The ground around the Empire State Building appears to be sinking. This historic landmark is about to get lost in a giant pit. And you will be coming down with it. If a sinkhole swallowed the Empire State Building, would you be safer at its top or bottom? What would the warning signs be? And could anything increase your chances of surviving?
OK. Sinkholes don’t open up all that often. But sometimes, Earth’s subsurface rock dissolves, creating underground spaces and caverns. Slowly but surely, the hole continues to grow in size. If those caverns get big enough, the ground gives way, sinking everything that was on it. These trapdoors of nature exist all over the globe, and they can be as shallow as 0.3 m (1 ft) or as deep as 30 m (100 ft).
It would take an enormous sinkhole to swallow the Empire State Building, and our planet has just the right spot for the task. So how big would an abyss need to be to consume this iconic building? The Empire State building measures 381 m (1,250 ft). It’ll take you almost 2,000 steps to climb it.
The building runs from 33rd to 34th street beside Fifth Avenue, holding a workforce of around 15,000 people. Add to that its many visitors. On average, approximately 11,000 go through its doors. So only an extraordinarily massive pit would be able to consume all of this skyscraper. It would take a sinkhole to end all sinkholes.
Meet the Heavenly Pit. Located in China, it is the world’s deepest sinkhole at 537 m (1,760 ft) wide and around 650 m (2,130 ft) deep. It’s so huge that if we built the Empire State Building inside the Pit, there would still be about 270 m (885 ft) from the top of the building to the edge of the sinkhole.
So let’s say a sinkhole just like it formed in Manhattan. And since all great things should have names, let’s name this one the Infernal Pit. Before the devastating collapse, New Yorkers would notice strange things happening around the Empire State Building. Doors would start jamming. Outside, the trees would tilt toward the ground.
Fresh cracks would spread on the building’s base and the area around it. If you were enjoying the view from the observation deck on the 102nd floor, you’d be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Down on the street, people would hear a muffled explosion followed by violent snapping and cracking noises. They’d try to run away. But it would be too late.
In an instant, the ground would fall into a colossal void. The Empire State Building would plummet right into the sinkhole, taking you and about 16,000 others with it. With luck, the building could withstand the fall without crumbling, thanks to its sturdy central core and supportive bracing. On the other hand, most of its 6,500 windows would get demolished.
As much as you’d want to see what was happening, you’d better stay away from the windows unless you want to get slashed and bleed out. Those flying shards of glass would be the least of your troubles. People at the bottom of the Empire State would free-fall for a staggering 650 m (2,130 ft), the entire depth of the sinkhole.
In contrast, you and others at the very top would drop about 270 m (885 ft). That’s a big difference. Sadly, the odds of surviving would still be against you. Just falling from 3 m (10 ft) could fracture your spine. And 90% of people who fall for seven stories die. If you fell from the 102nd floor, as a famous man once said, it’s not the fall that kills you.
It’s the sudden stop at the end. You could attempt to soften your landing by jumping up as the building falls. Unfortunately, this would only slow you down by 5 km/h (3 mph) at most. You could also lie flat on your back, which would spread the force of impact across your body. The downside is that your soft tissues would absorb the full impact.
That includes your brain, and try living without it. If by some statistical miracle you made it through the fall, you and any survivors could try climbing out through the smashed windows. Meanwhile, people in the lower levels would be buried under rubble. And you’d likely have a long wait before rescuers arrived.
First, city engineers would check dangers from the gas lines, water mains and unstable foundations. Firefighters would rappel down the sinkhole, making rescues slow, painstaking and incredibly risky. Thankfully, it’s nearly impossible that this New York City landmark would face such a calamity. Maybe its destruction wouldn’t come from below, but from above. In the form of a mega-tsunami.
- “Sinkholes | U.S. Geological Survey”. 2018. usgs.gov.
- “Sinkholes And Their Hazards”. Nick Gromicko. 2022. nachi.org.
- “10 Of The Most Remarkable Holes On Earth”. 2022. chilternthrustbore.co.uk.
- “Guatemala Sinkhole Created By Humans, Not Nature”. Ker Than. 2010. nationalgeographic.com.
- “You’ve Fallen Into A Sinkhole; Now What?”. Lorraine Sommerfeld. 2016. driving.ca.