The lift's not going to the top floor

Elevator-surfing has gripped New York, but now it's heading for Britain. Jason Thompson reports

Share
Related Topics
These days, you don't need a beach to go "surfing". The word has conferred its Beach Boys glamour upon decidedly unglamorous activities. The coinage "surfing the Internet", for example, has created a generation of surfers whose uniform is not wetsuits, but anoraks: the kings of the cyberwaves.

There are also other kinds of surfing which don't demand a blond coiffe and a board. Many of these, however, risk wipe-outs slightly more painful than a debit on one's CompuServe account. In Japan, for example, young men ride on top of bullet trains, a deadly pursuit known as "train-surfing".

And now, in New York, an alarming number of teenagers are breaking into lift-shafts in order to ride on top of lifts.

Five years ago, Tony Rodrigues (right, featured in Sunday's Equinox: "High Anxiety"), now 22, suffered terrible injuries when he was crushed by a lift in a public housing block on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Elevator-surfing is rife in New York's Black and Latino ghettos, where elevation is rarely of the social or financial kind. Surfers gain access to the lift shaft by outwitting the door-entry system, or through the motor room at the top of the building. Some ride on top, others underneath; Rodrigues practised a form of surfing known as "Donkey Kong" - jumping from the top of one lift car to another. On this occasion, however, Rodrigues's foot was caught by an ascending lift as he jumped, carrying him upwards. At the top of the shaft, his head jammed between the lift car and a beam. "We all thought it was fun," Rodrigues recalls, "but it's not fun at all."

Rodrigues suffered a fractured skull, a broken jaw and internal injuries. He was luckier than many of his friends. "I know a lot of guys who died from it," he says. For several years, such distressing incidents have been commonplace among young people in poorer New York neighbourhoods. In 1989, for example, nearly 200 people were arrested for elevator-surfing and 40 injured, according to the NYPD. Both figures doubled those of the previous year.

The kamikaze pursuit is also growing in popularity in Britain. In October 1992, a 14-year-old boy received intensive care after a lift trapped him by his chest and right leg in a council block in Southwark. On 9 January this year, firemen were called out to rescue people trapped in a Tower Hamlets lift which had stalled as a result of a hacksawed cable.

Several years ago, a boy fractured his skull when he fell from a lift in a housing block in Sheffield. Glasgow reports "spasmodic incidents" over the last few years, apparently without injury; Leeds has recorded a spate of cases in July.

Lift-surfing was first suspected in the London borough of Greenwich eight years ago, when council inspectors discovered crisp packets and drinks cans on lift car-tops. Enough was finally enough eight months ago - although accidents had not been reported - when inspectors found lift-tops decorated with tables and armchairs.

Unless surfers vandalise property or trespass, police cannot charge them with an offence: "Being stupid isn't a crime", as a spokesman for the Metropolitan Police put it. Councils have responded by installing surveillance cameras and concierges; and by bolstering the security of lift doors. Door-entry systems are ineffective, because the guilty parties are usually resident in the buildings where surfing occurs. Manchester City Council says that it has very few cases because families are not housed in tower blocks.

Greenwich Council is resorting to a more stringent measure. The fallibility of intricate security keys became apparent when inspectors in a nearby borough caught surfers in possession of rogue duplicates, which they claimed to have manufactured in metalwork class at school - with the help of their unsuspecting metalwork teacher. In response, the borough is fitting 23 lifts with infra-red "shaft-intrusion devices", which emit a 110 decibel alarm when disturbed.

The alarms are not without controversy themselves. Southwark Council's senior lift manager, Mike Loudoun, fears that they will deafen intruders. Robert Cummins of Guardsman, the company which manufactured a prototype device in the US, retorts: "I'd rather get sued for a deaf child than a dead one." Loudoun hopes to dissuade children from surfing by giving lectures at schools and youth clubs.

Home for most of the new alarms is the notorious Cardwell Estate in Woolwich. Although the moribund 1960s development has been promised pounds 12m from a Single Regeneration Budget, tenants remain cautious. "Feelings are mixed," says Betty Whymark, chair of the tenants' association, "because there is nothing concrete yet. People have been given so many promises before."

Until improved housing conditions give surfers a reason not to abuse their environment, the problem looks set to continue. Fifteen-year-old Cardwell resident Jason Baker, a former surfer, predicts that offenders will not be deterred by alarms: "They'll just find a wire and cut it," he insists.

Other tenants suggest that surfers tend to grow out of the habit. "They've got better things to do," one elderly resident quips, "like selling drugs."

Equinox: 'High Anxiety', Sun 7pm C4

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Yvette Cooper campaigning in London at the launch of Labour’s women’s manifesto  

I want the Labour Party to lead a revolution in family support

Yvette Cooper
Liz Kendall  

Labour leadership contest: 'Moderniser' is just a vague and overused label

Steve Richards
Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine