Jan
23
2007

# Physics of a near-fatal fall: How does a man survive a 16-story drop at a hotel?

Hotel fall: The Minneapolis downtown Hyatt Regency hotel was the scene of an accident this weekend where a man fell out a 17th floor window and survived. Based on this photo of the hotel, he had to have fallen from nearly the top of the hotel.
It’s been the hot topic to talk about the past few days in the Twin Cities.

Early Saturday morning, a man crashed through a window on the 17th floor of a downtown Minneapolis hotel and is still alive today. In most cases, a fall that far, about 160 feet, would be instantly fatal.

How could it happen and how could he survive? Science supplies some good answers.

First, the man landed on his feet on a metal canopy about a one story over the pavement outside of the hotel. The elasticity of the metal of that canopy helped absorb a lot of the impact the man made in falling. A physicist on one television report of the incident calculated that the man fell that far in about three seconds and would have been going 65 to 70 miles per hour at the time of the impact.

He was still being treated for his injuries Monday at a Minneapolis hotel. He suffered a severely broken right leg, two collapsed lungs and a torn trachea in the incident. He was initially induced into a coma to help stabilize his body before doctors treated his injuries.

By Monday, he was able to respond to questions from doctors and family by squeezing their hands. At the time of the crash, he was conscious and communicative with rescuers who came to his aid at the scene.

The man who fell through the window weighs between 250 and 300 pounds. Minneapolis building officials estimate that a person that size leaning against the window with all of his weight could break through glass that meets today’s codes which call for glass to be a strength of holding at least 50 pounds per square foot.

Other press accounts note that the man, from Wisconsin, was in the Twin Cities for a darts tournament being held at the hotel. He had been out partying with friends and was horsing around at the hotel late at night before the incident. He apparently was running down the hallway on the 17th floor, lost his balance and crashed through the window.

This story is very sensational and has no apparent academic virtue. The story states that 'science supplies some good answers' as to why the man survived, but then only gives one reason (he hit an awning just before he hit the ground). You don't need to be a scientist to figure out that hitting an awning will slow you down, and using a word like 'elasticity' in this context only makes you sound pretentious.

posted on Tue, 03/06/2007 - 7:31pm

There is another aspect to the physics not mentioned in the article;the man's fall was not broken by the canopy alone; it was also slowed by the air between the canopy and the ground, which combined to for a variant of an airbag.

posted on Wed, 07/04/2007 - 11:13am

The air would not have slowed this man down by any conciderable amount. After falling only 160 feet, this man would not have yet reached terminal velocity and the amount of friction from the air would not significantly affect the rate of his fall.
Using the word "elasticity" is not pretentious in this context. We usually think of metal as being rigid, not elastic. The fact that metal is elastic to a point had a large impact in this case in saving the man's life. The fact that he landed on his feet also led to his survival. His legs would have been able to absorb some of the impact and to allow for some slowing of his body (this is the "air bag effect"), which would not have been available had he landed on his stomach, back or side.

posted on Mon, 01/07/2008 - 5:38pm

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