The mobile cells called elevators


The other day, I was at my mechanic’s workshop when one of his customers was narrating how he was held captive by civilisation for 50 minutes. His captor was one of the lifts in a high rising building in the City Centre of Abuja, notorious for malfunctioning.

According to him, five other occupants that included a female staff boarded the lift and were descending when the contraption developed a fault. The detainees blamed the management of the building for the 50-minute incarceration. Apparently, the lift had been infamous for misbehaving but no one cared to “call it to order” until the fateful day when they got stuck and were close to embarking on a one-way trip to the great beyond. Fifty minutes in a near airtight lift can be likened to being buried alive.

I told the young man I could appreciate how frightened they were when eventually they were rescued before they could suffocate to their early graves.

The phenomenon of lift failures is as old as the invention itself. Lift has no respect for anyone. For instance, as far back as 2010 in faraway United States of America, former Chief of Defence Staff, Air Marshall Paul Dike, the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Abdulrahaman Dambazzau (now Minister of Interior), some officials in the delegation of the Federal Ministry of Women Affairs and other dignitaries were detained in an elevator at the Nigerian Embassy in the heart of the prestigious Manhattan Business District of New York. 

These recognisable personalities were commandeered for more than 30 minutes without an order of the court. An engineer had to be summoned to the embassy to free the detainees who were in the States on official engagement.

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A few days before the incarceration of the military top brass, I read about the demise of an old white couple somewhere in Europe that got imprisoned in a lift for a couple of days in a block of high rising apartment flats. The couple, moving on tired legs from old age, died of asphyxiation in the elevator which obviously developed a fault that was not reported immediately.

Now, let me share my own experience with you. It was a harrowing one but I thank God I survived the captivity. The encounter took place at the 10-storey Joseph Gomwalk House in Jos in the early 80s. I was then the chief sub-editor of The Nigeria Standard newspaper. It was customary that as the chief sub-editor, I should present the cover page stories to the editor and both of us would determine which ones should lead the front and back pages of the next day’s edition.

On that fateful day, I had gone to table the cover page stories for discussion with my editor, Mr. Joel Pwol, who was attending a management meeting on the 9th floor of the building. He excused himself from the meeting for some minutes to attend to me because we had a deadline to meet. And it was already past 7 pm. After assigning the stories, I headed for the elevator. I thumbed the button and after a few seconds, the lift marched up to the 9th floor and gave me a huge yawn. Curiously, there was no lift attendant in the belly of the elevator. Nevertheless, I hopped in and asked the machine to take me to the ground floor.

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The descent was unusually free that I had to be squeezing my anus in fright until the elevator passed the 6th floor heading for the 5th when it creaked to a sudden halt. It was my first experience and I assured myself that the drop would soon resume. But I was wrong. The lift became motionless and I soon realised that the compartment had become poorly illuminated.

It was at that point that it dawned on me that it was NEPA that ordered my detention illegally, and it was to last for an hour! And I was alone! Worse still, it was in the pre-GSM era, so I couldn’t send an SMS or Save My Soul to anyone.

After about 15 minutes and there was still no motion, I became worried for my safety and the deadline. As a lone detainee, there was no competition for the limited air that was circulating in the cell. And I thanked God for that. But when 30 minutes rolled by and there was no motion, my heart gradually began to gather speed, accelerated by despair.

Forty-five minutes rolled by, yet no shaking. Then, I began to wonder what my editor would be thinking if he got back to the office only to be told that his chief sub-editor was nowhere to be found long after our meeting. Would they rush to the nearby Plateau Radio and Television Corporation (PRTVC) to declare me wanted? And this would have been the cover page story of the paper the next morning: “Chief Sub-Editor absconds with cover page stories” (…in the manner that a cashier would vamoose with his employer’s huge cash).

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As if NEPA was timing the incarceration, it restored power in the 60th minute and the elevator jerked back to life. I scrambled to my feet when the lift re-yawned on hitting the ground floor, and bolted away so fast you would think my legs were not touching the ground. I narrated my ordeal to the editor. He could not have imagined that I was trapped in the elevator, and told me that he and his colleagues had to use the staircase after the meeting.

The next day, I asked the company’s service engineer whether I could sue NEPA for unlawful imprisonment. He freed his lips of cigarette, dissolved into a guffaw and told me not to waste my time. He said the judge would simply draw my attention to the functional definition of NEPA which was “Never Expect Power Always” and throw out my case through the window at the first hearing!

After that tormenting experience, I have never trusted any elevator again and its accomplice, NEPA (a euphemism for electricity provider). Consequently, I pound the staircase instead whenever any elevator yawns at me to be swallowed. Once bitten, it is said, twice shy. I don’t know about you.

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