How I got stranded in a stairwell

Recently, in a team-building activity, we played some ice-breakers. One such game asked the question – what would be the one thing that we would want to have with us when stranded on a deserted island. People came up with lots of important things needed for survival like a lighter to ignite the fire, a satellite phone to connect, a flare gun to attract attention, food and water for survival etc. Some people noted down some funny things too like an AK47 to kill birds for survival or attract attention, a helicopter to fly away to the mainland, a Champions League trophy so that once it is noted as missing, people will hunt it down thereby rescuing us etc. It was great fun discussing all this. However, this brought back memories for when I was stuck in the stairwell of a skyscraper. The emotions that I went through during the time I was stuck are totally raw and still intimidating. 

Around the same time ten years back when I worked for an international bank in their tall headquarter building, I decided to use the stairwell instead of lifts trying to do my bit towards staying fit. However, what I had forgotten to carry with me was my access card needed to get inside the floors from the staircases. I, unfortunately, did not even manage to carry any phone or any other belonging with me. I was relatively new and even though I had a building tour, I had failed to retain that entry to the working floors through the staircase requires the access card.

At first, I did not feel any horror of being stuck as I thought to myself that surely there will be other floors in this building which won’t require access cards. I went up and down some floors but was disappointed to see that I could not open any of the doors without an access card. The attention then went to the red emergency phones hanging on the wall beside the door. I told to myself how I could simply use them to call somebody who will immediately send somebody to rescue me. I tried the phones on each of the floors I went to, but nobody answered. I told to myself, “How ridiculous!” Are all these people in the facilities department just getting paid for absolutely doing no work? What are these emergency phones for if they don’t get picked up anyways? Anger had gradually taken over the calmness. There were still more options to explore, so I decided to keep the anger aside and instead focus on figuring out my next move. All this time I was on the upper floors of the building, the floor I used the staircase was the 26th floor and I had already by now gone up to the highest floor and came down to the around the 20th floors. I reasoned to myself that probably not many people would be stupid like me and use the stairwell at higher floors. So maybe the hope of standing there waiting for somebody to open the door to use the stairwell was never going to materialise. This is when the light bulb moment struck me and I decided to walk down to the ground floor expecting more rampant traffic coming in giving higher hopes of being rescued.

As I walked down the stairs of the tall building, I felt the dizziness from the circling downstairs. The calf muscles felt tight and I realised for the first time that climbing downstairs can be as difficult as climbing up when done incessantly. I took breaks to make phone calls from those useless red phones, but still no response. I put my face closer to the door and screamed my lungs out hoping somebody on the other side would hear. However, considering I was not able to hear any buzz from the other side, I was sure my voice was not penetrating those thick fire-resistant doors either.

As I was walking down, panic had started to set in. It was a time of the day when not much activity happens as people are mostly busy working or in meetings – around 3 or 4 in the afternoon. I scrambled through my brain to think if I had any more scheduled meetings, other than the one which I had already missed during being stuck in there. Alas, there were none. For the first time, I was disappointed for not having my calendar fully booked with meetings because if it had been so, surely my team would have noticed a person was missing and tried to reach out to find me. Although I wondered how they would have found me out anyway.

I noticed how there were no CCTV cameras, and even if there were which I was not able to recognise, clearly nobody was keeping a tap on them like those red phones going unattended. 

Amidst all these thoughts, however, still, with hope, I reached the ground floor of the building. To my utter dismay, even the ground floor needed an access card. How annoying! Who the hell has designed this stupid building? How clever is it to make all the floors have secure access? At this point, I just could not believe what was happening with me. Should I accept that there was no way out and I was just stuck there until the end of the day? Maybe somebody from the first floor would use the stairs at the close of business to exit from the ground floor. But the end of the day felt so far away as every moment felt longer than it should. I was not wearing a watch either, so I had nothing to verify my feeling that the wheel of time had got stuck. Every moment felt like an eternity.

It was now the time when I had run out of all options. My lungs had given up and my voice had cracked. Crying would have been the natural manifestation of emotions I was going through at that time, however, I did not cry. Maybe because the uncertain length of my stay there was finally dawning on me and I wanted to preserve my water levels in the body. Needless to say, I had no access to food or water. The only visible items other than the usual red phone were a red box which contained the fire extinguisher and a red box with thick glass and a lock containing the hammer. I wondered how in movies they smash the glass with one punch and take the hammer out or use the fire extinguisher to smash the glass for the hammer. I gave a meek try but had no such power. I wondered if the fire extinguisher even actually worked or is just an empty bottle to tick the box like the red phones and those hidden cameras. In those thoughts of desperation, I thought I needed the hammer so that I could hammer the doors down to create a hole, although that would have also needed heroic strength to penetrate through.

Exhausted from exploring all the options, I gave up. I sat down on the stairs. The loneliness at that time was the most fearful experience to go through. My life suddenly felt so worthless as I realised that I could just end up dying there to be only discovered during the next fire drill? I realised how nothing in life mattered too much as all that matters could just disappear suddenly without any notice. I realised how incredibly precious life was and yet so fragile. I realised how time is the most powerful of all and we cannot control our lives as we can’t control time.

Coming back to the ice-breaker exercise, therefore, all I could think of that I needed to survive if stuck somewhere is a hammer. I may not have been successful in using it, however, that was the only option that I could not try.

PS: In the staircase that day, after sitting and waiting for what felt like an eternity, there finally was a man who opened the ground floor door to climb upstairs. I was jubilant and I thanked him “for being my saviour”. He did not have any clue to what I said meant, however, he smiled nevertheless and went his way. I quickly ran out of those doors only to tell myself never to enter them again!    

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