BRIAN LaFond felt butterflies in his stomach as he stepped onto the crowded escalator on the first morning of his new job.
But half-way up, the 23-year-old’s excitement turned to terror – as the escalator suddenly changed direction and sped backwards, hurling screaming commuters off their feet.
Fearing for his life, Brian threw himself over the side – desperately clinging on to the railing between the escalator and the one next to it, as the machine reversed “faster and faster”.
He looked down in horror to see a crush of bodies lying at the bottom.
The terrifying ordeal features in a new Channel 5 documentary, Eaten By An Escalator, which tracks down survivors of some of the world’s most shocking – and deadliest – escalator accidents.
Ninety billion escalator journeys take place every year. But as the machines cause human pile-ups and even choke commuters to death, just how safe are they?
“It went faster and faster – people panicked”
In Brian’s case, the escalator malfunction at a train station in New Jersey, US, in January 2013 was apparently caused by saltwater flooding from notorious Hurricane Sandy, which damaged the machine.
“I got maybe a little bit half-way up this escalator when all of a sudden it just stopped going up but then it immediately started going back,” Brian recalls in the documentary.
“It started to go back faster and faster and accelerate and people started to panic… I decided to jump off the escalator and cling on to the gap between that escalator and the one next to it.”
Incredibly, only five people were injured in the incident – none seriously.
“It worked out as actually a pretty cool ice-breaker story for my new co-workers,” adds Brian.
Shopping centre horror injures 18
But there were far more victims when a similar disaster happened four years later.
This time, at least 18 were injured – one, seriously – after one of Hong Kong’s biggest escalators suddenly stopped and went into “freefall” ,moving in the opposite direction at a shopping centre.
Heart-stopping CCTV footage shows people losing their balance and screaming in fear after the crammed 148-foot escalator unexpectedly reversed, causing a human pile-up.
Expert Mark Fairweather, the director of a UK vertical transport consultancy, believes the tragedy could have stemmed from the escalator’s main chain – which ‘drives’ the steps around.
A “catastrophic failure” sparking tragedy
“Potentially it could have been the main chain snapping, therefore it lost all the traction and the escalator would have gone into a freefall mode with the weight of the people on the escalator,” Mark says, although the reason for the suspected ‘snap’ is unclear.
He adds that in cases like this, the emergency brake is supposed to kick in.
“So what’s happened, I think, in these scenarios is there’s been a catastrophic failure in a component and then secondly, the brake hasn’t engaged,” he tells producers.
Bodies “stacking up” at the bottom
Couple John and Lesley know first-hand how horrifying a brake failure can be – they were among the victims of an escalator ‘crush’ at a Washington DC subway station in 2010.
A rally had taken place that day so L’Enfant Station was particularly crowded, with Lesley recalling: “The escalators were full to capacity, like you couldn’t fit another person on there.”
The couple eventually made it on to an escalator, but around half-way down it they heard a strange metallic “click. Suddenly, the machine started zooming forward like a rollercoaster.
“It just kept getting faster and faster,” John says.
“You could see people stacking up at the bottom.”
While John was thrown off the side of the escalator, his wife was left trapped under bodies.
Today, Lesley counts herself lucky to have survived the accident, which the Washington Metro said resulted from brake failure due to the weight and number of people on the escalator.
Choked to death by trapped clothing
However, another commuter wasn’t so lucky.
A hooded reveller, who isn’t named in the documentary, was heading home after a night drinking when he lost his balance on an escalator and collapsed on to his back.
As he fell, the drawstring of his hoodie got trapped in the machine’s moving steps. Unable to move, the man ended up being strangled to death over a matter of minutes.
By the time anyone else realised what was happening, it was too late.
Dr Jenifer Baxter, head of engineering at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, says it can be difficult for escalator sensors to detect “very small items” like drawstrings and shoelaces.
Curious kids and broken body parts
And brakes and sensors aren’t the only safety features designed to prevent escalator accidents.
Escalators also have visible signs warning of potential dangers, yellow marks on their steps and comb plates, which are meant to help passengers get on and off the machines without harm.
And they have brush guards to keep people away from the gaps at the sides of the escalator.
But these features aren’t completely foolproof – as curious children have found out after sticking their hands and feet inside gaps in escalators… with stomach-churning consequences.
In China’s southern Guangdong Province, a little boy broke three of his toes and had to be rescued by paramedics after shoving his foot into an escalator’s bristled skirts.
And in the same country, another child got his hand stuck in a gap after apparently accidentally inserting his fingers into it while travelling on an escalator with his mother.
The machine was turned off just in time by a quick-thinking stranger as the trapped youngster and his panicked mum reached the bottom. The boy incredibly escaped with just cuts and bruises.
But one man in Istanbul, Turkey, had his entire body swallowed when crowds apparently began to use the escalator without realising it was under maintenance.
Commuters were using walking down it like a staircase as it wasn’t moving but suddenly it sprung into life and an enormous hole opened up between its steps.
In what could be scenes from a horror movie, the man was filmed desperately grabbing the handrail to stop him falling down the hole, before the mechanism sucked him inside it.
Escalators have “enough power to lift small cars”
He disappeared from view as the stairs closed over him.
Steve Normington, escalator product manager at KONE plc, says: “In the unfortunate event that somebody actually passes through a gap in the steps, the escalator has got enough power to lift a small car, so that’s not a place you want to be.
“It’s a very hostile environment and there’s going to be no winners.”
But remarkably, in this incident, the man was freed an hour later with only minor injuries.
He is sucked inside the powerful mechanism[/caption]
And it’s not just vertical escalators that can be horror scenes.
In North-West China, a young girl got her leg stuck in a moving walkway – a travelator, typically seen in airports – after stepping on to it with her pal.
Bystanders “frozen by adrenaline”
While one bystander ran to help her, others seemed to “freeze”.
Psychologist Emma Kenny explains: “Bystander intervention means that if there are lots of people everybody just kind of hopes that the person next to them will resolve the situation.
“But also the chemical side – the adrenaline – can literally freeze you.”
In this instance, experts believe one of the walkway’s pallets was either missing or suddenly broke. Fortunately, the girl was eventually pulled out with no serious injuries.
In ski resorts, chair lifts are known as “escalators in the sky” – because they use a similar conveyor-belt system to pull the steps around. And like escalators, they can also malfunction.
Last year, an “out-of-control” ski lift in Georgia, US, sent skiers and snowboarders flying through the air after it suddenly started going backwards – for reasons that remain unknown.
Snowboarder Edward Carroll recalls how the machine initially moved back “slowly” towards the ski station – then “started picking up speed”.
He adds: “And that was kind of when it all kicked off.”
While some tourists jumped down into the snow before they reached the station, others were violently flung off their chair or left stuck beneath a pile of crashed chairs.
But although some victims had to be airlifted to hospital, no-one died.
Unsupervised kids and stupid pranks
Experts predict the risk of having an escalator accident is around one in 13 million – but this dramatically increases in cases of bad parenting and acts of stupidity.
At a Shanghai shopping centre, a cleaner’s leg plunged into a “void” in an escalator after he placed a cleaning mat at the top of the moving machine and stepped on to it.
Unsurprisingly, the mat collided with the oncoming steps, opening up the gap. The bungling cleaner, who had to be freed by metal jaws, was later forced to have his leg amputated.
And also in China, an unsupervised nine-month-old in a baby walker ended up tumbling down an escalator after her parents failed to realise she’d wandered away from them.
She was saved by a passerby and luckily escaped with light injuries.
Brit struck between legs in escalator ‘dare’
But British supermarket worker Freddie Andrews, 22, was old enough to know what he was doing when he decided to slide down the metal chute between two escalators in London.
The darts fan had been drinking beer before he performed the agonising dare at London Bridge station, which has one of the longest escalators on the underground system.
“I’m known for doing silly stuff,” Freddie admits in the documentary.
“I was drunk, wasn’t thinking straight, I was in a jokey mood.”
He adds: “The sober me would be like no way, the drunk me was – sounds like a lot of fun.”
Within moments of sliding down the chute, Freddie was struck hard between the legs by an emergency stop button. He then flew forward and flipped “like a diver” on to the next escalator.
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The young man, who landed head-first at the feet of another shocked commuter and suffered a knee injury, has since said he regrets the December 2017 incident.
Today, as cities across the world expand and more high-rise buildings are built, we are becoming increasingly reliant on escalators – which will probably mean more mishaps.
- Eaten By An Escalator airs tonight (Monday, August 12) on Channel 5 at 10pm