Operation Up Your Shaft

Part 1 of 2

in which we filled the elevator of the administrative building with weighted black balloons

As many members of Stealth Force Beta neared graduation, we sought missions both more challenging and requiring less time to implement.  We didn't mind if they were less visible to the campus community at large than Operation Public Hanging had been.  Operation Up Your Shaft fit the bill perfectly.

We learned of the increasing popularity on college campuses of "elevator surfing"--climbing into elevator shafts outside the elevator car, and riding the car(s) up and down the shaft. Most New Mexico Tech buildings are 2 or 3 stories, and most have elevators. In Operation High Exploration, Beta operatives had explored the elevator shafts in Workman, Weir, Cramer, and Brown Halls.

But surfing wasn't enough--we wanted to do more. We recognized that the ability to climb atop an elevator enabled us to deposit things into the elevator through the ceiling hatch. We could even fill the elevator completely, so that when the doors opened, a massive quantity of stuff would pour out, leaving a hapless person who called the elevator wondering how all that stuff had gotten in. We contemplated what we might do with this ability.

First, we evaluated potential targets, and settled on Brown Hall. Of all the buildings on the New Mexico Tech campus, Brown Hall--the administration building--was the most secure. Brown Hall included two genuinely secure areas--the financial records and contracts office, both solidly alarmed, and the Registrar's vault containing a century's worth of transcripts. We didn't attack these fortresses, but rather the elevator. Brown Hall had three stories--one level below ground, and two above. The elevator was slow and cranky, and hours often passed without it being used.

The next challenge was figuring out what sort of stuff we could use to fill the elevator. While most people think of elevators as being very small as rooms, elevators are also very large as containers.

Given the large volume, we decided to use something inflatable. Being the resourceful General of Stealth Force Beta, it was among my duties to have identify suppliers of essential Stealth Force paraphernalia, such as the Oriental Trading Company (OTC). OTC stocked a great many inflatable objects, some of which I had given away as door prizes at student government meetings. Some quick figuring on cafeteria napkins revealed that a prohibitively expensive flock of inflatable pink flamingos would be required for our purpose.  In fact, we determined that balloons were the only objects of which we could afford an elevator-full. We figured that two gross of 11-inch black balloons would do the trick, and at about $20, the price was right. So we ordered the supplies, and drew up plans.

The elevator in Brown Hall had three stops--one each on the basement, ground level, and 2nd floor. The second floor housed the senior administration--offices with few visitors and whose occupants were more likely than most to be elsewhere on a given day. Nobody working on that level had a direct view of the elevator doorway from their desk. The ground level, in contrast, featured more popular offices--the Registrar, Admissions, Alumni Services and the Business Administration department--and some workers in those offices looked directly out into the hallway with the elevator. The basement included the cashier's office, with a direct view of the elevator down the hallway--but the cashier closed every day at 4:05pm sharp.  Unfortunately, you can't get onto the top of an elevator from the basement.  We decided to enter on the second floor.

The first problem was how to get into the locked building late at night. My security investigation revealed that only a few areas of the building were alarmed--as long as we stayed out of the financial and registrar areas, we'd be able to work without fear of attracting unwanted attention. We determined that the police came through to lock the building at 6pm, and sometimes made another pass through the locked structure around 10pm, but seldom came back after that. The first strategy we pondered was to leave an inconspicuous window unlocked--but we discovered that the bathroom windows were extremely difficult to open from the outside. Plan B was to use a Trojan horse--an operative who would enter when the building was unlocked, and lurk in some discreet corner until the mission was to actively start, at which point that operative would let the others in.  Bathrooms are especially good for Trojan horses--if caught, the horse simply claims he was lingering due to unforeseen digestive difficulties. (Police seldom pursue such lines of interrogation.) But nobody was eager to volunteer to sit alone in a bathroom for hours--this seemed like unexciting Stealth Force work.  As a group we brainstormed until settling on Plan C--hiding inside the elevator shaft, atop the elevator.  Two people could easily fit in the out-of-the-way space and bring card games or other diversions without attracting the sort of attention two people lurking in a bathroom might draw.

We formulated our plan:

Mission Plan: Operation Up Your Shaft

5:00pm offices close
5:30pm Climber (Michael Markland) and Ratchet (Eric Backstrom) sneak into building, send elevator to ground level, and use 2nd floor to access top of elevator
5:55pm Sasquatch (that's me) enters building, goes to the basement level, and calls the elevator to the bottom of the shaft, Climber and Ratchet, on top of the elevator at the ground level, are then centralized to hear any passing security patrols.
 midnight  Sasquatch, Mom, Sushi, and Rodent convene at the operation site.  Climber and Ratchet exit the shaft and provide entry for the other operatives.  One operative remains outside in my pickup truck as a lookout.
12:15am  We begin filling the elevator car, and continue until it's full.
5:00am If we're not finished, we declare ourselves done and wrap up the operation
6:00am Police arrive to unlock Brown Hall
8:00am Offices open to public
9:30am Return to Brown Hall to deploy trap

The plan went awry in the first five minutes.  Climber and Ratchet encountered a significant problem--one of the offices on the second floor was occupied well past normal closing, so they couldn't pry open the elevator doors without risking being seen. (In an office building after hours, even a lookout can attract suspicion.)  They waited until 5:45, and the office remained open.  The ground level would also permit access to the top of the elevator (if the elevator were sent to the basement), but the entrance on that level was far too conspicuous to open with only one lookout.  They reasoned the next best thing to hiding above the elevator car was hiding under it, in the bottom of the shaft. They sent the elevator to the second floor, went to the basement level, ensured the coast was clear, and entered the elevator shaft.  The doors closed behind them, shrouding them in darkness.

Elevator controls
The top side of an elevator car usually has a set of illuminated override controls, like this one from Brown Hall.
In case you've never been in an elevator shaft, it is important to note that very different conditions are found at various points along the shaft.  If you climb atop an elevator, you will probably find yourself in a wide-open environment badly in need of dusting.  There are often lights and controls which allow you to raise and lower the elevator.  Unless the elevator is at the uppermost level, a vast open space lies above; even on the highest level, at least 4 or 5 feet of open space remains.  The only danger on top of an elevator car is that you will trip and perhaps a limb might slip into the 6-inch space between the elevator car and the unfinished cinderblock side of the elevator shaft. You can leave through the doors on any level except the basement, or climb down the hatch into the elevator car.  There's no maid service, but nonetheless quite posh compared to the environment below the elevator.

In the pit at the bottom, the space is far more cramped. Giant springs lie on the floor to serve as a cushion of last resort should the elevator plummet. Wires and cables dangle from the bottom of the car into the shaft. The only control is an emergency stop switch--no raising or lowering the car is possible from this spot. Gravity has pulled years' worth of assorted debris into the pit.  The most striking component of the bottom of an elevator shaft is the thick layer of dirty grease, which coats everything. Touch anything, and you're treated to a gooey, grimy sample of black grease. To top it off, there are no lights--it's pitch black.  This is the environment in which Climber and Ratchet found themselves at 5:45pm.  But they planned to remain there only a little while until the occupants had gone--I was scheduled to arrive soon, and with me as an additional lookout, they'd sneak in on the ground level.

I entered the building right on schedule at 5:55 and summoned the elevator to the ground level, expecting Climber and Ratchet were above me.  After the doors closed, I called up to the ceiling, hoping they'd open the hatch and confirm all was well.  But I heard no response.  I presumed they were either unable to hear me or hiding somewhere else in the building, and took the elevator car to the basement as planned. Pleased with my mistaken understanding that my fellow operatives were poised for action, I left the building for dinner in the campus cafeteria.

Little did I know that I had just compressed Climber and Ratchet into a dismal greasy hell under my feet. As I lowered the car, they had shouted and screamed, but elevator floors are apparently impervious to sound.  They didn't have a chance to find and hit the emergency stop button.  I reduced their vertical space from 16 feet to 4 feet, mostly filled with stout cables and giant springs. In bringing the elevator to its lowest level, I also obstructed the exit--Climber and Ratchet had no way out. There is no hatch on elevator floors. Climber and Ratchet realized that the only illumination was their flashlights, and that these would not last very long. The decks of cards they had brought to pass the time would not only be useless in the dark, but also coated with grease the moment they put them on any surface. With no escape in sight, lacking room to even stand, to the operatives the night looked utterly bleak.


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