Nicholas White had it all together back in 1999: a great job working as an editor for “Business Week”, a girlfriend, an apartment, and a savings account. All that changed due to a disastrous smoke break.

It was around 11:00 pm when 34-year-old Nicholas, still at work at his office on the 43rd floor of the 51-story McGraw-Hill building in New York City, needed a cigarette. He told his co-worker he was stepping out and took the express elevator to the lobby, where he went outdoors for a smoke. He returned to the express elevator and pushed the button for the 43rd floor.

Much to his surprise, the elevator rose just a short way before the lights blinked and the elevator halted. Nicholas was irritated, but not alarmed. He pushed the buttons on the panel. No one answered the intercom. He pushed the alarm. The alarm rang loudly, with no apparent affect. After it rang for hours, Nicholas disconnected it and then tried to use it to signal an SOS. He waved desperately into the security camera. Nothing helped. Stranded with only three cigarettes, two Rolaids, and his wallet, he could not call for help. He thought surely his co-worker would report him missing; surely maintenance would look into why an elevator wasn’t moving; surely emergency personnel would come to free him. None of that happened.

•  Eventually, he pried open the doors, only to be greeted by a solid concrete wall. Shouting down the shaft did no good. He urinated into the void, hoping someone would notice. He tried to open the trap door in the ceiling by standing on the handrails, only to find it locked. He tried to sleep. He examined every single item in his wallet. He smoked his last three cigarettes, but did not eat the Rolaids because by now, he was thirsty with dehydration and didn’t want to make it worse.

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Nicholas White wondered if he would die, alone and abandoned, in this elevator. He gave up. He lay motionless on the ground in despair for hours.

Finally, a voice came over the intercom, asking him what he was doing there, and accusing him of trespassing. He hollered, “Just get me out of here!” After calling for help, the security guard asked Nicholas if he needed anything. “A beer,” he answered.

Eventually, an elevator maintenance technician walked him through a complicated series of maneuvers with the elevator buttons, and the elevator started moving. When the doors opened, he was back in the lobby and it was Sunday afternoon at 4:00 pm. He had been trapped for 41 hours.

Nicholas became a media sensation, and was subsequently deluged by lawyers promising him a huge pay-out, perhaps as much as $25 million. Unfortunately, he listened to their advice, quit his job, and waited for the millions to pour in. It took four years for the case to drag through the courts. Courts awarded him a paltry low six-figure amount. By now he had lost a job he had held for 15 years, used up his savings, lost his girlfriend, and was adrift.

•  The security camera footage of his ordeal was released in 2008 in conjunction with a “New Yorker” article about the incident. Played at 40 times regular speed, the split-screen footage shows three other elevators being serviced, while his elevator was ignored by maintenance personnel. Eight security workers came and went while he was trapped, without a single one noticing him on camera.

Nicholas White endured a long period of unemployment, then finally got a job working at a sporting goods store. He still lives in Manhattan, and still rides elevators. No word on whether or not he still smokes.