The Ups and Downs of Captivity: Or, Keep Your Knees Bent

The day my previous post appeared on deliverance and captivity, I experienced a little captivity and, fortunately, deliverance during an elevator ride in Shanghai. The basic story is that I and several others were trapped in an elevator and could not rescue ourselves. The way out involved making a call to plead for deliverance, and then we were kindly delivered and carefully brought up to safety. It’s a nice little analogy to the way we are trapped here in mortality through death and sin, but if we turn to God with faith and patience, we can be delivered and brought back to Him.

Actually, the story is more complex than that and has further lessons about deliverance, about helping fellow travelers in mortality, and dealing with those who don’t seem to recognize the problems they create for others. It’s also about how a respected institution can lose the trust of its customers by not recognizing the problems they face, which is a lesson to all of us in any organization, the Church included, in listening and staying in touch with those we are responsible for.

First, though, my apologies to Otis, a respected company that is working to make sure our little problem doesn’t happen again. Mechanical problems can happen with any machine, and that’s what an elevator is. Likewise, misunderstanding about customers and their experiences can happen in any organization. My little misadventure could have happened with any manufacturer. The inconvenience was minor, but I hope some of the lessons from it will be useful to others.

Those stranded with me in a Shanghai elevator were mostly speakers at a United Nations-sponsored conference on intellectual property. They included the Consul General for Bulgaria, the European Union’s IP Attaché serving in Beijing, a prominent European patent lawyer, and some Chinese business leaders and IP workers. This little adventure for 10 passengers was supposed to be a brief “three-story cruise” on our way from the lowest level to a five-star luncheon above, but shortly after our Otis elevator began its ascent, the elevator slipped downward a few inches, stopped, and then continued upward, only to slip again and then again. After the third slip, the elevator stopped completely just a few feet short of the second floor.

Being trapped in an elevator with cool people is actually not as fun as it looks.


Lots of joking, but I think we were all a bit nervous after the elevator
slipped several times on the way up before getting stuck.

We were in one of Shanghai’s premiere locations, the World Expo Center in Pudong, where one would expect the highest quality in construction and maintenance. We were in an Otis elevator, probably the world’s most trusted and famous elevator brand. But we were also in China, a land of many surprises, and a land where tragic elevator accidents are not unknown. A place where maintenance is sometimes an issue, along with shortcuts in construction. I’m not saying any of that applies to this setting, but there have been problems in the past with proper maintenance of elevators in Shanghai and some tragedies as well. Elevator safety is an issue the government here takes very seriously these days, and with good reason.

We rang the alarm button and expected to receive assistance right away. There was no response. We rang it again a few minutes later and it looked like some staff members were observing us (we could look down through some glass to see some staff gathered on the floor below us), so we expected help soon. After a few more minutes, though, there was no sign of real help. We needed help, help from outside. I then noticed that there was a small speaker next to another button and suggested we push that to reach someone. We were able to speak with someone to explain our situation. They told us to wait and I think they said help was on the way.

We chatted and exchanged business cards, but it was getting quite unpleasant inside with no circulation and fairly warm air. I got out a magazine and fanned it over a woman in the back who was having some trouble, and we pressed the alarm again, which now had been disabled so we wouldn’t alarm others, I guess. We called again to ask for help and were told to just wait. After a few more minutes we called again and no one was answering now. The alarm was off. The phone was off as far as we could tell. I think we had become too annoying.

Then I noticed there were two phone numbers printed on the Otis nameplate. I called one and got a “number not working” notice. I called the other number and was able to reach the Otis company itself, I think in Beijing, and reported the problem. They told us help was on the way.

One of the last hotels I stayed at, a 2-star place near the Yangtze River in China, had a large helpful sign in its elevator. The sign gave directions on what to do if the elevator should slip and suddenly begin plummeting to earth–even though the place was only 4 stories tall. It said we should brace ourselves with our backs against a wall and bend our knees somewhat, apparently to reduce the risk of breaking legs on impact. I debated whether I should share this helpful information with my fellow sufferers, but in the interest of safety, with as much gentleness and optimism as I could muster, I casually mentioned having seen that sign and suggested we be ready, just in case. Then, suddenly, a cable snapped and we all screamed as we crashed toward the earth and–no, actually, nothing like that happened at all.

A few minutes later came deliverance, but not exactly as expected. I thought we would be slowly lowered back down to safety. Instead, once the technician above had accessed the system to override or overcome whatever was halting out journey, the elevator began going slowly up, up, up to the third floor. Recognizing that something was wrong and that slippage was possible, the higher we went the more nervous I grew, knees slightly bent. But we made it. The door opened and we swiftly walked out.

There was an official Otis technician next to the elevator, with a panel open and some wires plugged into a box or something. We were relieved to be rescued. We were greeted by an apologetic hostess and escorted to the delicious lunch waiting us. But I wanted some information. I asked the Otis technician what had gone wrong. He said, “Too many people.”

“Really? Then why didn’t an alarm go off as happens normally when the load is too high?”

“You must have been near the limit but not quite over it. Not heavy enough to make the alarm ring.” He thought that was a satisfactory explanation. I did not.

Our hostess came to take me over to the speakers luncheon. I followed her and saw the great food and would have liked some, but felt that there was a safety issue still there that I couldn’t just ignore. I went to the host, the kind man who had invited me to speak and attend the luncheon, and excused myself. I needed to go back and follow up. This is one of those character traits I have that sometimes makes me genuinely annoying, in addition to hungry.

I went back to the elevator to talk to the technician. Our hostess followed me. I asked what had been done to prevent this problem from happening again to another group of the same size. He gave me a puzzled look and kind of shrugged his shoulders. Our hostess got it and she very diplomatically rephrased my question to make it clear we weren’t accusing him of any kind of shortcoming, but just wanted to make sure the problem was resolved for the welfare of others.

But it didn’t appear that anything was being changed or repaired. I explained I felt a duty to report this to Otis, and could I please get his name and phone number so headquarters could communicate with him about our questions. The hostess gave this a nice diplomatic spin, and the man gave me that information. I called Otis, reported the problem in detail, and was told I would get a response soon. There was no time to eat now, but it was OK.

Otis called that night while my wife and I were at delicious banquet for speakers and staff. An English speaker this time talked to me and asked what I wanted. I explained I wanted the problem fixed. I explained why it is a serious problem to be trapped in an elevator for 20 minutes or so. Her response really surprised me: “Well, sir, we can fully understand how even a single minute in an elevator can seem like 20 minutes to a passenger.” I was bothered by their apparent failure to understand just how long their elevator had trapped its passengers. Fortunately, another passenger was nearby. I asked him to explain how long we had been trapped. He was clear: 20 minutes, at least. Maybe Otis was only timing the response from the time I called them and the time the technician showed up, I don’t know. Then the woman said that their contract requires them to respond in 30 minutes, which they had (congratulations!). I reminded her that we trapped passengers don’t really care what your contract says. We don’t want to be trapped. So what are you doing to fix the problem? I was assured that they would investigate and get back to me Monday.

Monday I got a call from a fast-speaking Chinese technician. He was talking about technical details that I couldn’t follow, so I had a friend chat and translate for me. The technician explained that the load cell had not been properly calibrated to detect an overload condition, but now it had been adjusted and all was well. Hurray, I’ve done my job.

But now that I look at the light-hearted photos I took in the elevator to commemorate the event, I can see the Otis panel indicates it is rated for 1000 kg and 13 persons. There were 10 or 11 of us (my best estimate) and I think I was the heaviest, well under 100 kg, so the total should have been well under 1000 kg. The problem was a mechanical failure, possibly from underrated equipment that couldn’t handle maybe 900 kg when it should have been able to handle over 1000 kg. That’s not a load cell calibration problem. The cheap fix, of course, is to adjust the load cell so the alarm will go off when there is a 900 kg load, but the elevator is rated for 1000 kg. Come on, guys, fix your elevator! I hope Otis understands that they have a problem. Organizations need to listen carefully to those whose lives they affect. I think the Church is striving to do this, but all of us at every level in the Church need to do this with those we affect and work with.

So tonight, with the help of a friend, I called Otis again and got into the technical details and insisted that they have a mechanical issue they need to address. Let’s see where this goes. Deliverance, I hope, for some future group embarking on a three-story cruise. I hope they are listening.

When people we can help or should help are trapped, may we respond quickly in delivering them, and may we take steps to make the way more safe for those who come after. That’s what a lot of our work in the Church is all about, delivering others and making pathways better for those coming after us. First, though, we each need our own personal deliverance through the Atonement of Christ.

If you are facing some form of captivity, it is probably much more serious than my little misadventure, but the principles of turning to an outside source for help and deliverance still applies. One call, one prayer, may not be enough. Be persistent, hang in there, brace yourself, and keep your knees bent.

Update: Otis called again today to report the good news that there was no mechanical problem, just a load cell issue. That’s a relief! The Otis person told me that load cell failed to detect that we were way overweight since we had 17 people in there.  Huh? 17? We were around 10 by my count, maybe as many as 12, and looking at the photos, taken from near the right front of the elevator, I really don’t see how 17 people could be there. There were a couple at the front and one or two at the side by me that don’t show up in the photo, but it doesn’t add up to 17 by my count. I asked where they got that number and suggested they go verify the video footage to see how many came in and out of the elevator. They are going to check and get back to me. As is so common in elevator entrapment stories, I remain in suspense.

Hmm, a report of 17–that sounds like the kind of data manipulation that happens occasionally to make inconvenient facts fit the desired narrative. If it can happen to temperatures and inflation data, it can happen to passenger counts, too. Seventeen passengers = load cell problem and easy fix. Ten passengers and elevator failure (in a unit rated for 13 people and 1000 kg) = something more troubling or at least more expensive.

I told this to my wife, shook my head, and said that I must be so annoying. “You enjoy this so much!” was her response. Where do women get these ideas?

Update, May 6, 2015: Got a very polite call from Shanghai’s general manager of Otis as he was traveling in the U.S. He apologized for the trouble and explained interesting details. There were 12 people in the elevator, as I saw on the surveillance recording he sent me. Not 17. That was a mistake on their part. He also explained that the system was installed by a US team and does have the right motor, but the problem is that the torque delivered by the motor is based on the signal from the load cell, and that’s what was wrong. Interesting. I suggested that once there is slippage because torque is too low, the system ought to automatically increase the torque. But what happened is that the system kept slipping and so, recognizing that something was wrong, it shut down completely. OK.

They are going to use this incident as a case study for ongoing training of their staff to help them understand how to respond better. There are many details that they can learn from, and he was very grateful for the documentation and customer feedback I provided. Looks like I’ll even get an invitation to come visit their headquarters. Could be fun–but I wonder if it’s on the ground floor.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

7 thoughts on “The Ups and Downs of Captivity: Or, Keep Your Knees Bent

  1. Some people take on these kinds of problems, while most people just shrug. Nobody will reward you for caring; several people may be annoyed.

    All too often we read about tragic accidents. We don't read about the accidents that don't happen. I'm sure that the reason some of them don't happen is that somebody pushed harder and hung onto something longer than most people would.

  2. I always take the stairs….unless it is more than five or six floors. I then will nervously take the elevator. If in a mall with escalators and elevators, I take the escalator.
    I have been trapped in elevators, been in elevators that slipped and fell, elevators that when the door opened, the floor I was to get out on was two to three feet above my head, or two to three feet below me. I avoid elevators at all costs.

  3. Jeff, you're what is called a "compulsive helper."

    Faulty elevators are deadly, and China doesn't have anything near our OSHA, so I don't fault you for sticking you nose in, trying to fix a potentially deadly situation.

    (Maybe we should export OSHA and EPA to them, and that might even up the trade imbalance and economic disparity.)

    Many of your previous stories about helping (or getting totally suckered-in by) people who are, or appear to be, in dire straits also confirms your diagnosis of compulsive helper. You will have a large contingent of lost-cat/loser/mentally-ill/down-and-out souls singing your praises in heaven come judgement day.

    And they will far outnumber the ticked-off souls who will accuse you of being a meddlesome busybody.

    You're a Boy Scout, a Dudley Do-right, a Peter Priesthood (and I mean that in a GOOD way!)

    But be careful man. Be very very carefulwhen you go sticking your nose in places in foreign countries.

  4. Thanks for the heads up. Guess it's time to file for the Mormanity trademark–in use since 2004. But not sure I really want to do that! Maybe I should just invest in the game if it's any good.

  5. Anon, I don't think I'm a compulsive helper at all. It's a choice, not a compulsion, and not all that frequent. The choice that day was lunch or get to the bottom of an elevator story. Learned a lot in the process and hopefully helped.

    I've missed way too many opportunities to do good and have done plenty of harm in zealous attempts to do good as well. Life is complicated.

    I also recognize the risks of interfering inappropriately in foreign countries. There are times I would have liked to have done something when I think it would been a problem as a foreigner, so I've just stepped back and let things go their course. Sometimes with regrets, other times not. It's challenging over here. But the elevator thing was easy. Wasn't challenging authorities, just helping a US company understand a potential problem.

  6. Jeff, the association of the indie-gogo person to Sunstone and the lessthanvalient/progressive/leftwing lds blogs indicate that their use of the Mormanity mark will not be as church-positive as the Mormanity brand that you have created.

    In fact, any web search of "mormanity" shows you at the top, so it would be unreasonable to think they were unaware of you and your use of the mark, even if you have not formally registered it.

    Therefore, their planned use of the mark likely indicates an intent on their part to dilute or disparage your "brand", and by extension your online efforts.

    Your reasoned, level-headed, faithful support and defense of the church has meant a lot to many readers, both silent and those who comment, who seek online answers to attacks on the church from both without and within church ranks.

    Please do what you can to defend the "Mormanity" brand.

    And…. I would like to know your wife's opinion of how accurately the "compulsive helper" label describes you! Please ask her and post her response.

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