Students trapped in elevators during campus power outage, explosion

Alex Turney/Staff

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Tiffany Cheng, Shelby LeBlanc and Sarah Dadouch had just descended past the sixth floor of Barrows Hall when the lights in the elevator began to flicker.

They had just finished their work on the seventh floor: LeBlanc and Dadouch turned in papers, and Cheng was attending office hours. They hoped the power outage was temporary, passing the dimmed lights off as a technical hiccup. Then, with a groan, the elevator jolted to a halt.

The elevator’s standstill was caused by a widespread power outage that occurred at 4:30 p.m. Monday afternoon. The students were only three of the 20 trapped in elevators across campus.

“My heart started beating really fast,” Cheng said. “I kept thinking that I had to get out, because I couldn’t miss my meetings. I kept thinking, ‘I hope this doesn’t take too long.’ I was definitely really nervous.”

Dadouch called UCPD, which assured the trio that help would eventually come. The girls began to joke about the situation, later talking about their favorite TV shows as Dadouch, a staff member of The Daily Californian, used her phone to check what was going on around campus. Staff members who worked in Barrows stood outside on the landings, shouting to make sure they were OK.

“I was just like, ‘Oh well, I guess this is happening, I’m just going to chill,’ ” LeBlanc said. “I use elevators a lot, so I thought eventually something like this would happen.”

In the elevator next to them, however, a student who had been trapped alone began to panic. They did not realize someone was inside until she began yelling, repeatedly pressing the alarm button in her elevator. Eventually, another staff member in the building noticed and began trying to calm her down. The student, according to LeBlanc and Cheng, eventually relaxed and started blasting music on her phone: Beyonce and Jamie Foxx’s “Blame it on the Alcohol.”

They were eventually freed from the elevator at 6:06 p.m. after being trapped for 89 minutes.

Across campus, another narrative was unfolding.

Sophomore Ciarra Jones and senior Tiarra Pittman were sitting in Evans Hall when the power went out. When they realized what was happening, Jones and Pittman started knocking on elevator doors to see whether anyone was inside.

On the third-floor elevator landing, they found a male student stuck inside the car, suspended between floors. After checking that he was okay, Jones and Pittman went to the second floor to the other elevator and found a female student inside.

“The strangest thing was that people were congregated around the elevator, but nobody knew she was in there because she didn’t make a noise,” Jones said. “She seemed to be panicking, though. We called 911 immediately and reported that she had shortness of breath and panic attacks.”

Firefighters arrived after 45 minutes and took an additional 30 minutes to free the two, Jones and Pittman said. The firefighters coached the trapped students in finding the mechanism of the car that opens the elevator doors. While the female student was able to find it, the male student experienced more difficulty.

Eventually, he managed to pry the doors open with brute strength, Jones and Pittman said. Both students walked away unharmed. It was 6:30 p.m., and they had been stuck for nearly two hours.

Both Jones and Pittman said they thought the rescue was conducted inefficiently due to the delayed response time. However, Acting Deputy Fire Chief Avery Webb said due to the high volume of distress calls during the time, the firefighters had to approach the situation differently — especially because some protocol moves, such as resetting the elevators, were unavailable due to the lack of power. Webb said other UC officials were rescuing the students as well.

“If we have five elevator rescues that are happening all simultaneously, they’re generally going to be first come, first served, unless in one we find out that a person is in some kind of distress,” Webb said.

The eerie quiet that the trapped students experienced was an odd contrast to the rising panic on campus that their phones relayed. Cheng vaguely sensed that something was amiss when she exited the Barrows elevator and hurried home — not long before an explosion shook the campus.

“I just had a bad feeling,” she said. “The fog had rolled in quickly — everything was so morbid and all gray. The campus was buzzing with tension, and I just wanted to get home.”

By 8:41 p.m. Monday evening, the university tweeted that everyone stuck in the elevators had been released.

Staff writer Connor Grubaugh contributed to this report.

Sophie Ho is the lead campus life reporter. Contact her at [email protected].