By Steff Gaulter
What would you do if you got stuck in a lift? It’s not something that has ever happened to me personally, although I have been in some lifts that have been rather ‘rustic’. The one in my sister’s halls of residence at university didn’t have an interior door, so it appeared as though the wall was moving. I was never particularly at ease in that lift.
These days, lifts are generally safer, but that’s not to say they don’t have the occasional mishap. During a storm in Hong Kong last Sunday, the emergency services received 150 calls from people who were trapped. Assuming that not all of those people were in the lift on their own, that’s an awful lot of people who were stranded in small boxes. At least some of those people must have been claustrophobic which would have made the whole experience a bit of an ordeal.
All these lifts in Hong Kong are believed to have ground to a halt at the same time because a storm triggered a split-second voltage dip in the electricity network. Wherever you live in the world, we all have voltage dips and fluctuations in the electricity supply at times. We notice them when the lights flicker or dim for a fraction of a second. If it was simply a case of a flickering light bulb, the change in the electricity would be completely harmless, but in more sensitive electrical equipment it can be more damaging.
In Hong Kong, at the time of the voltage dip there was a storm raging overhead. The winds were gusting up to 55 kilometres per hour (35 miles per hour) and thunder was bellowing throughout the city. It’s estimated that more than 300 lightning strikes hit the city, as more than 30 millimetres of rain poured down onto the streets. One man hiking in the Hong Kong mountains was even struck by lightning. He was taken to hospital and is recovering, although 24 hours later, he said he still couldn’t hear very clearly.
The storms in Hong Kong were part of a huge weather system that affected many parts of southeast China. In the Hunan province, a landslide trapped 46 residents and in Guizhou the hail was reported to be the size of eggs. In a number of locations in southeast China, the winds brought down trees and power lines, and the rain forced the closure of a number of roads and highways.
The storms also damaged a power station in Hong Kong, and this is what is thought to have caused the voltage dip. As lights flickered in parts of the city, the change in power also triggered a safety mechanism in more sensitive electrical equipment. The safety mechanism of a lift brings it to a standstill and this is what happened in Hong Kong.
The vast majority of lifts have progressed beyond the door-less ones such as those at my sister’s university, and are not held in place by a single rope, as certain films would have you believe! They are held in place by a number of cables, each of which is designed to support a fully-loaded lift. If there is any perceived threat, they come to a halt, and it is recommended that if you do get stuck, you should simply wait to be rescued. Lift manufacturers are adamant that the safest place to be is inside the lift, and strongly urge against trying to force your way out of a lift like they do on television.
Although 150 is a large of lifts to stop simultaneously, if it were going to happen anywhere, it was likely to be in Hong Kong! The city is believed to have the largest number of lifts for a city of its size, with more than 60,000 in operation. A rough estimate by the Hong Kong publication, the South China Morning Post, estimated that each resident spends approximately one day per year in a lift, although of course this would be longer if they were stuck in one! Fortunately if the worst does happen, 5,000 people are employed just to repair and maintain the lifts.
As well as having a large number of lifts, the city also has a lot of thunderstorms. On average, the city sees lightning on 50 days in a year, that’s nearly one day per week that thunder echoes through the streets. That’s obviously far more than Qatar, and far more than the UK as well, which usually only sees about five days of lightning per year.
More stormy weather is expected in Hong Kong over the next few days, and this is before the wet season officially starts. The rains normally move onto the coast of Hong Kong in May and head northwards over the coming months. This is when there’s the greatest chance of seeing some lightning, so presumably, the time to avoid lifts.
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