Identifying Who Survives Disasters — And Why

Amanda Ripley

A senior writer for Time magazine, Amanda Ripley writes about homeland security and risk in Washington, D.C. Her 2005 coverage of Hurricane Katrina helped Time win two National Magazine Awards. Greg Martin hide caption

itoggle caption Greg Martin

Book Tour is a Web feature and podcast. Each week, we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.

Amanda Ripley's new book, The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes — And Why, is the thinking person's manual for getting out alive.

In moments of total disaster — plane crashes or terrorist attacks — something happens in our brains that affects the way we think. We behave differently, often irrationally. Consider the World Trade Center workers who, on Sept. 11, dithered at their desks, calling relatives, turning off computers and pondering which mementos to rescue from their desks even as the doomed jets burned above their heads.

In The Unthinkable, Ripley cites a National Institute of Standards and Technology study that showed that those who made it out of the WTC waited an average of six minutes after the plane hit their building before heading for the exit and walking slowly — not running — down the stairs.

Ripley searches for patterns in human behavior by interviewing hundreds of people who lived through catastrophes. Quick-witted survivors are surprisingly anomalous. One fellow who made it through a horrific aircraft disaster in 1977 happened to be sitting on the runway reading an in-flight safety instruction card when another plane crashed into his. He grabbed his wife, leapt through a hole in the fuselage, and turned to see his fellow passengers remaining docilely in their seats, immobile. Most of them died within minutes as fire swept through the wreckage.

The author concludes that all of us undergo a three-stage process when we find ourselves in mortal peril: denial, deliberation and the "decisive moment," during which the survivor buckles down and acts. The trick, she says, may be to understand our instincts, which, in a crisis, may betray us. Some people run toward infernos, not away, and even in the face of obvious impending disaster, some people just won't move. Ripley muses that this may be an old ingrained biological response — a version of "playing dead."

Ripley is a senior writer for Time magazine who covers risk and homeland security. This reading of The Unthinkable took place in July 2008 at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.

Excerpt: 'The Unthinkable'

'The Unthinkable'

Introduction: "Life Becomes Like Molten Metal"

On the morning of December 6, 1917, a bright, windless day, a French freighter called the Mont Blanc began to slowly pull out of the Halifax harbor in Nova Scotia. At the time, Halifax was one of the busiest ports in the British Empire. There was a war on in Europe, and the harbor groaned with the churn of ships, men, and weapons. The Mont Blanc was headed for France that day, carrying over twenty-five hundred tons of explosives, including TNT. While passing through a narrow channel in the harbor, a larger ship, the Imo from Belgium, accidentally rammed the bow of the Mont Blanc.

The collision itself was not catastrophic. The Imo sailed on, in fact. But the crew of the Mont Blanc knew that their ship was a floating time bomb. They tried to put out the fire, but not for very long. Then they scrambled into lifeboats and paddled for shore. For a few heartbreaking moments, the Mont Blanc drifted in the harbor. It brushed up against the pier, setting it on fire. Children gathered to watch the spectacle.

Many of the worst disasters in history started quite modestly. One accident led to another, until a fault line opened up in a civilization. About twenty minutes after the collision, the Mont Blanc exploded, sending black rain, iron, fire, and wind whipsawing through the city. It was the largest bomb explosion on record. The blast shattered windows sixty miles away. Glass blinded some one thousand people. Next, a tidal wave caused by the explosion swamped the shore. Then fire began to creep across the city. In the harbor, a black column of fire and smoke turned into a hovering white mushroom cloud. Survivors fell to their knees, convinced that they had seen a German zeppelin in the sky.

At the moment of the explosion, an Anglican priest and scholar named Samuel Henry Prince happened to be eating breakfast at a restaurant near the port. He ran to help, opening up his church as a triage station. It was, strangely enough, Prince's second disaster in five years. He had responded to another local cataclysm in 1912, when a luxury cruise liner called the Titanic had sunk some five hundred miles off the coast of Halifax. Back then, Prince had performed burials at sea in the frigid waters.

Prince was the kind of man who marveled at things others preferred not to think about. On the awful day of the explosion, he was astounded by what he saw. Prince watched men and women endure crude sidewalk operations without obvious pain. How was one young soldier able to work the entire day with one of his eyes knocked out? Some people experienced hallucinations. Why did parents fail to recognize their own children at the hospital—and, especially, at the morgue? Small details nagged at Prince. On the morning of the explosion, why was the very first relief station set up by a troupe of actors, of all people?

That night, a blizzard hit Halifax, the epic's final act. By the time the catastrophe had rippled out across the land, 1,963 people would be dead. In silent film footage taken after the blast, Halifax looks like it was hit by a nuclear weapon. Houses, train terminals, and churches lie like pick-up sticks on the snow-covered ground. Sleighs are piled high with corpses. "Here were to be found in one dread assembling the combined horrors of war, earthquake, fire, flood, famine and storm—a combination for the first time in the records of human disaster," Prince would write. Later, scientists developing the atomic bomb would study the Halifax explosion to see how such a blast travels across land and sea.

After helping rebuild Halifax, Prince moved to New York City to study sociology. For his PhD dissertation at Columbia University, he de-constructed the Halifax explosion. "Catastrophe and Social Change," published in 1920, was the first systematic analysis of human behavior in a disaster. "Life becomes like molten metal," he wrote. "Old customs crumble, and instability rules."

What makes Prince's work so engaging is his optimism. Despite his funereal obsessions, he saw disasters as opportunities—not just, as he put it, "a series of vicissitudes mercifully ending one day in final cataclysm." He was a minister, but he was clearly enchanted by industry. The horrific explosion had, in the end, "blown Halifax into the 20th century," forcing many changes that were for the better. His thesis opened with a quote from St. Augustine: "This awful catastrophe is not the end but the beginning. History does not end so. It is the way its chapters open."

After Prince's death, the field of human behavior in disasters would languish. Then with the onset of the cold war and a new host of anxieties about how the masses might respond to nuclear attacks, it would come back to life. After the fall of communism, it would stagnate again—until the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Prince seemed to anticipate the temptation for people to avert their eyes. "This little volume on Halifax is offered as a beginning," he wrote. Don't let it be the end, he pleaded. "Knowledge will grow scientific only after the most faithful examination of many catastrophes." The remainder of the century would prove rich with material.

Most of us have imagined what it might be like to experience a plane crash or a fire or an earthquake. We have ideas about what we might do or fail to do, how it might feel for our hearts to pound in our chests, whom we might call in the final moments, and whether we might be suddenly compelled to seize the hand of the businessman sitting in the window seat. We have fears that we admit to openly and ones that we never discuss. We carry around this half-completed sentence, filling in different scenarios depending on the anxiety of the times: I wonder what I would do if . . .

Think for a moment about the narratives we know by heart. When I say the word disaster, many of us think of panic, hysterical crowds, and a kind of every-man-for-himself brutality; an orgy of destruction interrupted only by the civilizing influence of professional rescuers. Yet all evidence from Prince until today belies this script. Reality is a lot more interesting—and hopeful.

What Prince discovered in Halifax was that our disaster personalities can be quite different from the ones we expect to meet. But that doesn't mean they are unknowable. It just means we haven't been looking in the right places.

The Things Survivors Wish You Knew

This book came about unexpectedly. In 2004, as a reporter working on Time magazine's coverage of the third anniversary of 9/11, I decided to check in with some of the people who had survived the attacks. I wondered how they were doing. Unlike many of the families of the victims, the survivors had kept to themselves, for the most part. They felt so lucky—or guilty or scarred—that they hadn't wanted to make too much noise. But there were tens of thousands of these survivors out there, people who had gone to work in a skyscraper one morning and then spent hours fighting to get out of it. I was curious to hear what had happened to their lives.

I got in touch with the World Trade Center Survivors' Network, one of the first and largest support groups, and they invited me to sit in on one of their regular meetings. They met in a fluorescent-lit office space, high above the racket of Times Square. As I rode up in the elevator one evening, I prepared myself for an exchange of grief. After 9/11, I had heard so many stories. Every widow, firefighter, and victim had a unique tragedy to tell, and I can still recite those interviews almost word for word. The city's pain seemed to have no bottom.

But this meeting was not what I had expected. These people had an agenda. They had things they wanted to tell other people before the next terrorist attack, and there was urgency in the room. The survivors were from all different neighborhoods, professions, and ethnicities, but they said very similar, surprising things. They had learned so much that morning, and they wondered why no one had prepared them. One man even proposed starting a lecture circuit to educate people about how it feels to escape a skyscraper. "We were the first responders," one woman said. A sign-up sheet was passed around to start planning speaking engagements at churches and offices.

Watching them, I realized these people had glimpsed a part of the human condition that most of us never see. We worry about horrible things happening to us, but we don't know much about what it actually feels like. I wondered what they had learned.

I started to research the stories of survivors from other disasters. The overlaps were startling. People in shipwrecks, plane crashes, and floodwaters all seemed to undergo a mysterious metamorphosis. They performed better than they ever would have expected in some ways and much worse in others. I wanted to know why. What was happening to our brains to make us do so many unexpected things? Were we culturally conditioned to risk our lives for strangers in shipwrecks? Were we evolutionarily programmed to freeze in emergencies? My search for answers led me across the world, to England for its long history of studying fire behavior, to Israel for its trauma psychologists and counterterrorism experience, and back to the States to participate in simulated plane crashes and fires, as well as military research into the brain.

Writing a book about disasters may sound voyeuristic or dark, and there are times when it was. But the truth is, I was mesmerized by this subject because it gave me hope. You spend enough time covering tragedies and you start to look for a foothold. I knew there was no way to prevent all catastrophes from happening. I knew it made sense to prepare for them and work to minimize the losses. We should install smoke detectors, buy insurance, and pack "go bags." But none of those things ever felt very satisfying.

Listening to survivors, I realized we'd been holding dress rehearsals for a play without knowing any of our lines. Our government had warned us to be prepared, but it hadn't told us why. In New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina, I learned more from regular people on street corners than I learned covering any homeland security conference.

In firehouses and brain research labs, I learned that if we get to know our disaster personalities before the disaster, we might have a slightly better chance of surviving. At the very least, we'll expunge some of the unknowns from our imaginations, and we'll uncover secrets about ourselves.

I never expected to use what I had learned anytime soon. I usually show up at disaster sites after they happen, in time for the regrets and recriminations, but not the shaking or the burning. But I was wrong, in a way. From a physiological perspective, everyday life is full of tiny disaster drills. Ironically, after writing a book about disasters, I feel less anxious overall, not more. I am a much better judge of risk now that I understand my own warped equation for dread. Having studied dozens of plane crashes, I'm more relaxed when I'm flying. And no matter how many Code-Orange-be-afraid-be-very-afraid alerts I see on the evening news, I feel some amount of peace having already glimpsed the worst-case scenario. The truth, it turns out, is usually better than the nightmare.

The Problem with Rescue Dogs

Conversations about disasters have always been colored by fear and superstition. The word disaster, from the Latin dis (away) and astrum (stars), can be translated as "ill-starred." After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin said that God was clearly "mad at America" for invading Iraq—and at black people for "not taking care of ourselves." Inchoate as these plot lines may be, Nagin's impulse—to inject meaning into chaos—was understandable. Narrative is the beginning of recovery.

But narrative can miss important subplots. In books and official reports, the tragedy of Katrina was blamed on politicians, poverty, and poor engineering, as it should have been. But there was another conversation that should have happened—not about blame, but about understanding. What did regular people do before, during, and after the storm? Why? And what could they have done better?

These days, we tend to think of disasters as acts of God and government. Regular people only feature into the equation as victims, which is a shame. Because regular people are the most important people at a disaster scene, every time.

In 1992, a series of sewer explosions caused by a gas leak ripped through Guadalajara, Mexico's second-largest city. The violence came from below, rupturing neighborhoods block by block. Starting at

10:30 A.M., at least nine separate explosions ripped open a jagged trench more than a mile long. About three hundred people died. Some five thousand houses were razed. The Mexican Army was called in. Rescuers from California raced to help. Search-and-rescue dogs were ordered up.

But first, before anyone else, regular people were on the scene saving one another. They did incredible things, these regular people. They lifted rubble off survivors with car jacks. They used garden hoses to force air into voids where people were trapped. In fact, as in most disasters, the vast majority of rescues were done by ordinary folks. After the first two hours, very few people came out of the debris alive. The search-and-rescue dogs did not arrive until twenty-six hours after the explosion.

It's only once disaster strikes that ordinary citizens realize how important they are. For example, did you know that most serious plane accidents are survivable? On this point, the statistics are quite clear. Of all passengers involved in serious accidents between 1983 and 2000, 56 percent survived. ("Serious" is defined by the National Transportation Safety Board as accidents involving fire, severe injury, and substantial aircraft damage.) Moreover, survival often depends on the behavior of the passenger. These facts have been well known in the aviation industry for a long time. But unless people have been in a plane crash, most individuals have no idea.

Since 9/11 the U.S. government has sent over $23 billion to states and cities in the name of homeland security. Almost none of that money has gone toward intelligently enrolling regular people like you and me in the cause. Why don't we tell people what to do when the nation is on Orange Alert against a terrorist attack—instead of just telling them to be afraid? Why does every firefighter in Casper, Wyoming (pop. 50,632), have an eighteen-hundred-dollar HAZMAT suit—but we don't each have a statistically derived ranking of the hazards we actually face, and a smart, creative plan for dealing with them?

All across the nation we have snapped plates of armor onto our professional lifesavers. In return, we have very high expectations for these brave men and women. Only after everything goes wrong do we realize we're on our own. And the bigger the disaster, the longer we will be on our own. No fire department can be everywhere at once, no matter how good their gear.

The July 7, 2005, terrorist attacks on London buses and subway trains killed fifty-two people. The city's extensive surveillance camera system was widely praised for its help during the ensuing investigation. Less well known is how unhelpful the technology was to regular people on the trains. The official report on the response would find one "overarching, fundamental lesson": emergency plans had been designed to meet the needs of emergency officials, not regular people. On that day, the passengers had no way to let the train drivers know that there had been an explosion. They also had trouble getting out; the train doors were not designed to be opened by passengers. Finally, passengers couldn't find first aid kits to treat the wounded. It turned out that supplies were kept in subway supervisors' offices, not on the trains.

Luck Is Unreliable

Here's the central conundrum addressed by this book: we flirt shamelessly with risk today, constructing city skylines in hurricane alleys and neighborhoods on top of fault lines. Largely because of where we live, disasters have become more frequent and more expensive. But as we build ever more impressive buildings and airplanes, we do less and less to build better survivors.

How did we get this way? The more I learned, the more I wondered how much of our survival behaviors—and misbehaviors—could be explained by evolution. After all, we evolved to escape predators, not buildings that reach a quarter mile into the sky. Has technology simply outpaced our survival mechanisms?

But there are two kinds of evolution: the genetic kind and the cultural kind. Both shape our behavior, and the cultural kind has gotten a lot faster. We now have many ways to create "instincts": we can learn to do better or worse. We can pass on traditions about how to deal with modern risks, just as we pass on language.

So then the question became, why weren't we doing a better job instilling survival skills through our culture? Globalization is one of those words that gets hijacked so often it loses its meaning. That's partly because the word encompasses so much, including opposing ideas. In the past two centuries, we have become far less connected to our families and communities. At the same time, we have become more dependent upon one another and technology. We are isolated in our codependence, paradoxically.

More than 80 percent of Americans now live in or near cities and rely upon a sprawling network of public and private entities to get food, water, electricity, transportation, and medicine. We make almost nothing for ourselves. So a disaster that strikes one group of people is more likely than ever to affect others. But just as we have become more interdependent, we have become more detached—from our neighborhoods and traditions. This is a break from our evolutionary history. Humans and our evolutionary ancestors spent most of the past several million years living in small groups of relatives. We evolved through passing on our genes—and our wisdom—from generation to generation. But today, the kinds of social ties that used to protect us from threats get neglected. In their place, we have substituted new technology, which only works some of the time.

In May of 1960, the largest earthquake ever measured occurred off the coast of Chile, killing a thousand people. Luckily, Hawaii's automated alert system kicked in, and tsunami sirens went off ten hours before the island was hit. The technology worked exactly as planned. But it turned out that most of the people who heard the siren did not evacuate. They weren't sure what the noise meant. Some thought it signaled that they should be alert for more information. The technology was there but the traditions weren't. A total of sixty-one people died in Hawaii that day.

It's hard to trace a single cause for why we do what we do under extreme duress. The chapters that follow allow us to test several hypotheses against real disasters. I've tried to resist the urge to concoct one grand narrative. But even in that complexity, simple truths emerge. The more disaster survivors I met, the more convinced I became that the solutions to our problems were not necessarily complicated. They were more social than technological. Some were old-fashioned. But we need to understand how our brain works in disasters before we can save ourselves.

Before we go any further, it's probably wise to acknowledge that the vast majority of Westerners do not die in disasters; they die of diseases that attack from within, not violence that comes from outside. Alzheimer's disease kills many more people than fire. Even if you do make a particularly dramatic exit, it probably won't be in a disaster. You are more likely to die of food poisoning than you are of drowning.

It is, however, quite likely that you will be affected by a disaster. In an August 2006 Time magazine poll of one thousand Americans, about half of those surveyed said they had personally experienced a disaster or public emergency. In fact, about 91 percent of Americans live in places at a moderate-to-high risk of earthquakes, volcanoes, tornadoes, wildfires, hurricanes, flooding, high-wind damage, or terrorism, according to an estimate calculated in 2006 for Time by the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina.

Traditionally, the word disaster refers to any sudden calamity causing great loss of life or property. You'll notice that in this book I veer off into misfortunes that don't technically fit: car accidents and shootings, for example. But I want to include these everyday tragedies for two reasons. First, because human behavior is the same, whether we are in a cruise ship or a Honda. We can, strange as it may sound, learn how we will behave in earthquakes from studying how we behave in a holdup, and vice versa. Car accidents and shooting rampages are, like airplane crashes, modern calamities that we did not evolve to survive.

The other reason to define disasters broadly is that small tragedies add up to megadisasters. Cumulatively, car accidents kill forty thousand people in the United States each year. Everyone reading this book knows someone who died in a car accident. Guns kill another thirty thousand Americans every year. For the rippling circles of friends and families that the victims leave behind, a gunshot feels exactly like a disaster, without the national recognition. So I define the word broadly to include all kinds of accidents that kill too many people.

One last caveat: disasters are predictable, but surviving them is not. No one can promise you a plan of escape. If life—and death—were that simple, this book would already have been written. But that doesn't mean we should live in willful ignorance, either. As Hunter S. Thompson said, "Call on God, but row away from the rocks."

We need to get to know our oldest personality, the one that takes over in a crisis and even makes fleeting appearances in our daily lives. It is at the core of who we are. "If an engineer wants to know about what he's designing, he puts it under great amounts of stress," says Peter Hancock, who has been studying human performance for more than twenty years for the U.S. military. "It's the same with human beings. If you want to find out how things operate under normal conditions, it's very interesting to find out how we operate under stress." Without too much trouble, we can teach our brains to work more quickly, maybe even more wisely, under great stress. We have more control over our fates than we think. But we need to stop underestimating ourselves.

The knowledge is out there. In laboratories and on shooting ranges, there are people who know what happens to our bodies and minds under extreme duress. Scientists who study the brain's fear response can now see which parts of our brains light up under stress. Military researchers conduct elaborate experiments to try to predict who will melt down in a crisis and who will thrive. Police, soldiers, race car drivers, and helicopter pilots train to anticipate the strange behaviors they will encounter at the worst of times. They know that it's too late to learn those lessons in the midst of a crisis.

Then there are the survivors of disasters, the witnesses who channel the voices of the victims. They were there, sitting next to them, seeing what they saw. And afterward, the survivors spend some portion of their lives thinking about why they lived when so many did not. They were lucky, all of them. Luck is unreliable. But almost all of the survivors I have met say there are things they wish they had known, things they want you to know.

Unfortunately, all of these good people rarely talk to one another. Airplane safety experts don't trade stories with neuroscientists. Special Forces instructors don't spend a lot of time with hurricane victims. And none of these people have much opportunity to share what they know with regular people. So their wisdom remains stashed away in a sort of black box of the human experience.

This book goes inside the black box and stays there. The Unthinkable is not a book about disaster recovery; it's about what happens in the midst—before the police and firefighters arrive, before reporters show up in their rain slickers, before a structure is imposed on the loss. This is a book about the survival arc we all must travel to get from danger to safety.

The Survival Arc

In every kind of disaster, we start in about the same place and travel through three phases. We'll call the first phase denial. Except in extremely dire cases, we tend to display a surprisingly creative and willful brand of denial. This denial can take the form of delay, which can be fatal, as it was for some on 9/11. But why do we do it, if it is so dangerous? What other functions does denial serve?

How long the delay lasts depends in large part on how we calculate risk. Our risk analysis depends less upon facts than upon a shadowy sense of dread, as Chapter 2 details through the story of a man waiting for Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

Once we get through the initial shock of the denial phase, we move into deliberation, the second phase of the survival arc. We know something is terribly wrong, but we don't know what to do about it. How do we decide? The first thing to understand is that nothing is normal. We think and perceive differently. We become superheroes with learning disabilities. Chapter 3 explores the anatomy of fear through the story of a diplomat taken hostage at a cocktail party. "There are times when fear is good," Aeschylus said. "It must keep its watchful place at the heart's controls." But for every gift the body gives us in a disaster, it takes at least one away—sometimes bladder control, other times vision.

We all share a basic fear response. So why do some people get out of a burning building while others do not? Chapter 4 investigates resilience, that elixir of survival. Who has it? Does gender matter? What about personality or race? But almost no one goes through a disaster alone. Chapter 5 is about groupthink, the effect of the crowd on our deliberation. How well our group functions depends largely on who is in the group. Whom we live and work with matters.

Finally, we reach the third phase of the survival arc: the decisive moment. We've accepted that we are in danger; we've deliberated our options. Now we take action. We'll start with the exception. Chapter 6 is about panic, the most misunderstood behavior in the disaster repertoire. What does it take to spark a panic? And what does it feel like to be caught in one?

Many—if not most—people tend to shut down entirely in a disaster, quite the opposite of panicking. They go slack and seem to lose all awareness. But their paralysis can be strategic. Chapter 7 will take us into the horrific Virginia Tech shooting rampage, the deadliest in U.S. history, through the eyes of a fortunate student who did nothing.

Next, we will consider the opposite of nothing. Chapter 8 investigates the hero. What possible evolutionary explanation could there be for a man who jumps into a frozen river to save strangers?

Finally, we think bigger: how can we turn ourselves into better survivors? We'll meet revolutionaries who have trained regular people to survive, according to how our brains actually work—individuals who have taught entire towns to escape tsunami and major corporations to flee a skyscraper.

The three chronological phases—denial, deliberation, and the decisive moment—make up the structure of this book. Real life doesn't usually follow a linear arc, of course. Sometimes the path to survival is more like a looping roller coaster, doubling up and back upon itself as we struggle to find true north. So within each section you will notice that we often glimpse the other stages. There is, unfortunately, no single script in these situations. But it's rare that anyone survives a disaster without pushing—or being pushed—through each of these three main stages at least once.

On our tour of the black box, I will take you down a stairwell in the World Trade Center, onto a sinking ship in the Baltic Sea, and out of a burning airplane that forever changed the way safety experts thought about passengers. The point of all of this is to answer two simple questions: What happens to us in the midst of a disaster? And why do some of us do so much better than others? Our disaster personalities are more complex and ancient than we think. But they are also more malleable.

Excerpted from The Unthinkable by Amanda Ripley. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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