When you were a kid did you ever try jumping while inside an elevator? What would happen if the elevator suddenly fell – could you survive it? Elevators have a lot of safety features built in to keep this from happening. Most elevators are traction elevators, where the elevator car is balanced on a rope with a counterweight, and the motor uses the rope to move the car up or down. There are brakes built into the motor and also under the car that would stop the elevator if the power went out, but if both of these were to fail, the counterweights would balance against the people in the car to either stop or slow the movement of the elevator.
The last time all of these safety mechanisms failed at once was in 1945 when a pilot accidentally crashed his plane into the Empire State Building. Betty Lou Oliver was told to get into an elevator to get out of the building, but the cables snapped. The car fell 75 stories, but Oliver survived.
No one really knows why she survived, but one explanation is that the car fell so fast it created a cushion of air underneath to break her fall. Another explanation is that the broken cables piled up at the bottom of the shaft and softened the impact.
There’s an urban legend that says if you jumped at precisely the right moment in a falling elevator, you could survive it hitting the ground. The problem with this is that you’d have to time your jump absolutely perfectly – but a more realistic solution could be to lie down on the bottom of the car so that the impact is distributed evenly across the body.