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Is it a conveyance? A metaphor? Or a hungry machine...

By W Goodwin

Our travel day began at dawn in the Caribbean. Now it’s a dozen hours and a thousand miles later, and I notice the sun is setting outside the downtown Denver transit complex. Lynn and I clamber with our luggage from the airport train. A down-escalator takes us to a tunnel-like hall running beneath tracks and streets. At the far end, an up-escalator leads to the terminal of the commuter train we intend to catch.

We’re both schlepping roller bags filled with mostly diving and photography gear; each bag weighs barely less than the 55-pound limit on international flights. We’re also wearing heavy backpacks. Tired and probably sleep-deprived, we follow the siren-call of home. Most of the travel hassles are behind us and all that remains is the commuter train to our local station and a short drive home. Or so we think…

In the subterranean chambers of the transit complex, we’re surrounded by travelers hurrying, buses idling, transit police watching, janitors mopping… and in front of us, a moving staircase rising toward the surface. We arrive at the foot of the escalator and I signal Lynn to go ahead. She steps onto the grooved surface and pulls her roller bag onto the following step. Just behind her, I do the same. The angle of the steps steepens to 30 degrees and the extended handle on my bag moves down to knee level. In the second it takes my arm and shoulder to adjust to the lowering handle, it happens.

***

Using my best investigatory mode (Google), I’ve learned a lot about escalators since that twilight hour at the Denver Transit Complex. For example, more than 33,000 escalators operate in the United States alone, moving around 90 billion people a year. All that machinery conveying so many people — what could go wrong? When I combed through data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the West Journal of Emergency Medicine, and the vehicle and product safety reporting company Safety Research and Strategies, my eyebrows went up at what I discovered. The first thing I noticed was the domination of ads from litigious lawyers specializing in escalator-caused trauma. In the United States, accidents associated with escalators result in between 10,000 and 15,000 emergency room visits every year. Furthermore, escalators account for 15 times as many accidents as elevators though there are far more elevators. Some of those accidents are serious: a study in Switzerland found one percent of all emergency admissions were escalator accidents and one of every 60 of those resulted in death.

I’ve also examined the grooves on the outer edge of an escalator step where it meshes with the adjacent one. The grooves terminate in a set of… well, what are those things? Parallel knife points? Steel shark’s teeth? Wolverine’s prolapsible talons? Those claw-like edges ascend or descend through a narrow alley between two waist-high sidewalls, the width of which is not the same on all escalators. In the Denver Transit Complex, that width is the standard 24 inches (about 60 cm). Under certain circumstances, that can be a problem.

How does an escalator hurt a human? The literature points to two primary ways: entrapping clothing or skin, or falling down the moving stairs or over the side. Entrapments sound wretchedly grim, especially given they often involve a child, so they get the high-profile treatment, but falls account for 75% of escalator accidents. Public health experts speculate intoxication is involved half the time. Age is a factor too; escalator injury rates for older adults more than doubled between 1991 and 2005. Perhaps young children, weak or slow elders, and inebriated folks should stay the hell off escalators… requiring a new class of mall guards? But this is not funny.

***

We were returning from a multi-week scuba diving trip. I’m not a child, disabled or feeble, nor am I drunk, buzzed or even hung-over, but as I said, I was tired and a bit sleep-deprived. Thinking about it now and replaying each incremental advance towards disaster, it seems what happened next could have been prevented at several points as it unfolded. Most obviously, we should have taken the elevator instead of the escalator. But we didn’t…

One moment, my right hand is holding the moving handrail and my left hand is gripping the handle of the roller bag. The next moment, my one-handed grip on the rail is slipping as my backpack tugs me downwards. In another second, my center of gravity is over my luggage and my feet are leaving the grooved step. I try as hard as I can, but the geometry of my one-handed grip on the handrail prevents me from pulling myself back upright. Those unstoppable, fang-edged stairs keep coming and they’re pressing my big roller bag with irresistible force against the back of my thighs. In slow motion my bag tackles me from behind and before I know it, my head is lower than my feet and my body is splayed over my luggage. Though I’m still trying to hold onto the rail with one hand, that roller bag begins sliding back down the steep incline and taking me with it. The sharp edges of the ascending steps are inches from my head and getting closer as I slip downwards. I feel the metal points rake my free hand and arm, and then parts of my head and neck. I try desperately — Are we always only seconds from desperation? — to fold my body in some manner that will get my feet beneath me, but to no avail. The 24-inch width is too narrow. I’m running out of options for stopping what is fast becoming a nightmare…

At some point I reflexively call out to Lynn, but there’s nothing she can do to help me. The distance between us is growing at the pace of the escalator’s ascending stairs. Lynn is blocked by her own luggage from helping me and I hear her panic-tinged voice calling my name. Later, she’ll tell me how helpless she felt watching me fading away down that narrow space.

In seconds I’ve somehow gone from standing upright to inverted and sprawled on my back. I keep trying to get my left hand up to the handrail, but that’s not happening. For the life of me I can’t fathom why I’m having so much trouble regaining my footing. I’m on my back on top of the roller bag, my head lower than my feet, and sliding downward in lurches. My mind segues from the “Is this really happening?” denial phase into confusion. Am I bleeding?

At this point, the main problem is the gravity of my confinement — the physics of the narrow space between the side walls, the ceaseless advance of the fang-edged steps, and the luggage beneath me are thwarting my every effort to get back upright. Nothing short of a back somersault would have worked to get my feet onto those steps. In retrospect, even had I thought of such a radical maneuver in the moments the escalator’s teeth were attacking my flesh, my heavy backpack probably would have prevented anything akin to a somersault.

I’m still sliding down and getting closer to the bottom of the escalator. Lynn sees this and when she reaches the top, she leaves her luggage and races back down the other escalator to help me. I begin to hear voices close to me. As blood runs across one of my eyes, I feel hands trying to lift me, but the jagged stairs keep coming, foiling the efforts of my would-be rescuers to get me off the escalator or at least onto my feet. Then I hear a strident voice asking, “Is there an emergency stop?”

Someone finds the red button and punches it. The escalator halts and I feel the strong hands of several strangers on me, helping me up, pulling off my backpack. I’m finally standing again. Lynn and several other people hold my arms and guide me through the surging crowd to a bench. One couple, a doctor and his assistant as it turns out, are particularly concerned and helpful. The doctor begins checking me for serious injury or concussion. A minute later two transit police arrive. They call for an ambulance which must have been close because the EMTs are here in minutes. Other strangers fetch both Lynn’s and my luggage and gather it all by the bench and ask if they have missed anything. People who have paused in their travels to aid and encourage me exhibit amazing kindness, and the police and EMTs treat me with practiced skill and compassion.

Judging by the shocked and concerned faces around me, I must look pretty messed up. Lynn looks super-worried. My face and neck are bloodied, my left hand is bleeding, and blood is soaking through my left sleeve. I’m stunned but at least I’m not concussed, and I begin to think my injuries might not be too bad. I take a chance and, with Lynn’s concurrence, I decline the ambulance. The transit police escort us through the rush-hour crowds to the taxi stand and we take a cab to our car parked at the commuter train station near home. Lynn drives us to a local emergency facility where an ER physician cleans my lacerations and applies a handful of stitches. Before I know it I’m sitting stiffly next to Lynn as she drives us home.

What have I concluded from this frightening experience?

· The competence of every one of the EMT and transit police we met was superlative.

· The kindness of strangers is a universal antidote to the tone of the news today and a source of hopefulness for the future of humanity.

· I abhor causing so much anxiety in a person who loves me.

· Escalators have emergency stop buttons at the top and bottom. Apparently almost no one knows this.

· I must take an elevator instead of an escalator when I’m tired and loaded with luggage.

· I will remember my gratitude when I see a stranger in need.

###

Bound to the ocean and reflecting mixed genetics, I am compelled to write about the sea while living in Colorado.

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