This article originally appeared on VICE France.
I trudged home half-drunk last week after having a few drinks with my mates. Climbing stairs, as I'm sure you know, becomes a much more stressful undertaking when you're hammered, so I figured I'd treat myself to a trip up in the lift. This turned out to be a very terrible idea: after a few seconds, it jammed and I got stuck.
It wasn't particularly dramatic. There were no sparking wires or screeches as I plummeted towards the ground—the lift just slowed down and gradually came to a halt between the third and fourth floor. Still, being stuck there freaked me out. I successfully pried open the door to the lift, but didn't have as much luck with the doors that opened out onto the third floor. So doing what I'd so far tried to avoid, I pressed the emergency button.
Resorting to my last option, I called the emergency number next to the button. A guy called Francis picked up and promised me that someone would come to my rescue within a half an hour. While waiting for the guy to arrive, I couldn't help but wonder what sort of calls Francis must get. The next day, I decided to give him a ring to ask how it feels to chat with audibly distressed people for a living.
VICE: What's your job all about?
Francis: Basically, people call me when they get stuck in elevators. We get a lot of people panicking and thinking they're going to die. It's my job to tell them they won't, and to reassure them. I get a lot of abuse, insults, and threats. Luckily, most people remain relatively calm.
What's the worst situation you've found yourself in?
One guy was so freaked out he threatened to punch the technician when he arrived. By law, we need to get people out of the lift within one hour. But even when we tell them we'll be there in 15 minutes, they still complain. You know, threaten to file police reports and that sort of thing.
What happens if people are claustrophobic?
It's rare. Like my colleague always says: "People who are actually claustrophobic wouldn't take an elevator to begin with." I always try to reassure people anyway and make them feel at ease. I have a few things I always say: "There's plenty of air," "The lift can't fall down," "You've got nothing to fear," "It's OK, the technician is on his way." Folks can press the button as often as they want; we'll always answer. It's our job.
When I was stuck in the elevator, I figured out that it was possible to open the interior door but not the one out to the third floor. How come?
You really should't do that. Imagine climbing out of a lift and all of a sudden the power came back on—it'd be butchery. The person would be cut in half. It actually happened in Japan. If you take that into account, spending an hour trapped in there is much better. The technicians or firemen will get you out eventually. If we can't provide a technician within the hour, we'll call the fire station.
How many calls do you get a day?
Most of the calls we get are from technicians testing the system, wrong calls, or alarm malfunctions. Honestly, that accounts for about 80 percent of it. The remaining 20 percent is from people who are actually stuck. On average, an operator will deal with about ten serious calls a day. My company employs about 30 people, so that means that about 300 people get stuck in elevators every day [throughout France]. We deal with 100,000 elevators in total.
The worst night of the year is definitely New Years Eve—people get so drunk and end up getting stuck in lifts all across the country. We always put extra staff on that night.
When we talked, I knew that you were trying to reassure me, but you were actually making me more scared.
"Don't be scared, you aren't at risk in the elevator."
Once I said that to a guy and he replied, "Fifteen years ago, my wife died in an elevator. The lift fell to the ground." I felt so stupid. Nowadays, that can't happen, but it could in the past. These days, there's a law that all lifts need to be checked regularly. Now, brakes get stuck too, which means that as long as the mechanism hasn't been turned back on by machinery, the lift can't move. Lifts can't just fall like they do in movies.
Well, that's a relief. Thanks, Francis.
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