through her nose and seemed to calm.  That was tense.

Off into unconsciousness my mind drifted once more.  What if more people turn crazy and psyche out?  What if we all start fighting over the small gap at the front?  I start to get paranoid.  One by one, I check out my opposition.  I don't know them.  Any of them! I feel my eyes narrow.  Slowly, my sinister thoughts slip closer and closer to the edge.  My imagination took over and ran away laughing with my common sense, skipping away and dancing; taunting me and teasing me.  Everybody's calm faces suddenly twist and contort.  In an instant the weight of 16 adults squash against me as everyone wrestles for the top spot.  Screams of pain and panic fill the air.  I am thrown to the ground and trampled on.  The wind is knocked out of me.  My face and neck crack and crunch under the pressure.  My jaw crumbles.  My internal organs are squeezed flat inside me.  Desperately, I use every ounce of my strength to clamber to my feet; to space; to air; to safety... but it's too late.  I lay motionless in the final moments of my life, twitching.  There is nothing left...

Sounds of footsteps snap me out of my "daymare".  They approach the doors from the outside.
"Hey guys" a muffled voice calls from below us.
"HEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAYYYYYY!!!" we all cheer.
"Listen carefully.  We are going to open the doors but no one is to make a move to get out until the elevator caretaker arrives, do you understand?"
We all agree that we wouldn't move.  But the hidden voice added one more disclaimer.
"If someone was to jump out, it could trigger the lift to slip again and that might crush someone in half.  Are we clear on this?"
"Yes" we chorus.

As we are all beginning to smile and sigh with signs of relief I could hear the distinct tinkering sound of a large metal object resting against another metal object.  The end of a crowbar popped through our gap!   SCREETCH... GROAN... REERRR... The doors jutted open.  A haze of water droplets building up inside out tin sauna zip up and out in a flash like the Millennium Falcon entering hyperspace.  With both hands stretched out in front of his face, the fire fighter his taken aback as the steam whooshes past.  Then a friendly face appears just above ours on the above floor.  We had dropped about four-fifths of the way down towards the next floor.  Only four-fifths.  It had felt like 2 floors!  Another smiling face joins him.  The two fire fighters lie down on the floor, folding their arms and resting their heads on their hands. "Seems you lot are in a bit of a pickle then?" he joked.

Having the door wide open gave a new meaning to life.  I took a breath, long and deep. I closed my eyes and smiled.  Whew!  I thought.  And I joined in on the conversation happening around the place.
"You look a bit squashed there!"
"Pretty intimate."
"You look like a can of sardines!"
"Smells like it too after all of that sweat!"

Before long the repair man arrived.  He darted here and there.  Explained to us that he was going to shut the door again and manually wind us down.  It was slightly nerve-racking getting sealed up again.  Then we got jostled about bouncing down.  The doors slid open and we were free.

It took me a year before I could go back into an elevator again.  But that's ok.  I'll never forget that trip nor that beautiful city of Christchurch pre-earthquake nor that emotional roller-coaster night.  We made it to the conference ball but it was different.  We were different.  Our thoughts were suspended somewhere far away, four-fifths between floors 5 and 6.





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