What Happens When an Elevator Loses Power?

Photo by Andrew Welch on Unsplash

I’ve been in an elevator that was delayed, not stuck. At least that’s what I tell myself. I was in downtown Boston and the elevator was likely overloaded. Who am I kidding? It was overloaded. I never thought of myself as claustrophobic until that moment. I looked around at the faces of my new roommates. Minutes later, which felt like an eternity, we crept up to our floor and the doors slowly opened. The elevator wasn’t stuck, but moving at a snail’s pace based on the amount of people.

It made me wonder…

Do elevators stop when the power goes out? Yes, an elevator will stop when the power goes out, but if you’re in a newer elevator you might get lowered to the closest floor with an automatic rescue device (ARD). Some newer OTIS elevators, using GEN2™ technology, store energy in electric accumulators to allow the elevator to operate up to 100 trips in the event of a power failure. With older elevators, your only luck may be a backup generator — otherwise, keep reading.

Getting stuck in an elevator is the last thing I’d like to check off my bucket list. In the event you work, live, or frequently visit a building with an elevator — you may find comfort in the information we’ve gathered about elevators and what happens when the power goes out.

What Are the Odds of Getting Stuck in an Elevator?

This comes from the experts at KJA, a consulting engineering firm specializing in elevators and escalators. They say, and I’m paraphrasing here — if you work in an office building where you rely on an elevator 5-days a week — you’d essentially have a 0.02% or 1 in 5,000 chance of entrapment. Yikes. The word entrapment is flat out scary. To put that into context, the KJA team compares this to a 1 in 3.3 million chance of being struck by lightning.

Heads up to the workforce relying on elevators!

You’re more likely to be trapped in an elevator than struck by lightning. By KJA’s math — 670 times more likely. Makes a good case for using the stairs or telecommuting!

Can Elevators Plunge in a Power Outage?

From my research, no. It seems I could find two things related to elevators plunging:

  1. Urban myths, and
  2. One documented case of an elevator plunging. This happened when a B-52 traveling from Massachusetts to New York hit the Empire State Building in 1945. The accident killed 14 people (eleven inside the building). According to reports, engine parts severed the cables of the elevators on the 75th floor. The elevators plunged 1000ft; however, 19-year old Betty Lou Oliver, an elevator operator, survived the fall with a broken pelvis, back, and neck. Digging through the Internet’s Wayback Machine: Betty holds the Guinness Record for the Longest Fall Survived In An Elevator. Check out the NPR story here or the Wayback Machine here.

How Does an Elevator Safety Brake Work?

You can thank Otis Elevators for the answer on this one. Apparently, Mr. Otis didn’t invent the elevator, but he made it safer. There are a number of safety components on elevators that make an elevator plunge highly unlikely. Here are some systems that should make you feel better:

  • Elevators use a governor, which is used to measure and regulate the speed of a motor. If the elevator picks up too much speed the governor will kick in and apply the brakes.
  • Elevators also have electromagnetic brakes that assist when the elevators come to a stop at each floor. By design, these brakes are always open and close when the brakes are applied. During a power loss, the brakes are designed to close.
  • The elevator shaft has its own braking systems at the very top and bottom of the shaft, which can bring the elevator to a stop. These brakes engage when the elevator goes beyond the top or bottom floor.
  • Then, if all those systems fail, a shock-absorber system is in place at the bottom of the shaft, which acts as an airbag for the elevator.
  • It’s also worth noting that elevators can be held in place with up to 6-8 cables. Each cable capable of holding the elevator on its own.

Feel better? Me too!

Do Elevators Have an Escape Hatch?

Some do; most don’t. The ones that do are likely opened by a key from building maintenance or firefighters. If an elevator is stuck — there is a huge safety risk by leaving an elevator through a hatch or door. So, the manufacturer won’t leave opportunities for just anyone to crawl out of the elevator and risk injury. The best advice is to stay put.

Can You Pry Open Elevator Doors?

Not really and I wouldn’t try. Imagine Jimmy McStud-Muffin and his buddies motivated by the strength of a few Jameson shots trying to pry open the doors of a moving elevator. Ahhh, no. You’ll likely struggle with a locking mechanism designed to keep everyone cozy inside.

Can You Run out of Oxygen in an Elevator?

No. Elevators aren’t airtight so you can take a deep breath on this one. The vents aren’t always visible and some even have fans mounted on top to help circulate air. Phew!

If I Get Stuck in an Elevator? What Do I Do?

The first order of business is to stay calm and hopefully, the rest of the occupants can do the same. Here are some do’s and don’ts:

  • Wait a minute. Many buildings have battery backup or large generators like this one, which may take the elevator to the closest floor — in which case you can exit and use the staircase to leave the building. Also, some high-rise buildings use backup systems to lower elevators to the first floor. A little patience may go a long way. Enjoy that latte you grabbed in the lobby!
  • Press the OPEN button. Doesn’t hurt right? I’ve read a few articles, one from an elevator repairman, who has responded to many entrapments calls. He mentioned the only action needed in most cases was a simple push of the OPEN DOOR button.
  • Check for a phone. Most elevators have a way to communicate with building management or maintenance. Those phones are behind a little panel below the buttons. Pick it up and declare your emergency.
  • Use your cell phone to make a call to the police or fire department.
  • Check for an alarm. It’s been there the whole time. Mocking you. Push it! Push the red button! Declare your emergency. Actually, it may be a pull, but you get the point.
  • Don’t try to mimic Bruce Willis and find an escape hatch in the ceiling. You don’t want to be half ‘in’ half ‘out’ when the elevator starts moving again. Also, most elevators don’t have a hatch so you’ll expend a lot of energy peeling back that nifty paneling and light fixture.
  • Don’t open the doors and impress everyone with your elevator shaft climbing skills. Stay put and wait for a proper rescue.  We also learned earlier – safety mechanisms are in place to prevent this.
  • Do not enter/re-enter an elevator if the power is out.

Do Elevators Work During a Fire?

Not typically, but the real question is “should you use an elevator during a fire?” You’ll likely find that elevators are taken out of service to prevent accidents during a fire. You should always use alternative exits, like stairways, to leave a building. Even if the power is on — you should never attempt to use an elevator during a fire. You could get trapped when the power is cut and your situation becomes much worse.

What about the hole in the door? Can I use that to open the door?

Please don’t. The hole in the door, if you’ve ever seen one, is on the outside of the door. The next time you’re waiting for the elevator look towards the top of the door and you’ll notice a small round hole. It’s used by the building maintenance group or the fire department to manually open the door in case of an emergency. The key, referred as a ‘drop key’, is inserted into the hole to manually open the doors.

CAUTION: this is dangerous and shouldn’t be explored by someone with a key and wild curiosity. There are some scary stories, and YouTube videos, of people opening doors and their friends/family member falling down the elevator shaft. Not good. This key is for the professionals and shouldn’t be tampered with.

Are Elevators Safe?

After the research I did on this article; I’d say ‘yes’. Are there accidents involving elevators? Yes, just like anything else. Given the safety features built into elevators, and with continued advancements — I feel better about my safety. Do I want to be trapped in a box for three hours. Again, not on the bucket list, but I’ll stay calm knowing the cavalry is coming. Double check — they are coming, right? 🙂 


By now you should be well versed in elevators and feeling more comfortable knowing movies sensationalize elevators. Just know if you’re unfortunate to be in an elevator when the power goes out — you won’t plunge to the bottom, you won’t run out of oxygen, and you’re likely to be rescued in short order if you remember to pull the alarm. Hey, worse case, you have some alone time to binge on some Netflix while you wait for the rescue team.

Just pray you don’t get stuck with the guy you’d dread sitting next to on a plane. Know what I’m sayin’?

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