NYC Elevator Death Can Trigger Fear in People With Phobias

PHOTO: Suzanne Hart
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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."

Elevator Phobia Easily Treated, Say Doctors

No one dies of a panic attack, he said, and cognitive behavioral therapies are 80 to 90 percent effective. "You gradually confront the things you are afraid of," he said.

As for Davidson, he admits he is not totally comfortable with elevators, especially because he was trapped twice again at a prestigious department store in New York City, where facilities can be older.

Records for the Madison Avenue property showed 56 violations of New York City's building code involving some of the building's 13 elevators, dating back to 2001. The last citation occurred in 2009, and all of the complaints are listed as resolved by the city Buildings Department.

ConsumerWatch.com reports that about 27 people are killed in elevator accidents per year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Consumer Product Safety Commission. About 10,000 people every year are injured because of elevators.

In one of the worst cases of entrapment, 34-year-old Nicholas White was stuck for 41 hours in the McGraw Hill building in New York City in 2008. He spent an entire weekend in the elevator, and video surveillance captured White circling the small box, banging on its walls.

"After a certain amount of time, I knew I was in big trouble," White told "Good Morning America" in an exclusive interview at the time.

He had no watch, no cellphone, no food or water. His only sustenance was a pack of Rolaids. At one point, White thought he might die of dehydration.

He pried the doors open at one point and was able to urinate. He lay on the floor, sweating, most the two days, trying to stay calm.

Davidson was luckier: He was rescued after a grueling 10 minutes.

One woman on the elevator whipped out her cellphone, and although she was scolded by the guard, the call went through to security.

Officials were able to pry the doors open and all stepped out for their day in court.

"I am cautious and it still makes me nervous," he said. "Especially if I am in a big elevator with a lot of people in a crowded office building."

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