Monday, August 11, 2008
Surviving the Unthinkable
On a recommendation from Scientific American Mind, I picked up a copy of The Unthinkable by Amanda Ripley at Aunties yesterday. The book was so incredible, I could not put it down. Ripley is a reporter for Time Magazine and is an excellent writer. The book poses the question, "Who survives disaster and why?" Ripley's exploration of this topic covers survivors of the 9/11 terrorist attack, Hurricane Katrina, the Virginia Tech shootings, airplane crashes and several other disastrous events. She interviews survivors and families of victims, plus the leading scientists in human behavior and neuroscience. It is fascinating stuff.
The book opens with a long chapter focused on one woman who was in the first tower hit on 9/11. She was working up around the 70th floor, about 10 floors below where the plane hit the building. When the plane smashed into the tower, the whole building swayed back and forth like it was about to topple, but it didn't. It continued to shutter and groan. The woman and her co-workers did not panic. They stayed put in their office for about five or six minutes. They made phone calls and tried to figure out what happened. The waited for an alarm or instructions. Finally they agreed to exit the building, but not before shutting down their computers and gathering their belongings. Even as the smell of jet fuel and smoke filled the building, no one seemed to freak out. Many people in the building had never been in the stairwell and did not know how to find it, slowing the escape. Once in the stairwell, it took the woman an hour to get down the tower, more than twice as long as building architects had expected.
At one point during the descent in the stairwell, word came that there was a fire on the stairs several floors below, so everyone filed out of that stairway and into a lobby around the 40th floor. While waiting to file into a different stairwell, the second plane hit the second tower. The woman can hardly recall that moment, though she was standing right at the window and must have seen the whole thing. She doesn't remember hearing or seeing anything. She was in denial about the nature of the disaster and kept telling herself that it was all just a big mistake. As she finally got down to the lower floors, she remembers that firefighters were running up the stairs past them, shouting encouragement and trying to get people to move more quickly. The tower collapsed just moments after the woman made it safely out of the building. She heard the groan of the building about to collapse and was somehow able to run into a neighboring building ahead of the force.
Ripley explores this woman's reaction and finds several interesting clues into the behavior. First of all, in many disasters, precious seconds are spent milling around before people decide to make an escape. Of survivors polled after 9/11, the majority of the people stated that they made phone calls, turned off their computers, and gathered their belonging before heading to the stairwells. Second, though the woman's mind was very foggy throughout the whole ordeal, it is likely that this helped more than it hindered. Stuck in a slow-moving line down a narrow staircase with hundreds of other people more than fifty flights up in a burning building could lead to a deadly panic, but nearly everyone was calm, helpful, and polite. They didn't really discuss what was happening. Their brains had shut down some of their senses so that they could just focus on getting out of the building. This is also a very common response to extreme stress. Three of the most commonly reported experiences listed by survivors of disasters are tunnel vision, time dissociation (the feeling that time slowed down or sped up), and loss of hearing.
Ripley also goes into what makes some people more likely to survive than others. In the Hurricane Katrina debacle, the media widely reported that it was poor blacks without transportation out of the city that were left to die in the storm, but later research didn't bear that out. Most of the people who stayed admitted that they did have a way to get out, had they wanted to. The biggest factor wasn't race or poverty, it was age. Over half of all the people trapped in the city were over 65. They had survived several big hurricanes before and thought this one would be no different. On surveys given after the fact, the most commonly listed reason for not leaving New Orleans ahead of the storm was that people didn't expect the storm to be as bad as it was.
I was also surprised to find out that most major airline crashes are survivable. Nearly 60% of people involved in a dangerous airline crash in the past 25 years have survived to fly another day. There are ways you can increase your chances. The main thing to do is to listen to the safety instructions and study the safety card in your seat before the plane takes off. Time and time again, survivors reported that it was the few seconds they took to listen to the demonstration that saved them. Even if you have heard it a hundred times, glancing over the card before a flight can save your life. In the middle of a disaster, your brain has a tendency to shut down. If your heart rate gets very high, you may lose fine motor skills and critical thinking skills as blood stays in your core to protect your heart. If you have the safety instructions fresh in your mind, you will be able to act without thinking about it. Also in recent years, airlines have begun training the flight attendants to yell at passengers during an evacuation. Often people who have been in a trauma enter a sort of trance and yelling at them will snap them out of it. There have been several crashes where many passengers survived the actual crash, but the didn't get out of the plane before the ensuing fire, even when there seemed to be plenty of time to do so. In some cases, there are pile-ups at the exit when everyone tries to use the same exit instead of the one nearest them. In other cases, people are just too stunned to move quickly.
It does appear that some people are better equipped to deal with disaster than others. This must be partly due to genetics and partly due to experience, but scientists haven't been able to fully tease out all the details yet. It does appear that some people are born with a certain resiliency that allows them to go through disaster time and time again without losing their cool. These are the people that the military wants on their special forces teams. Men die in lightening strikes, floods, and fire far more than women, but this is mostly because they are more likely to take risks like running into a burning building or driving on a flooded street (NOT a good idea). Women are more likely to heed warnings and get to safety quickly. Other factors come into play however. During the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, men survived at twice the rate of women because women did not know how to swim and the men did.
There are about a hundred other interesting anecdotes and studies from the book that I would love to explain, but I've gone on enough. Ripley does a great job. Read the book.