Cracking the code: SIU alumnus opens escape room in Carbondale


Delainey Bailey, 15, of Wayne City, writes out a message after failing to escape the room Sunday, Sept. 3, 2017, at the Panic Room in Carbondale. “The time really flies when you’re having fun,” Bailey said. (Mary Newman | @MaryNewmanDE)

By Tierra Carpenter

Imagine being locked in a room with up to 11 people and only 60 minutes to solve unusual puzzles, find clues and escape.

This may sound like a nightmare for some, but this is the scenario in which patrons of Carbondale’s new Escape Room find themselves.  

Jeff Garner, a 1995 SIU alumnus, said he decided to open the Panic Room after visiting an escape room in Indianapolis last May.


“I came back, and I just kept thinking about what a great idea it was, what a great business it was,” Garner said. “It was just little things that I thought, ‘If they would’ve done this, it would’ve been so much better’ or ‘If they would’ve did that it would’ve been so much better.’”

He came up with a prototype and tried it out on his family — and they loved it, he said.

“I thought, ‘Okay, well, maybe I have something here,’” he said.

Garner said his business is unique because it will feature multiple themed rooms, and every member of each group has tasks to complete during the experience.

“The biggest problem right now with escape rooms is that once you go through the room, you aren’t going to go back to the same room twice,” Garner said. “You know everything that’s going to happen.”

Garner said he plans on adding four new rooms by the end of the year, with a couple of them being smaller “date night rooms” that are made for one or two people and will have interchangeable challenges.

“These are all puzzles and challenges that I’ve come up with myself,” Garner said. “I’m trying to design the rooms so everybody always has something to do — that’s one of the biggest complaints that I’ve had and have heard about from other escape rooms.”


So far, Garner said just a few groups have come to the attraction — which opened Aug. 16 — including a group of employees from the Student Center.

Vamsi Manne, the Student Center’s associate director for programs, said they have all done team-building activities together before, but nothing like this.

“This was like a puzzle we all had to work together to solve,” Manne said. “It was really unique.”

Manne said his favorite part of the room was the group’s excitement when new clues were found or solved.  

“The excitement of solving that puzzle, then the letdown of finding another puzzle to solve — it was kind of exciting and challenging at the same time,” Manne said.

Manne said that his group was not able to finish their challenge within the allotted time period.

Beth Alongi, the Student Center’s assistant director of marketing, said the experience was still worth it.

“Even though we didn’t make it all the way through the puzzle, we had the best time,” Alongi said.

Garner said there has only been one group to complete the room before time ran out.

Carolyn Lusitana, 38, from Carterville, was a member of that group. She said they made it through with a minute and fifteen seconds to spare.  

“I think we worked together well as a team,” Lusitana said. “I think the best way to do it would be to divide up … as soon as the time started we kind of split up and started looking for things.”

She said she can’t wait for more challenges to be available so her friends and family can visit “The Panic Room” again.

“We’re ready to go back and try again to defend our title,” Lusitana said.

For more information about the Panic Room, visit

Tierra Carpenter can be reached at [email protected] or @tierramc_.

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