ELEVATOR SURFING CIRCA 1976
In writing up this story I learned there's a rather dangerous form of urban exploration called elevator surfing. After a number of deaths, the "sport" made the news in the Journal of Forensic Sciences back in 1992. Jumping from one elevator to another, especially moving ones, is insane. In retrospect what Karl and I were doing back at Pierpont back in fall '76 was rather tame. None the less: I cannot emphasize enough that NO ONE SHOULD TRY THIS! You could easily get hurt or killed!
This is not a how-to guide and the details are included only for historical accuracy. Hopefully in the past 30 years UMass and/or the company that made their elevators have taken measures that will prevent others from doing what we did.
MAY 1976: It was late in the spring 76 semester, very late. All students except for graduating seniors had already left. I was there because I expected to graduate that fall and therefore was eligible to attend the ceremony. The graduation ceremonies were held on Saturday, May, 22ed. Though I had already packed my car I had no great desire to head back home. I was determined to stay at Pierpont as long as I could. Why? Partly because I did not want to return to the madness that was my home. Partly because nostalgia was running amok. Since I was also since I was a 3-D fanatic, I wanted to catch some 3-D movies playing that night at the Campus Cinemas: The Creature From The Black Lagoon and It Came From Outer Space. I had one other item on my agenda: to check out the dorm elevator.
That night I pretty much had the dorm to myself. With the DCs closed, supper was a can of cold beans. Since my good blanket was packed in the car, I used my Space Blanket. It kept slipping off during the night and I'd finally realize it when I woke up freezing. This must have been May in the days prior to Global Warming. Isn't this the May that it snowed on the Mt Holyoke Range?
SUNDAY MAY 23, 1976.
On a hunch I used the emergency stop button to stop the elevator between floors. I was then able to force open the elevator's inner door and found a safety latch on the outer door leading to the lobby. It was easy to manually operate. It made sense there was some fail-safe mechanism that unlocked the outer door only when the cab was ready to pick-up or discharge passengers. It prevented less careful college nutcases from opening the outer door and falling down the elevator shaft. Sadly I believe that actually happened in one of the South West towers but I never learned the details. I found myself in the curious situation of looking at two elevator lobbies. I could either climb to the lobby of the next floor up or drop down to the lobby below.
I soon realized that if I climbed out, the elevators doors would automatically close behind me. Giving that security lock, who knew if I could ever get back in. Worst, the elevator would be stuck on emergency stop halfway between floors. I eventually found a board in a storage room and repeated the procedure. I found that if I placed it in the lobby door, it would prevent the inner door from closing. I finally felt confident enough to climb out and look up top. I was surprised that there was no cable supporting the car. That was because the elevators in SW's low-rise dorms, like car lifts at a garage, were lifted from below by hydraulics. Still hydraulics alone could not do all the work and there were cables along the shaft walls used by the counterweights. That meant there was plenty of room up above the cab to hang out. There were even some steel beams that we could sit on. There were also service controls that inspectors must use. This may have been the time that I also went towards the basement to look what was at the bottom of the elevator shaft. Hmmm. The cogs of a scheming mind were beginning to turn. But whatever form those schemes took would have to wait until next semester. By 11:30am I was on my way home.
AUGUST 29, 1976.
It was 2:30am. The late hour was necessary since we didn't want anyone to see us climbing out of the elevator and getting to the top. With two people we could do more testing. We discovered that there were not just controls up top but a light. How convenient. The service controls could override all the controls in the cab except the emergency stop button. We joked about turning it into a reading room or a clubhouse by moving some furniture up there. There was enough room for a chair or two. It was totally possible. We got the protocol down. Once we stopped the elevator and climbed out, someone would have to reach in to disengage the emergency stop. Only then was it safe to climb up top and let the outer doors close behind us. Once that happened, the elevator was back in service.
SATURDAY SEPTEMBER 5, 1976.
Karl remembers it this way:
"So we would sit up on top of the elevator and wait for someone to innocently board. Once they were inside we could override the elevator controls and take them on a random joy ride, even getting so good at operating the override controls that we could shake the elevator violently. As long as we kept our mouths shut, the effect was extremely unnerving for the rider. Ha ha, big laughs!"
Yikes! If true then we were nastier than I remember!
There was a crack between the top of the elevator and the elevator shaft where we could look down to catch a glimpse of whomever was boarding or leaving. One or two parties were snared in our web. Soon another call came and again we were heading down to the basement. More suckers! Once we started heading up we immediately took control of the elevator and brought them to the fourth floor, back to the basement and up again to the fourth. Curiously we didn't hear any "WTF is happening!" coming from below. The two were silent. It was strange, very strange. Soon we learned why.
Once back on the 4th floor they engaged the emergency stop. While we could not override it, at first we didn't consider it a big deal. One of us got a glimpse of one leaving and we assumed it was both. Then it hit us. Oh shit! If they had done this while on the 3ed floor we could easily escape by opening the outer door to the fourth floor lobby. But we were now trapped in a concrete extension of the elevator shaft that protruded into the roof... and there was no apparent escape. We already knew we could not open the hatch to the cab. There was another hatch at the top of the shaft but it was too high to reach. There was an air vent we could easily access. In fact cold air was pouring through it making us regret we didn't bring jackets. Unfortunately the vent was about 1'x3' and there was no way to remove it.
While up top Karl and I usually only talked in soft whispers so no one below could hear us but now we were getting careless and a bit louder. Should we shout for help? Who would hear us at 2:30 in the morning? About 15 minutes later one of us noticed that there had been another person in the elevator all the time and he was sure to have heard us bemoaning our plight! He must have been laughing his ass off? But what if he was pissed? What if he was planning to call the campus police? Shouting for help was looking like a better and better option.
Mercifully, about 15 minutes later some other poor soul blundered into the elevator and released the emergency stop. When he was between the first and second floors, we took control. By then we made no attempt to conceal the fact that we were up there. We escaped to the 2ed floor and with a big Yahoo!, we ran like hell.
WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 7.
We hoped we could fix the problem before the Physical Plant was called in. But what could we do? Our plans were pure madness. One plan was to try get to roof then to the top of the elevator shaft, open that service hatch, and rope down. If nothing else we could open an outer door and someone could get to the cab and release the emergency stop. Another plan was remove the air vent, lower a rope, and try to snag the safety latch so the outer doors could open. Maybe we could drill out the screws on the elevator control panel and play with the wires. Yes, we were insane. When all of the above seemed pointless, plan B was to hide the incriminating footwear.
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 9.
Karl remembers it this way:
"This comforting darkness lasted for a few days, until someone else painted a dayglow universe in tiny stars inside. Cute, but we wanted pure black, so we painted out his universe. Mr. Dayglow (who was a really big guy - we were scared shitless) was really upset. I think he was assuaged by being told that he had stumbled into a running feud with some other guerilla painters. After that he laughed. "Silly old college pranks" Ha ha. Actually we just weren't going to surrender one inch of our unholy darkness. We ruled the night. That Halloween I dressed up like Mr. Death and inhabited the elevator, waiting for innocents to scare. I think I scared some people really bad, but I swear, it was all in fun. I only meant to scare, not scar. Please forgive me, J. C.!"
I don't remember Mr. Dayglow. I do remember a paint war with Wendy, who lived in 206. She had done some pretty nice hall art in Second Sunset. Maybe the real question was, would my flat black paint outlast her need to be artistic?