The Elevator Game

The Story of Two Brothers at University

Henry Lansing Woodward

© Copyright 2023 by Henry Lansing Woodward

Photo by Jason Dent on Unsplash
Photo by Jason Dent on Unsplash 

It was a little past midnight when the alarm went off.  The call was at Juniper Hall on the campus of the University of Nevada in Reno.  We responded CODE THREE lights and sirens, and because we were close to the University, we arrived at the scene about four minutes after receiving the dispatch.

As my partner and I approached the dorm's front door, we could see a large crowd gathered.  It was so large it had spilled off the sidewalk and continued into the street, and it was silent.  Not a sound.  Usually, people wanting to be helpful are volunteering information like, “He’s in the lobby,” and other such comments.  This time on that Reno night, amid all those people, there was nothing, and it was very strange.

As we entered the building, we came directly into the dorm lobby.  Here there was a smaller group of people.  This time, it was limited only to Firefighters and Police Officers.  They were standing in front of the elevator, and they, too, were silent.  Again, very strange indeed.

The door to the elevator box was open, and it had stopped short of the lobby floor by about a foot and a half.  There was also a liquid dripping from somewhere above the elevator onto the lobby floor, and I looked up to see where it was dripping.

As I did, at the upper left corner of the box, I came face to face with some “thing” staring down at me that did not appear to be human.  The liquid was oozing out of the “thing’s” skin as if it was sweating and then collecting at the point of what appeared to be a chin.  From there, it was dripping onto the floor.

The “thing” I saw staring down at me was a human head.  At first, I only knew this because the Firefighters and Police Officers had told me.  It was “facing” forward with the “chin” downward, was perfectly round, and about twice as large as a basketball.

There wasn’t a neck visible, and really, there wasn’t a chin.  Or a face.  Or a nose, or ears, or a mouth, or eyebrows, or eye sockets, or cheekbones, or a forehead, or anything else that normally provides depth and texture to a human face.  Everything, every recognizable facial feature, had been stretched smooth.  I guess they were there, but they appeared to have been drawn or painted onto the surface of one very large, perfectly round balloon which was inflated way beyond its normal capacity.   It was so swollen, it looked like it was going to explode any minute.  I didn’t know why it already hadn’t.   And then there were the colors.

Forget the normal healthy pink skin of a Caucasian.  There was nothing of that, nothing at all.  The colors I saw were mostly black-purple and maroon, so dark it too looked black.  Some pale, yellow areas were spread through and blended into and under all the dark colors.  This appeared to be fat tissue from beneath the skin that had been forced onto the surface and had mixed in with the dark colors.   Dark red patches of various thicknesses were also on the surface.  These probably were from the blood that also had been forced through the skin and was now clotted.  It was very difficult to look at, and it wasn’t only because of those horrible colors.

 Also, on the surface were two flat circles that looked like eyes, except there were no corners or eye shapes.  Between them were two holes that used to be part of the nose but the nose that should have been between the eyes, if they were eyes, wasn’t there.  The circles and the two holes between them looked like someone had painted them onto the flat, round surface.

These circles were at least twice the size of a normal eye, and inside each were two more circles.  First, there was a white one, the sclera of the eye.  Inside that, there was a green one, the iris, and inside that was a huge black, round one, the grossly dilated pupil of the eye.  It was like looking into the black hole of terror.  They made me shudder as I looked up at them, looking down at me.

I knew those eye circles were just staring down into space, but it seemed they were staring directly at me, and the terror I saw in them was not to be believed.  They were frozen in time, screaming in amazed shock, incredible pain, and stark horror.  Even today, over thirty-five years later, I can’t stop seeing them.  I would say they were the worst things I had ever seen,  those eyes and the burned human flesh in the Vietnam war.  I can still see everything as plainly as I saw it on that night in Reno.

At first, I thought perhaps it wasn’t a human head.  Hopefully, all these people gathered in the lobby were wrong in their collective assessments.  Perhaps it was one of those mythical creatures called a gargoyle that was placed on ancient buildings to ward off various evil spirits.  Perhaps some mischievous college student had put it there, at the corner of the elevator box, as a joke.  But this was no joke, and this dispatch turned out to be the worst ambulance call I had ever experienced, before or after, in my entire tenure as a Paramedic. 

It was a game they played, the student residents of Juniper Hall.  Only on this occasion it had suddenly stopped being a game and turned deadly.  There was no getting around it.  There really was a college student up there jammed between the corner of the elevator box and the wall of the elevator shaft, and all of us gathered in the lobby, the Firefighters, the Police Officers, my partner, and I had to deal with it.

As the box corner began squashing him against the shaft wall, the student must have suffered from the conscious, terrified, horrified, and painful disbelief of knowing what was happening until the end slowly arrived.  This is the story of how it came to be.

Two brothers had been playing The Elevator Game.   It was easy to do.  All they needed was a chair and an elevator.  After placing the chair in the elevator box just below the ceiling hatch, the older brother used it to climb up to open it.  Then he climbed through it onto the roof and pulled the chair up after him.

With his freshman brother at the controls, it must have been a fun ride sitting in that chair or standing on the box roof while the elevator rose or descended within the metal framing of its tracking matrix.  Up and down he rode, up and down until, of course, that wasn’t enough.  That’s when they added the “Ride, jump off, jump on and ride” extra component of the game.

Juniper Hall had four floors.  The Freshman brother was inside the box at the controls of the elevator.  He began The Elevator Game by pressing the fourth-floor button.  Once pressed, the elevator rose from the ground floor to the fourth floor without stopping.  That was how the elevator was programmed.  

As the elevator began to move up, the older brother readied himself to jump off the top onto and into the metal matrix in which the box was tracking.  He had to jump quickly and a little upward.  Doing this would allow him enough time to embed himself within the metal matrix.  It was necessary to do this so the box could continue its excursion upward without hitting him after his jump.  

The third floor was the jumping floor.  It provided the proper time for a fun ride back on top of the box down to the ground floor.  As The Elevator Game was happening, both the students were lost in unthinking enjoyment.  So they could hear themselves talk and laugh, they left the ceiling hatch open.           

It was a fun Friday night for two brothers enjoying time away from home at university.  The college years were supposed to be like this.  Some of the best years of our lives.  What could happen?  After the older brother made his jump off the roof, the box continued rising to the fourth floor and stopped.  He then yelled, “I’m ready.  Send it.”  Thus began the tragic events.  When the top of the box was in the correct position on the third floor, the older brother jumped.

During the week just ending, the elevator chains, wheels, and pulleys had been serviced, leaving behind a small pool of oil.  It was right where the older brother had landed after his jump.  Upon contact with the oil, he continued forward, sliding right off the roof and down into the space between the wall of the shaft and the corner of the elevator box.

As he slid, he must have been on his back and tried to turn to his left, probably to grab onto something to stop himself.  Because of this, when he slid down into the shaft, he was still partially turned at the waist with his back toward the shaft wall and his front toward the corner of the elevator box.  This turn to the left allowed the point of the corner of the box to push directly into his upper abdomen.

It was in the spot where the ribs come together at the upside-down “V” formation.   The corner point pressed deeper and deeper into him as the box continued its descent. While this happened,  he was screaming ever louder, “Stop it, stop the elevator!  Oh God, stop it, stop it!”

Inside the elevator, the freshman brother could hear everything and was in total shock and fear.  He had heard his brother land on the top of the box and slide across it.  Then he had heard the screaming and the noise of his brother’s feet kicking the outside of the box wall right next to his ear as he stood at the button panel.  He knew what was happening to his brother.

His brother’s cries and kicks became less frequent and softer and softer and softer until there was silence.  He tried, again and again, to stop the elevator, hitting every button over and over and over, again and again, in a vain effort to stop it.  Every button, that is, except one.

Because he had pressed the first-floor button, there was no way to stop the elevator's descent.  It was designed to continue without stopping until it completed the initial command.  In his total disorientation caused by the terror and fear of the moment, he had pressed every button on the control panel except for one.

It was the one button that, had it been pressed, would have immediately stopped the process.  That button was the bright red emergency stop button in plain sight on the panel next to all the other buttons.  But he had not.  Because of that, his brother was slowly squashed to death as the elevator box descended. 

While I was getting this report from the Firefighters and Police Officers, we all were still standing in the lobby in front of the open doors of the elevator with those huge, round-eye circles staring down at me.  The liquid was still dripping from the chin onto the lobby floor.  The freshman brother was there with us and kept saying over and over, again and again, “I killed my brother, I killed my brother, I killed my brother.”

I walked up to him and, placing one of my hands on each shoulder,  I looked him straight in the eyes and said, “No, you did not.  An accident killed your brother, not you.”  He stopped saying it, but I doubted he had accepted what I said.

His eyes were empty.  No light.  No glistening.  No blinking.  No tears.  No movement at all.  If our eyes are the windows to our soul, his windows were closed, and at that moment, I feared they would never re-open.  He was just gone.  On that night in Reno, Nevada, the family of those two brothers lost two sons.  What a horrible night for that family.

I had to climb onto the top of the elevator box to ensure death had occurred.  It was already obvious, but it had to be done to make it official, and because I was the senior medical person at the scene, the task fell to me.

The setting was surreal.  On the box top was the chair knocked over onto its side.  Next to it was the pool of oil with a straight-line smear leading directly to the edge of the box where the older brother was still in place, squashed between it and the wall.  He really was there.  It wasn’t a nightmare, and yet, it was.  

In the dark elevator shaft, the smells of that oil, and the ozone smell of the electric equipment, were hanging thick in the air.  There was also the sick-sweet smell of old blood mixed with alcohol.  That odor always reminded me of pancake syrup.  I had smelled it too many times at countless auto crash scenes.

I walked over to where the student was jammed between the shaft wall and the corner of the box, being careful not to step in the oil, and looked down at the top and back of his head and then on down passed it.  His upper body was still turned to the left, toward the corner of the box, toward me, but his head and face were turned to the right a little, toward the shaft wall, and were tilted downward.

That is why we could see those horrible eye circles while I was standing in the lobby looking up at the corner of the box.  After he had slipped on the oil and was sliding on his back, he must have twisted around to the left to find a handhold.  After not finding it, he must have turned his head back to the right a little to look down at what was happening to him.  It was in this position that I found him.

It had only taken two or three seconds for him to slide to the edge of the box.  Then, it only took the time needed for the elevator to descend from the third floor to the lobby for the corner of the box to become embedded deeply into him.  But, that had been enough time for him to turn his head back to the right and down to see and know what was happening to him, as it was happening to him.  As I was standing over him in the darkness and smells of that elevator shaft, I could see this boy had been the victim of a cruel, short but drawn-out death process. 

As the box corner squeezed into his body, the pressure it caused inside him increased and increased.  As a result, the contents of his upper abdomen and the chest cavity were displaced upward, passing through the neck like a tunnel to the floor of the skull.  In that skull floor is a round hole through which the spinal cord passes as it descends from the brain.  This hole is about an inch wide and about two inches around.

That meant all his organs, including the lungs and heart, the pancreas, the gallbladder, the liver, the spleen, the kidneys, the aorta, and the other arteries and veins and other tissues, including a lot of blood, had been pushed up through the neck tunnel and then through this small hole into the brain cavity.

The pressure probably liquefied all these tissues before passing through that small hole in the bottom of the skull.  There was no other way for them to enter the brain cavity where there was still a brain.  As they entered, the skull had to expand to about two and a half times its normal size to allow for all that incoming tissue.

This process could not have been an easy physical process.  The pressure needed to liquefy and squeeze all those tissues through that small hole must have been incredible, and in the beginning,  when still awake, so must have been the pain.

After climbing from the top of the elevator box, I approached the freshman brother.  As I did, he turned and walked toward me without saying a word, not one word.  Then, the two of us walked to the ambulance.  He was limp and mute and seemingly in total shutdown.  As we walked, I thought he was going into a catatonic state caused by acute and severe PTSD.

As we approached the right-side double doors of the van ambulance, and in total silence, without any urging or assistance from me, he stepped into it.   Automatically he laid down on the gurney on his back and just stared blankly upward toward the ceiling without blinking or moving his eyes.

I had to reach under him to unbuckle the two gurney safety belts, and he didn’t move an inch.  Not one inch.  I needed to unfasten them to re-fasten them over him to secure him to the gurney. Then, I closed the double doors and sat on the bench seat that ran along the right side of the patient compartment.  I was as near to his head as I could get.

As my EMT partner began to drive us to the hospital, all I did was join him in his silence.  I didn’t even take any vital signs.  I didn’t want to intrude.  I let him lie there, staring blankly at the ceiling.

The patient compartment in this van-type ambulance is contiguous with the driver's compartment and the two front seats.  There is no wall separating it and the front two bucket seats from the patient compartment.  As I sat near the freshman’s head on the right-side bench seat, I was directly behind the right front passenger seat and had an unobstructed view directly out through the windshield.  The two windows of the side double doors were to my right. 

About two or three minutes into the transport, I catch a glimpse through those two windows of a large, white-panel delivery truck at full speed coming directly at me and those double doors.  There was no way it would not tee-bone the ambulance.  It simply could not miss hitting us.

I threw myself over the patient to cover him on the gurney.  As I did, I looked out through the windshield, and there, in plain sight, was a red traffic light pointing right at us.  We were driving through a red light without any change of speed.  Then, bang!  The truck hit us with a glancing impact.  The driver had managed to turn just enough to avoid hitting us full-on. 

As I was lying on top of him, I could feel he didn’t move an inch when the truck hit us.  Not one bit.  There was no response at all.  No surprise, no startle reflex, no flinch, no change in expression, and not one sound.  He maintained the same silent demeanor throughout the entire event.

Both vehicles stopped, and the EMT got out and handled everything while I remained with the freshman.  After agreeing to meet the truck driver at the ER to handle the business of the accident, my EMT partner continued the transport.  As we drove away, I leaned forward and, from behind him, gently asked, “What happened?”  He turned his head to look right at me.  His face was tense and stressed as he said, “All I could see were those eyes.  Just those eyes.”  I knew what he meant.  

In the ER, I gave the report and released the patient into the care of the ER staff.  He was unchanged from the time we had left Juniper Hall.  I realized my partner had also been injured in this case and took him off duty.  Then I wrote a medical report about what had happened and had him admitted.   I listed a provisional diagnosis of acute PTSD with hallucinations.  Then, I took our ambulance out of service until they could find a replacement EMT.  I now wish someone would have written one for me.  In about an hour, I had a new EMT partner.

I should have walked away that night in Reno, Nevada.  I should have admitted myself as a patient.  I should have applied for Social Security Disability for PTSD myself.  I should have parked the ambulance and quit, and walked away.  But like on so many prior occasions, I did none of those. 

A few years before coming to Reno, my partner and I in Hawaii had a call that was also very tragic, as so many were.  After it was over, I asked my senior Paramedic partner, “How are we supposed to handle this stuff?”  He was driving, turned toward me, and said, “We just eat our lunch and get ready for the next one.”

I don’t think I ever got ready for a “next one” like this.

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