The one accident involving an elevator in total free-fall occurred in 1945, when a twin-engine B-25 Mitchell bomber crashed into the 79th floor of the Empire State Building in New York City and lodged in an elevator shaft. The airplane's motor severed every rope, or cable, on one car traveling downward at the 38th floor. The car, all safety devices disabled, plunged to the sub-basement.

A sole occupant, the 20-year-old operator, Betty Lou Oliver, survived for three reasons, according to a contemporaneous account. First, a buildup of pressure in the shaft as the car fell provided an "air cushion." Second, hundreds of feet of severed secondary cables piled up in the bottom of the shaft and absorbed some of the impact. Third, a hydraulic plunger in the sub-basement, designed to be a shock absorber, helped slow the car -- though not as intended. Instead of behaving as a buffer, it pierced the center of the floor of the car because of the great speed at which it fell. Oliver was uninjured only because she was standing to one side. Also destroyed were ropes attached to 10,000 pounds of counterweight, then at the 50th floor. The weight hit the basement with such force that it broke through 12 feet of concrete and smashed a water main, flooding the sub-basement. It took more than a year to repair all the damage. Betty Lou Oliver returned to the building and rode in an elevator five months later. A history of the Otis Elevator Co. noted that because of the freakish nature of the accident, "this incident cannot be regarded as a failure of the ropes or the equipment." The industry claims that "vertical passenger transportation" is the safest form of transport in the world, with the number of accidents involving equipment failure minuscule in relation to the number of people carried. Elevator World, the industry publication, estimates that 600,000 elevators are in operation in the United States, and that they carry at least 44,660,548,000 passengers annually. Otis claims that worldwide, its equipment moves the population of the Earth every nine days. "There is no doubt about it," said Bill Sturgeon, editor of Elevator World in Mobile, Ala. "It {elevator travel} is the safest in the world." Sturgeon said that he has "been in the business for 45 years" and has never heard of any other instance of an elevator falling to the bottom of its shaft. Precise figures for accidents are difficult to obtain for several reasons. While elevator safety codes are written at the federal level in conjunction with the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, states have primary responsibility for monitoring compliance and conducting inspections; local jurisidictions also may issue regulations. Additionally, many lawsuits filed relating to accidents involving elevators are settled out of court, while other cases remain under court seal. The Consumer Product Safety Commission says that in 1993 there were 17,711 visits to hospital emergency rooms involving elevators, escalators and other lifts; the agency does not divide the numbers into separate categories, but a CPSC spokesman said that escalator incidents account for the majority of those visits. Fatalities and serious injuries have occurred when elevators have fallen even a few floors before safety devices acted, in some instances as the apparent result of equipment malfunctioning in poorly maintained installations. Irresponsible or risky behavior by passengers and even by maintenance people also has resulted in death and injury. CAPTION: Elisha Otis's crucial safety device, illustrated in this diagram from his patent application, cleverly relied on simple, natural forces that could be counted on operate automatically if the rope broke. At the top of the car, he placed a "leaf spring," much like the kind used in older automobiles. This is made of one or more curved strips of steel. The spring is placed so that when the car's weight pulls down on the rope, which passes through a hole in the middle of the spring, the spring is flattened against the roof of the car. The ends of the spring are linked rigidly to flanges pointed toward toothed guide rails outside the car. As long as the car hangs on the rope, the spring stays flattened and the flanges stay inside the car. You can think of the linkage as a rigid version of a person's bent leg and foot. If the rope breaks, the spring snaps back to its resting form. This change in shape automatically pushes the flanges outward to catch teeth on the guide rails.