I’m living, breathing proof that you can survive a disaster. I’ve lived through two airplane crashes (“catastrophic mishaps” in Air Force jargon), one at the start and one near the end of my Air Force piloting career, as well as a countless number of close calls in between. Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to understand fully why I was so successful at navigating disaster and others in similar circumstances weren’t. There hasn’t been a source of solid thinking on the subject until now. Amanda Ripley’s new book, The Unthinkable, is a riveting exploration of the factors that dictate whether you will live through or perish in a disaster — if you’re ever unlucky enough to confront one.
Based on my experience, the top objective in all catastrophes is to move to a safe zone and take as many people with you as you can. While this goal may seem simple, achieving it during the onrush of chaos isn’t. Thinking clearly during a crisis is tough, for reasons more complex than we realize. Ripley shows us what stands in our way as we navigate what she calls the “survival arc,” which consists of two phases: denial and deliberation.
Denial keeps you from realizing that you are in danger. It’s rooted in bad risk assessment, overconfidence, and a lack of relevant experience. Bouts with denial can delay your response, as Ripley illustrates through the testimony of Elia Zedeno, who relates her painfully slow escape from the 73rd floor of Tower One on September 11. Once you realize the extent of the peril, though, fear might take over. Deliberation requires overcoming fear to regain the ability to think clearly. [...] Contrary to popular understanding, group behavior during disasters is rarely panic-driven, but more often extremely docile and overly polite. Getting a group to respond and act effectively often requires aggressive behavior, like barking orders.
Our bodily reaction to fear — regulated by the amygdala and catalyzed by cortisol and adrenaline — deprives us of our higher mental functions and can induce everything from tunnel vision to time compression to extreme dissociation:
We can counter fear, however. The best method, FBI trainers say, is to get control of your breathing. “Combat breathing” is a simple variant on Lamaze or yoga training — breathe in four counts, hold four counts, exhale four counts, and repeat. It works because breathing is a combination of the somatic (which we control) and the autonomic (which we can’t easily control) nervous systems. Regulation of the autonomic system deescalates the biological-fear response and returns our higher-level brain functions to full capacity.
Some people are naturally suited to dealing with chaos:
What makes them different? Some have a natural psychological buffer that allows them to bounce back from extreme stress. Examination of people who always perform well in extreme circumstances has shown high levels in the blood of “neuropeptide Y” — a compound that allows one to stay mentally focused under stress. It’s so closely correlated with success in pressure situations that it is almost a biological marker for selection into elite groups for military special operations.
One of the disaster tales Ripley tells is of the M.V. Estonia, which went down in the Baltic Sea after suddenly listing starboard 30° at 1 AM:
In the bar, almost everyone fell violently against the side of the boat. Härstedt managed to grab on to the iron bar railing and hold on, hanging above everyone else.
“In just one second, everything went from a loud, happy, wonderful moment to total silence. Every brain, I guess, was working like a computer trying to realize what had happened,” he says. Then came the screaming and crying. People had been badly hurt in the fall, and the tilt of the ship made it extremely difficult to move.
Härstedt began to strategize, tapping into some of the survival skills he had learned in the military. “I started to react very differently from normal. I started to say, ‘O.K., there is option one, option two. Decide. Act.’ I didn’t say, ‘Oh, the boat is sinking.’ I didn’t even think about the wider perspective.” Like many survivors, Härstedt experienced the illusion of centrality, a coping mechanism in which the brain fixates on the individual experience. “I just saw my very small world.”
But as Härstedt made his way into the corridor, he noticed something strange about some of the other passengers. They weren’t doing what he was doing. “Some people didn’t seem to realize what had happened. They were just sitting there,” he says. Not just one or two people, but entire groups seemed to be immobilized. They were conscious, but they were not reacting.
Contrary to popular expectations, this is what happens in many disasters. Crowds generally become quiet and docile. Panic is rare. The bigger problem is that people do too little, too slowly. They sometimes shut down completely, falling into a stupor.
On the Estonia, Härstedt climbed up the stairwell, fighting against gravity. Out on the deck, the ship’s lights were on, and the moon was shining. The full range of human capacities was on display. Incredibly, one man stood to the side, smoking a cigarette, Härstedt remembers. Most people strained to hold on to the rolling ship and, at the same time, to look for life jackets and lifeboats. British passenger Paul Barney remembers groups of people standing still like statues. “I kept saying to myself, ‘Why don’t they try to get out of here?‘” he later told the Observer.
Ripley tells another disaster tale, this one about the Beverly Hills Supper Club south of Cincinnati, in which a small electrical fire spread, killing 167:
The disaster delivered many brutal lessons. Some were obvious — and tragic: the club had no sprinkler or audible fire-alarm systems. But the fire also complicated official expectations for crowd behavior: in the middle of a crisis, the basic tenets of civilization actually hold. People move in groups whenever possible. They tend to look out for one another, and they maintain hierarchies. “People die the same way they live,” says disaster sociologist Lee Clarke, “with friends, loved ones and colleagues, in communities.”
At the Beverly Hills, servers warned their tables to leave. Hostesses evacuated people that they had seated but bypassed other sections (that weren’t “theirs”). Cooks and busboys, perhaps accustomed to physical work, rushed to fight the fire. In general, male employees were slightly more likely to help than female employees, maybe because society expects women to be saved and men to do the saving.
And what of the guests? Most remained guests to the end. Some even continued celebrating, in defiance of the smoke seeping into the rooms. One man ordered a rum and Coke to go. When the first reporter arrived at the fire, he saw guests sipping their cocktails in the driveway, laughing about whether they would get to leave without paying their bills.
As the smoke intensified, Wayne Dammert, a banquet captain at the club, stumbled into a hallway jammed with a hundred guests. The lights flickered off and on, and the smoke started to get heavy. But what he remembers most about that crowded hallway is the silence. “Man, there wasn’t a sound in there. Not a scream, nothing,” he says. Standing there in the dark, the crowd was waiting to be led.
People were remarkably loyal to their identities. An estimated 60% of the employees tried to help in some way — either by directing guests to safety or fighting the fire. By comparison, only 17% of the guests helped. But even among the guests, identity shaped behavior. The doctors who had been dining at the club acted as doctors, administering CPR and dressing wounds like battlefield medics. Nurses did the same thing. There was even one hospital administrator there who — naturally — began to organize the doctors and nurses.
Read the original article for the whole story of Rick Rescorla, the head of security for Morgan Stanley Dean Witter at the World Trade Center.
What got cut from the article was Ripley’s list of 5 Ways to Refine Your Disaster Personality:
People who perform well in crises and recover well afterwards tend to have three underlying advantages:
- They believe they can influence what happens to them.
- They find meaningful purpose in life’s turmoil.
- They are convinced they can learn from both good and bad experiences.
If you learn more about your actual risks — or the risks that scare you most — you will probably be calmer should something go wrong someday. For example, did you know that most serious plane accidents are survivable? Yes, it’s true. Of all passengers involved in serious accidents between 1983 and 2000, 56% survived. (Serious, for those of you who still don’t believe me, is defined by the National Transportation Safety Board as accidents involving fire, severe injury, AND substantial aircraft damage.)
- Anxiety Level
People with higher everyday anxiety levels may have a greater tendency to freeze or totally shut down in an emergency. As in regular life, if you can learn tricks to control your anxiety, you will probably perform better. For example, some police officers are now trained to do rhythmic breathing (in for four, hold for four, out for four) whenever their guns are drawn.
- Body Weight
The harsh truth is that overweight people move more slowly, are more vulnerable to secondary injuries like heart attacks and have a harder time physically recovering from any injuries they do sustain. On 9/11, people with low physical ability were three times as likely to be hurt while evacuating the Towers.
It is much better, for example, to stop, drop and roll than to talk about stopping, dropping and rolling. [...] Make surprise drills an annual tradition in your office or home. Take the stairs down to the ground — don’t just stare at the stairwell door.