NYC Elevator Death Can Trigger Fear in People With Phobias

PHOTO: Suzanne Hart

Brian Davidson, a school administrator from New Jersey, knows what it's like to be trapped in an elevator that suddenly jerks and stops, as riders begin to sweat, and an unspoken panic rises.

The 52-year-old was riding shoulder-to-shoulder with 34 other jurors at the Trenton courthouse a couple of years ago when they got stuck between the third and fourth floors. "Even the guard who was escorting us didn't know what to do," said Davidson.

Worst of all, the jurors had been told, "for safety reasons," not to bring their cellphones with them.

"People started to panic, and when one person called for help, she literally picked up the emergency receiver and the cord was hanging," he said. "It wasn't connected.

"It was amazing how quickly the fear spread, and people were definitely breathing heavily and you could hear the tension rising in their voices," he said. "I was doing my best to stretch my head above the crowd to stay calm. But you could feel the fear."

With recent events, riders have reason to fear elevators, which can evoke claustrophobia, even when they work properly.

This week, 41-year-old Suzanne Hart, an advertising executive at New York City's Young & Rubicam, was crushed to death when she stepped into a Madison Avenue elevator as the door closed in on her and dragged her upward between the elevator and the shaft. In the aftermath of the accident, the two other passengers were treated for trauma.

"You really felt for the victim," said Davidson, who was eventually rescued. "Talk about, 'There but for the grace of God go I.' There were no warning signs and the people who were trapped had to deal with the horror of knowing that that poor person would not survive."

Experts say most people do not develop phobias after one traumatic event.

About 8 percent of the population -- or about 25 million Americans -- suffer from phobias, according to Dr. Todd Farchione, director of the intensive treatment program at the Center for Anxiety-Related Disorders at Boston University.

Only about 2 percent have situational-specific phobias, such as fear of elevators or related claustrophobia.

"Phobias, in general, are an irrational fear of a situation or object," he said. "And it has to be interfering in a person's life and distressing to the individual separate from standard fears."

The two New Yorkers who witnessed Hart's death likely suffered from post-traumatic stress, according to Farchione, and would not necessarily go on to develop a phobia of elevators.

But some do go on to have a fear after trauma.

"We learn to be afraid of things," he said. "You are bit by a dog and associate the pain and fear with the dog. Some develop phobia without trauma. You see someone else afraid of something, like an image of a housewife on a table when a mouse is in the room. You might develop a fear of mice."

People can also be "bombarded" with information and develop phobias. "The story about the elevator trapping and killing someone is such a rare event, but what we see is sensational," he said. "You can inflate the likelihood of those things happening."

Phobias present themselves as panic attacks, as Davidson described when he was trapped in a crowded elevator.

Farchione said the "fear reaction is accompanied by physical feelings like sweating, rapid heart rate, shakiness, feeling out of body and light-headed. It's primarily driven by how we breathe in the rush of fear."

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