What happens to your body in a falling elevator? Is it even possible to survive? The good news is that modern elevator technology makes these incidents extraordinarily rare. The bad news is that if you were to find yourself in an old, malfunctioning elevator… it would be bad news.
So what your body does in a falling elevator is actually pretty similar to what happens to astronauts in zero gravity, but only if the conditions are perfect. Most likely, a falling elevator won’t be totally unobstructed. But if it was, you would get to experience weightlessness for a few seconds before being crushed like a bug. Because what happens to your fragile body in a falling elevator can’t be undone by any “tricks” like jumping at the last second. Who do you think you are, Wile E. Coyote? Read on to learn what really happens to your body in a totally unobstructed, free-falling elevator death trap.
In the highly unlikely event that you’re trapped in a totally free-falling elevator, without any of the numerous safety features found on all modern elevators, there’s basically zero chance you’ll survive.
Why is the scenario so hopeless? It’s simple physics: an unobstructed fall from, say, nine stories up, according to the Mythbusters guys, would mean hitting the ground at roughly 53 miles per hour. That’s gonna hurt: the force of this impact decapitated and ripped the arms off of Buster, the show’s crash test dummy.
If you’re intent on trying to survive anyway, the best bet for survival, according to Eliot Frank, a research engineer at the Center for Biomedical Engineering at MIT, is to lie on your back in the center of the elevator. Why? “This will distribute the force of impact over the greatest area of your body so that no particular part of your body is subjected to the weight of any other part of your body.”
If some fluke thing happens to slow the elevator down, this position could end up saving your life.
Even if you lay on your back, equally distributing body weight in a crashing elevator, you could still be harmed. The crashing cabin may fill with broken parts and debris during the fall. Many of those shards would be dangerous; they could even impale you. When Betty Lou Oliver fell 75 stories in a plummeting elevator, the small compartment collected an inordinate amount of debris.
If she had been laying on the floor, her body would've been crushed by stray particles. The disconnected elevator cable actually coiled near the bottom of the shaft and softened her landing, though.
Once the elevator begins to fall, there would be an exhilarating feeling of “weightlessness,” since there would be no “force of support” on your body (this is assuming that the elevator's fall is totally unobstructed). As Dr. Rod Nave of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Georgia State University explains, you’re “accelerating downward at the acceleration of gravity” with no feelings of so-called “apparent weight.”
The only reason you feel the sensation of apparent weight day-to-day, notes Dr. Rod, is all that support you feel from the floor, your chair, etc. Take that support away and you’d feel “weightless” like an astronaut, which would be the last cheap thrill of your life before plunging to your death.