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The Elevator

On the evening of Thursday, October 25, 1979, I filed my daily crime beat report and left the newsroom with a fellow reporter, Brad Liston, to grab a quick meal. I’d just pulled out of the parking lot when the alarms went off on my police scanner, summoning all emergency responders to a dormitory on the FSU campus. We made out the word elevator.


He shrugged and I smiled. We had both experienced dorm life and knew the games students played in elevators—stopping the lifts mid-floors and ringing the alarms—but as the calls for emergency personnel continued, we agreed this seemed serious. We forgot dinner, and I drove onto the campus, to Smith Hall, a 10-story residence hall, home to over 500 students. We parked near multiple fire trucks and ambulances, their lights flashing, illuminating the settling dusk. I noticed an elevator service van from Montgomery Elevators parked next to a police car.


“How’d they get here so fast?” I wondered. Brad shook his head. We both had our steno pads and pens, ready to gather a story. Dozens of overwrought students gathered by the entrance, watching the unfolding drama, smoking cigarettes, speculating, crying.


“What’s happening?” we asked.


We learned a student, a young man, had fallen out of an elevator and plunged to the bottom of the shaft. We didn’t stop to ask how someone could fall out of an elevator. We pushed through and entered the building.


“Were there any witnesses?” Brad asked.


A friend had been with him in the elevator. I got his name. I’d find him later.


Brad and I approached the reception area. Sets of elevators were parked on the main floor, doors opened, cars level with the landings, and guarded by grim-faced FSU police officers. We found the stairs to the basement, where two elevator technicians worked in the bowels of an elevator shaft, flanked by two paramedics. A hazard barrier was placed in front of the shaft, to prevent anyone from falling in. I leaned over the barrier and looked down into the shaft. A spotlight illuminated the crowded area. The elevator men worked on the wiring for the elevator. One of the paramedics leaned over the injured man, checking his vital signs. The other paramedic looked up at me. I backed away from the shaft opening.


A stretcher was lowered by ropes and more paramedics assembled, to pull the young man out of the shaft. A police officer placed his hand on my shoulder then pointed toward the stairs and nodded, indicating I should leave. I shook my head, no, showed him my press pass. I spotted Jim Sewell, the director of public safety for FSU and moved forward, to stand next to him. He glanced at me.


“I’ll do a briefing soon,” he whispered. We were silent as the young man was brought up, out of the shaft on the stretcher, then quickly, yet carefully borne outside by paramedics to the waiting ambulance. Brad and I split up, agreeing to meet back at the newsroom to write the story. I went upstairs to the main level, and spotted photographer Joyce Harper, snapping pictures of the elevator. I asked her to let our editor know Brad and I were here, getting the details. She nodded.


Near 7:30, after the ambulance pulled away from the curb, lights flashing and siren blaring—a positive sign of life—Mr. Sewell gave reporters a briefing. There was a group of us from newspapers, television and radio stations and the wire services. Tallahassee is the state capital, and there was never a shortage of news reporters doing due diligence, hoping for the Big Story, the career maker.


The injured student was James Byron of Winter Haven, Florida. He was 19 years old, a freshman. Byron and his companion had gotten into the elevator on the 7th floor to go to the campus dining hall for dinner. While there were rumors the young men had been drinking alcohol, these were as yet unsubstantiated, but both young men were of legal age in 1979. The elevator stopped midway between the 6th and 7th floor landings. The young men rang the alarm, but no one came to help. One or the other pried the doors open, and Byron tried to slide down to the landing below.


Byron hit his head on the top of the sixth-floor landing and hit his head again on the bottom of the same landing. Between those blows his back arched slightly and he plunged to the bottom of the elevator shaft, approximately ten feet below the first floor.


“I’m estimating (the drop was) about 12 to 15 feet per floor,” Sewell said. “But I’m only guessing. I’d say it was about 80 to 90 feet.”


I trudged up the flights of stairs, escorted by a posse of students, eager to help me, to be a part of the drama. The 7th floor reeked of cigarettes, stale beer and weed. One student opened the door to Byron’s room. I glanced inside. Two coeds sat on his bed, praying. Over the next few minutes I gathered information.


“Is he going to die?” a young woman asked me, her face solemn and tear streaked.


“I don’t know,” I said, but I doubted anyone could have survived the fall. Someone introduced me to the companion, Tim. He was dazed, quiet, his eyes red-rimmed. He asked me for a cigarette. I handed him one. His hands shook so badly I lit the cigarette for him. He gave me his phone number so I could contact him later.


A spokesperson for the elevator company suggested the young men had pressed the switch to stop the elevator between floors and jump out as a prank. Students said the elevators were unreliable, often stopping between floors. I left the dormitory and returned to the newsroom to write the story. I looked for Brad on the way out but didn’t see him. I assumed he found a ride.


We quickly assembled the story, FSU Student Plunges Six Floors Down Shaft of Dormitory Elevator. Officials had been closed-lipped about the extent of Byron’s injuries, but a paramedic, who had not been on the scene, described the victim’s head as “pulverized.” The hospital listed his injuries as “critical, guarded.” His family was expected to arrive in the early morning hours.


Brad and I completed the story just before 9 pm. The printers were delayed while we wrote this front page, above-the-fold account. As I left the newsroom, my editor asked me to go by the hospital to talk with people. I said I would even though I had an exam and a paper due the next morning. I was riding an adrenaline high, fueled by the excitement of the story, lots of caffeine and too many cigarettes. A crash was coming. I needed food and sleep.


I was off work until noon on Sunday but was tasked to follow the story through the weekend to write a follow-up piece. There were two questions I needed to address: would Byron live, and did the elevator malfunction? As I drove to the hospital, I tried to focus on the paper I had to write that night. I couldn’t summon a topic. I could only visualize the young man’s fall through the elevator shaft.


I entered through the emergency room. Byron had been moved to the ICU where doctors monitored his condition. A nurse offered to take me to the ICU waiting room. She said his friend was there. She thought he could use some company.


Tim was alone in the ICU waiting room. He stood when I entered the room.


“This young lady is here to see you,” the nurse said, as she closed the door behind her.


He was in bad shape emotionally and physically. He needed someone to talk to. I had promised myself I’d stay only a few minutes, but as we spoke I realized it wasn’t right to leave him alone. He had no support system. His family lived overseas; he had no friends except for the guy in the ICU. He was frightened, worried, and exhausted. As a reporter, I had always tried to maintain a veneer of professional distance, but that night I was smacked down by the familiar triple-header of loneliness, anxiety, and depression.


Tim and I smoked cigarettes and talked about a range of subjects. We laughed a little. Our moods lightened. I suggested we go to Jerry’s all-night diner for a late dinner. He declined, wanting to be present when Byron’s parents arrived. I picked up sandwiches and fries at a nearby Burger King, but we only picked at the food. I stayed at the hospital for another hour before driving home to my apartment, where I lived alone. I failed a test the next morning, then blew off my other classes. I went home and tried to catch up on some schoolwork but couldn’t focus. Friday nights I usually rode shotgun with Tallahassee police officers to gather crime stories and build sources, but I canceled that as well.


James Byron, 19, suffered massive head injuries during his fall through the elevator shaft. He was declared brain dead, and he was removed from life support. When I went to the newsroom Sunday afternoon my editor insisted I call his parents at their home, to ask if they planned to sue. I argued it was too soon to call them. I wanted to wait a day or two, as if time would make that call any easier. Unyielding, my boss stood in front of me while I stammered through the conversation. I expressed my condolences, then asked the question. His mother was polite but surprised.


“A lawsuit?” she asked. “We haven’t even thought about that. We have to bury our son.”


This call undid any composure I had tried to maintain. Tears streamed down my face. I quickly filed the story and left the newsroom without bothering to check in with my sources, to get the crime stories from the weekend.


That night I dreamed I was trapped in an uncontrolled elevator that rocked from side to side as it lurched toward the bottom of the shaft. I woke up in a panic.


Over the next few weeks, I was unable to function well, burdened by nightmares, in which the elevator accident became the metaphor for my own traumatic assault, an unreported crime I was too afraid to report and too ashamed to discuss with anyone. Shortly before Christmas I took incompletes in my classes and filed my last news story. I needed to heal myself.


Several months later I was typing a paper in the dining room of a house I shared with a classmate and her two cats. Out of the blue, Tim appeared at the door, a friendly face. He thanked me for sitting with him that night in the ICU. It was a lovely gesture made by a kind man.


James Byron’s family eventually filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the elevator company and FSU. Their attorneys interviewed me several times over the next five years, then deposed me just days prior to the birth of my child. I asked the lawyers to convey my apologies to Mrs. Byron for that phone call I’d been forced to make that long ago Sunday afternoon. Eventually a settlement was reached in which both the elevator company and the university assumed responsibility for James Byron’s death. My elevator nightmares continued for years, until one day I realized I no longer needed to be afraid of my assailants or ashamed of what had happened.


I continue to be a reluctant rider of elevators, often opting for stairs. But trauma lingers in my soul. It never really goes away. It’s a lifelong companion.

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