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Elevator Anxiety Is Riding High

Emergencies: Workers in skyscrapers worry about blackouts trapping them in their buildings. Some take the risk in stride; others make plans to take the stairs.


SAN FRANCISCO — In Susan Clifton's highly placed opinion, sunny Tuesday would have been a picture-perfect day to work atop one of the tallest buildings in San Francisco, a scenic city littered with soaring skyscrapers.

But Clifton--like many other high-rise office dwellers in blackout-prone parts of California--couldn't help but feel some high anxiety at the prospect of being stranded by electrical outages that were sweeping across the state for a second day.

"I think about it all the time," said Clifton, a 21-year-old receptionist at Deutsche Bank's offices on the 48th floor of a tower in the city's financial district who recently moved from rural Virginia. "The way I see it, Californians take a lot of things on faith, working atop tall buildings with all these earthquakes and power outages."

For Long Beach office worker Dave Suhada, the anxiety has taken the form of elevator phobia: a fear of getting stuck on an 80-degree day crammed in a pod of sweating, heavy-breathing humans, with no way out.

"I'm just eyeing the buttons to see which one I could push as fast as I can if the power goes out," he said.

For 20-year-old Lisa Riley, it means entering the elevator each day in her Long Beach office building with a prayer. "I just could not get stuck for an hour and a half," she said, nodding nervously. Often she now opts for the stairs.

In San Francisco, emergency services officials say that most of the city's office buildings are equipped with backup generators to run elevators and security equipment in the event of a blackout.

Fire Department spokesman Pete House said the city has 19 trucks with experts trained to extricate people trapped in elevators. Firefighters handling blackout-related emergencies rescued a person trapped in a downtown building Tuesday and handled five elevator mishaps Monday.

Christopher Stafford didn't get caught inside an elevator Monday, but suffered the next-worst thing: being stranded in his 15th-floor apartment after the power failed when he went home for lunch.

So the 41-year-old real estate worker trooped down the stairs to the lobby and even made some new friends along the way, helping a few elderly women who were struggling down the stairs.

"It was a pain," he acknowledged. "But I have to tell you: I really like my panoramic view, so it's worth the hassle."

Nowadays, Sherrie Tellier makes sure her cellular phone is in hand when she gets in the elevator. She got trapped once before, and the emergency phone didn't work. It's amazing, she said, how small an elevator seems when you can't get out. "It's like a broom closet.Now there's a sigh of relief every time the door opens."

Some high-rise office workers said Tuesday that they preferred not to think about the perils of going without power and being vulnerable and isolated so high up.

But on the 42nd floor of San Francisco's Transamerica Tower, Sasha Monpere wasn't fazed by the chance that during a blackout, her building's backup generators wouldn't kick in.

"Hey, I'm young and I'm healthy. I can always walk down the stairs," said the 29-year-old receptionist. "I've done the Statue of Liberty. It can't be any worse than that. And walking down 42 flights is a lot easier than walking up all those stairs."

Likewise with Phil Ip, who works on the 52nd--and top--floor of San Francisco's tallest skyscraper. The 25-year restaurant veteran says he has the utmost faith in modern technology.

"We're safe, even up here," said Ip, assistant general manager of the Carnelian Room, a restaurant atop the Bank of America building. "You should see the engineer's room in this building. It's like a big steamship. They're equipped for anything that could happen."

One floor below, Cheryl Martin hears every day about people's fear of heights. In the year since she began answering phones in a law office, she has often escorted clients afraid of express elevators that shudder and rise so fast that passengers' ears pop from the altitude gain.

"Everybody, and I mean everybody, asks, 'So, what happens during a power outage?' " she said.

Rory Thompson said he believes in karma and is sure that if the rolling blackouts come calling, his office will be spared. In July 1993, Thompson's building was the site of an incident known as the 101 California St. massacre, in which gunman Gian Luigi Ferri killed eight people and wounded six before killing himself.

"This building has already had its bad day," he said. "They say that the day after a crash is the safest day to ride an airline. So I'll take my chances with the rolling blackouts."

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