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Most people have their mind’s eye image of an ideal Christmas Day—crisp, cold weather, a fresh blanket of snow covering the ground, a beautiful Christmas tree surrounded by beautifully wrapped gifts, joyous Christmas carols on the stereo, a pleasant afternoon in front of a warm fire in the fireplace, and some amazing smells wafting from the kitchen.

I am an idealist and an incurable romantic so I confess that my Christmas included many of these iconic themes and images, with a couple of exceptions:

  • There was snow but no fireplace
  • My Dallas residence is on the 24th floor of a converted bank building
  • I spent almost 3 hours trapped in an elevator while a Dallas Fire Rescue team gave up part of their holiday to pull me out

My Christmas began early with a cup of hot coffee and my wife and I sharing the morning papers.  Then we moved to the Christmas stockings.  Despite no fireplace or chimney, Santa managed to find us.  After the gifts and a great breakfast of blueberry pancakes, courtesy of our daughter in Los Angeles, and after a couple – ok, the whole bottle – of mimosas, my bride decided it would be a good idea to move her gifts to the car so she could take them to our house in Tyler later in the week. I reluctantly complied.  Discretion is always the better part of valor, especially on Christmas Day.

It was 12:55 PM when I entered the elevator.  As I passed the fifth floor, the elevator jolted to a sudden stop.  I am not exactly sure what I said, but I think it is safe to say it was a combination of very adult words.  Luckily, I had my phone.  I called my wife.  She was, after all, the reason I was in this predicament.  Cleverly, however, I had the good judgment not to remind her of that fact. Next, I called the doorman/security representative on duty.  My wife leaped into action.  I do not know specifically what she said to the poor man but I suspect she elevated his sense of urgency.   

When several attempts at re-setting the elevator’s computers did not work, and using the fire key failed to allow the elevator to “drop” to the lobby, my wife declared she was calling 911.  At this point in the ordeal I will admit that I am so glad they did not use the phrase “drop the elevator” in their communications with me since the possibility of plunging to the basement had been nagging at the back of my mind from the moment the elevator jolted to a halt.

Within minutes, two Dallas fire trucks and a District Chief from Station 4 arrived, sirens wailing, air horns blasting. Thy were professional.  They were efficient. They were reassuring.   And, they, too, were unable to get the fire key function to work.  They later explained that activating the fire key function should have sent the elevator “at a normal speed” to the lobby.  I liked the “normal speed” part of that explanation.  Next, they tried to enter the car through the escape hatch at the top of the car but that, too, proved unsuccessful; renovations to the elevators when the building was converted from a bank to residences and consulting space, made it impossible for firefighters to get into the car without cutting through the roof.  They finally managed to pry open the elevator doors after shutting off power to the car.  While the rush of fresh air was welcome, there were only a couple of inches between the top of the elevator and the 5th floor landing where my rescuers were standing.  I could only see their boots. This might have been the time I suggested having a beaker of medicinal martinis lowered to me, the mimosa glow having long gone.

After an eternity, or maybe two hours, and as the Fire Rescue workers were preparing to “float” the car so they could, hopefully, get more space to pull me through the doors, the elevator repair technician showed up.  He agreed with the plan and headed to the rooftop elevator room.

ElevatorFloating the car is a misnomer.  Bouncing the car would be more accurate.  There was a sudden drop and then the car moved up.  When the elevator doors were again pried open there was now a two-foot space between the top of the elevator door and the floor landing.  Firemen retrieved my boxes and then dropped a ladder into the car. I could smell freedom but I could not just climb up and out because the space was too narrow and there wasn’t enough grease in the building to get me through on my own.  Finally, I moved up, placed my hands on the 5th floor and stepped off the ladder as one of the firemen, who looked as though he had been working out since age six, grabbed my belt and dragged me through the opening.

I lay splayed on the floor. It was not the triumphant escape I had envisioned. 

While my drama was unfolding in Dallas, my daughter and her husband in Westport, CT, heard the whole thing on their computer via the Dallas fire scanner on the Internet.

They were preparing to launch a t-shirt business:  “Free John Now.”

I would love to see Norman Rockwell’s artistic take on how I spent my Christmas Day.

© 2012 John Gregory Self