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
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The Independent Online
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