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My Arm Was Eaten by an Escalator

It was as embarrassing as it sounds, but surprisingly, not as painful

Cass Paley, 68, is a film and TV producer who won an Emmy for a National Geographic special called “Journey to the Outer Limits.” He’s also the director of the documentary Wadd: The Life & Times of John C. Holmes. Most recently, however, he was chewed up by an escalator.

It was Friday the 13th when I was attacked by a vicious escalator at the airport.

I was on my way to New York to see Robert De Niro. I was working for a French company that’s putting out a special Blu-ray edition of Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic film 1900. I frequently do video interviews for them as part of the bonus material that comes with the package. It’s a good gig. It helps make ends meet.

It was still dark when I left the house; my flight was at 8:45 a.m. I guess it was about 6:45 or so when my friend dropped me off on the arrivals side of the Los Angeles International Airport, at Terminal 3. I was flying American Airlines.

The automatic doors opened. The place was deserted. There was nobody anywhere, most of the lights were off. Kind of spooky, you know? The baggage area was completely dark. The sky outside was light, but inside, it still felt like the middle of the night.

I asked a guy in a uniform where to find TSA. He pointed me toward an escalator going up. As escalators go, I’d say it was a pretty long one, maybe one of the steeper escalators at the airport. Needless to say, I didn’t think twice about it. I have a long history of using escalators. I’m not a tightrope walker, but I can handle escalators and stairs. At least, I’d never had a problem before.

Like usual when I travel for work, all I had was my computer backpack and my rolling bag. Also like usual, I stepped on the escalator and pulled the rolling bag onto the step after me. There was nobody else on this escalator. It was like being in one of those post-apocalyptic movies. There was nobody anywhere. Just me in the dim light. Going up.

I was about two-thirds of the way to the top when suddenly the escalator jerked. It stopped and started again, I think. Something like that. An incredibly brief interruption of the upward motion. Barely perceptible. One second I’m standing on the step traveling upwards, spacing out, thinking ahead to my interview with De Niro, and the next, I’m suddenly falling backward.

I tried to catch myself by grabbing the rubber railing, but I was still falling. I ended up flat on my back in a fetal position. My right shoulder was forced up against the right metal barrier. I was wedged in.

I’m a fairly strong guy: 6-foot-3, 255 pounds. So as the stairs kept going upward, I kept trying to stand up. I was fighting like hell, but I couldn’t get up; these teeth kept coming out of the steps and pushing me backwards. It was like having wave after wave break over you and knock you down, only the waves were these metal stairs that kept churning and taking bloody chunks out of my arm. It looked like I was being devoured by some kind of God-awful machine, or like the escalator was possessed, and I was its latest victim.

There were three people down at the bottom of the stairs. I remember yelling at them over and over again, “Shut this fucking thing down!” It seemed like they were dense. Or like they were moving in slow motion. It was like, Hello? Couldn’t they see that I was trapped?

Nothing hurt at this point. I was like, Did I break a leg? Is my arm broken? But neither seemed badly damaged. All I could tell was that I was trapped.

After two or three minutes, they finally shut the thing down. It was like the predator let go of my arm, the shark’s jaws unhinged. This LAX police officer came up the stairs and asked how I was. “I don’t feel so great,” I told him. He made me sit there while we waited for the paramedics. My hand was fine; I could wiggle my fingers. But there was something off about my upper arm. I wasn’t feeling any pain, not yet at least.

Eventually, the paramedics came. There were two different squads—one from the airport, one from the fire department. They stopped the bleeding and got me up the stairs in this chair-thing, put me on a gurney and took me to the local hospital. This was around 7:30 a.m. or 8 a.m. By now, I know I’m not gonna make my flight.

It turned out the humerus bone in my right arm was shattered. That’s the bone between the shoulder and the elbow. A couple of tendons were screwed up as well. I had surgery the same day. Instead of opening me up, they made an incision in my shoulder and dropped a titanium rod downward from the rotator cuff. Next, they made another small incision above my elbow and put three or four screws there to hold the rod. What looked the worst, however, were all the abrasions going down my arm to my hand; the escalator chewed me up pretty good. I looked like I’d warded off a shark with my arm, like something had clamped down on me with big teeth.

I was in the hospital for a day and then I went home. I had to call De Niro’s people and tell them what happened. They were cool, but mostly amazed. You tell people this story, and they act like you’re making it up. But I said, “No, I was actually attacked by an escalator. You can still see the teeth marks in my arm.”

When I later called a personal injury attorney, he made this noise that didn’t sound promising. The problem, he said, is that the escalator isn’t owned by American Airlines. It’s owned by LAX, which is a federal agency. “If you try and sue a federal agency,” he told me, “you’ll be 109 before you see any money. They have a zillion lawyers that will fight it till the end.”

Basically, he said, even if I did end up with money, it would be exhausted from all the years of trying to get it — meaning legal fees, of course. Lucky for me, I’m an old fucker, and I’ve got Medicare to pay for my medical bills.

A month has passed now. The staples are out. I’m doing physical therapy. The range of motion is much better, but I still can’t raise my arm over my head or stretch it out fully to the side. And I still have some strange sensations in the muscles, which make me feel like I’m grabbing something even when I’m not.

I can’t say I’ve had any bad dreams or anything, no PTSD or whatever. In general I’m doing pretty well.

But I’ve decided to stick with elevators from now on.

— As told to Mike Sager