When 'Unthinkable' Catastrophe Hits, Who Survives? In her new book, The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes — and Why, journalist Amanda Ripley searches for patterns in human behavior in response to emergency situations.
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When 'Unthinkable' Catastrophe Hits, Who Survives?

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When 'Unthinkable' Catastrophe Hits, Who Survives?

When 'Unthinkable' Catastrophe Hits, Who Survives?

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This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. Neal Conan is away. Last week, Hurricane Dolly ripped through homes and caused major flooding in Texas and New Mexico. Last Friday, a Qantas plane was forced to make an emergency landing after suffering a dramatic loss of pressure caused by a huge hole in the aircraft. And minutes ago, a 5.8 earthquake hit Chino Hills, California, near Los Angeles. And of course, we were watching that story for reports of damage or injury.

When we hear those kinds of stories, most of us wonder how we would respond when disaster strikes. We envision what we might do, or fail to do, in that crucial moment when escape may be possible. Journalist Amanda Ripley, who covers disasters for TIME Magazine, says that most people facing disaster act in surprising ways. It's not the hysterical every-man-for-himself mentality we often see in the movies. On the contrary, people often remain surprisingly calm.

She interviewed survivors from Hurricane Katrina and the attacks on the World Trade Center, as well as survivors of fires, stampedes, massacres, and earthquakes to find out what they've learned from the experience, and the result is a new book called "The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why." She joins in a minute to talk about how to think clearly and get out alive in crisis situations.

Later in the hour, we'll talk about those curveball questions in a job interview, but first, surviving disasters. Today, we want to hear from disaster survivors. If you've survived a fire, flood, earthquake, or plane crash, what went through your head at the time? And how did you get out alive? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can comment on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Joining us now is Amanda Ripley, and she's a senior writer for TIME Magazine. Her new book is called "The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes" and she's with me here in Studio 3A. Very good to have you with us.

Ms. AMANDA RIPLEY (Senior Writer, TIME Magazine; Author, "The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why"): Thank you. Thanks for having me.

NEARY: You know, right at the beginning of this book, Amanda, you talk about the experience of survivors of the World Trade Center on 9/11, and one of the really interesting things is that people waited an average of six minutes before evacuating the World Trade Center. What were they doing? I mean, what were they thinking? Why didn't they just rush out of the building?

Ms. RIPLEY: You know, they were doing all sorts of interesting things. Many of them were listening to directions that turned out to be wrong from the Port Authority, to stay put. But most people in these situations, the first thing you do - and we all, I think, can relate to this from fire drills that we've been in - the first thing that you do when something goes wrong or seems odd is you look to other people. And this is true even in very dramatic situations, which was the case in most floors in the Trade Center, where there's smoke, the building lurches dramatically, you know that something is horribly wrong. People immediately congregated and talked to each other. So, there's a lot of socializing that happens in these situations.

NEARY: Something else you mentioned, too, is that they gathered things, and that that's very common.

Ms. RIPLEY: Yes. This is really interesting, actually. You see it not only in fires but also plane crashes, totally unexpected, very different kinds of disasters, where people immediately look for things to take with them. So, the woman that I focus on in the book remembers walking in circles in her cubicle, looking for things to take. So, she obviously picked up her purse, and then she picked up a mystery novel she'd been reading. And this is a woman who was in the '93 bombings as well. So, she had a point of reference. She knew how serious this was, but there was this powerful instinct to take things with her, which is also, actually, a huge problem in plane crashes.

NEARY: Yeah. Well, this points to something I wanted you to explain and that is that there are several steps in the process that people go through when they're in a disaster, and the first one is, not surprisingly, denial. They sort of - if they are in a position where they can deny it, they try and deny that anything major is going on. What are those steps? Take us through those steps.

Ms. RIPLEY: So, there seem to be three main steps, and the first one, as you say, is a profound sense of denial. And I guess denial - I was never really happy with that word, because it's more powerful than that, but I couldn't quite come up with the right word. But it is to the point where firefighters will tell you - they all have stories of going into bars or restaurants or stores and seeing people milling about, drinking their beer, with smoke filling the room.

So, it's very powerful, this first phase, where your brain tries to sort through its database of experiences and find a script. And if it doesn't have one for a fire, then it will assume that - it will be quite creative, actually, in coming up with an alternative narrative. And then the second step is usually deliberation, which is this milling process that I was talking about, where people on average, say, for hurricanes, check with four or five different sources before evacuating. And the last one is what I call the decisive moment, which is when people finally take action, or more often, they shut down and stop moving altogether.

NEARY: That completely fascinated me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: That the most common reaction is that people do nothing.

Ms. RIPLEY: Right. I mean, we expect the most common reaction, I think, to be the opposite, to be panic. But in reality, what you see again and again is that people shut down. They stop moving altogether. And this remains something of a mystery. We know very little about this. But I did talk to some evolutionary psychologists who have studied this in animals, and every animal they have ever tested behaves the exact same way.

So, there's a good reason to believe that this is actually an evolved defense mechanism. It's not a terrible idea. In fact, in the book, I discuss a survivor of the Virginia Tech shootings who did this, and it may have been useful in that situation, because a predator will tend to avoid prey that appears to be not moving or sick. So, you see that it's not a bad strategy, except it's not appropriate for most modern disasters.

NEARY: The Virginia Tech story is very interesting because the story you tell is a young man who was the only person who survived the shooting in his classroom by doing nothing and pretending to be dead, essentially. But you also contrasted that with the story of a ferry, I think, where one of the survivors described it - and it sounds almost eerie - as he was trying to get off the ferry just seeing people just standing there...

Ms. RIPLEY: Right.

NEARY: Doing nothing.

Ms. RIPLEY: Right. That was the sinking of the Estonia in 1994, which was and is the biggest sea disaster in modern European history, horrible situation where the ferry sunk very quickly, and many people had no chance to get out, but a lot of people did. They were near the deck. It was very late at night, so most people were in their sleeping cabins.

But this gentleman who made it out remembers - and other survivors also report - entire groups of people not moving at all, just staring into space, as the boat continued to capsize. So, it is, again, the kind of thing that looks to be more than just simple shock or something, although obviously that's part of it, but appears to be your brain defaulting into a behavior that just isn't the right behavior for that situation.

NEARY: Yeah. Mm-hm. We're talking with Amanda Ripley about her book, "The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes." If you'd like to give us a call, the number is 800-989-8255. And we are going to take a call now from Diane and she's calling from California. Hi, Diane.

DIANE (Caller): Hi. The point that I wanted to make is that we survived two days and two nights on the roof in New Orleans after Katrina. People in New Orleans hoard things before the storms. We had provisions. We had enough provisions for my family, and we gathered all the old folks that had been left in the neighborhood. We had eight adults, a child, three dogs, and a cat on the roof with enough provisions for a week. We could have survived - we did survive the storm.

What we weren't prepared for was the demolition of the levees. We did not know how long, and we saw the authorities, the military, in the neighborhood not doing anything for the people. So we didn't know how long we would have to be there with our week's worth of provisions. What made us get out of there after two days - some of the old folks wouldn't eat, because they didn't want to use the toilet, a bucket I had on the roof.

So, when we got out, people - when you saw people at the Superdome and at the Convention Center angry, they were furious. Because when they were picked up from their homes, as were we, we're told do not bring anything. Everything you need will be where we're taking you. And when they got people to the Superdome and the Convention Center, there was nothing. And they had the police and soldiers keeping the people there, not allowing them to go back into the community to get provisions. But I just want to say that we didn't freeze. We did everything we had to do to take care of each other...

NEARY: Let me ask Amanda - I'd like to ask Amanda to respond to what you're saying, because I think part of what Amanda addresses in this book is people getting bad advice, which I think - or people not...

DIANE: We got horrible advice.

NEARY: All right. Let me ask Amanda to respond. Thanks so much for your call, Diane.

Ms. RIPLEY: Right. Well, that's all really powerful and important memories, and I'm glad that Diane called. I think that the phase of denial that's relevant to hurricanes is before the storm, where you're deciding what to do, what to - what preparations to take, whether to evacuate. And that is a very challenging decision to make, as you know. I think that it is, in every disaster, the most important thing that people desperately need, more than food and water, usually, is information.

And so you raise the point that that is extremely difficult to get in those moments. To get good information in a major disaster is almost impossible, as we saw, for government officials, for regular people, for reporters, all of whom had bad information before, during, and afterwards. I think it is a tribute to the community that Diane had around her and had built with her family that they had prepared as well as they had. But yes, there are real limits to what individual people can do.

NEARY: That also gets to the question, should you rely on the pros to save you on a disaster? To what degree should you rely on the professionals? To what degree do you rely on yourself?

Ms. RIPLEY: I think that we should rely more on ourselves in almost every single case. In this country since 9/11, we've built this professionalized - we've built up a professionalized rescue corps of first responders, and we've spent over 23 billion dollars in equipping states and locals. But those are not the people who are there. On every major disaster, the majority of life-saving is done by regular people.

So, I think we need to shift the conversation a little bit, and this was really one of the great frustrations I had in covering homeland security for TIME, and one of the reasons I wrote the book is that we need to start investing time and resources and money in regular people who are always first on the scene in every major disaster. And it's interesting that Diane is now in California, where I'm sure she knows that in the event of a - the big one, not the one we just had, thankfully, but a bigger earthquake. It'll be seven days on your own.

NEARY: Yeah. We're talking with Amanda Ripley about how to survive a disaster. If you've kept calm in a tough situation, give us a call. We're taking your calls at 800-989-8255. Or send us an email. The address is Talk of the Nation at NPR - talk@npr.org. I'm Lynn Neary. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. We've all had the nightmares - plane crashes, floods, tornadoes - but it's hard to imagine how we might actually respond when disaster strikes. We're talking with TIME reporter Amanda Ripley. She spoke with survivors of a range of catastrophic events. Her book about how we react in disaster is called "The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes."

If you want to read an excerpt from "The Unthinkable," or hear more from Amanda Ripley on how men and women react differently in emergencies, or why we have a tendency to laugh when the worst happens, go to our website at npr.org/talk. If you've survived the worst, give us a call at 800-989-8255. Let us know how you escaped. Our email is talk@npr.org, and our blog, npr.org/blogofthenation.

And you know, Amanda, I - when I was reading your book, as I've been saying, we all tend to imagine, well, how would I act? And I hate to say it, but I can't believe that I wouldn't be a panicker. I just think I'd panic. But it's interesting to me to hear you say most people don't panic. Most people get very calm or they just sort of shut down a bit. But we all have different personalities. Talk a little bit about that as well.

Ms. RIPLEY: I like to say, you have a disaster personality, and it makes sense to get acquainted with it, you know, now before you need it, and hopefully you won't, and most people never do. But it's not what you'd probably expect, is what I found. So, it's very different - your brain actually, you know, behaves very differently, with a whole different set of rules. Even your senses change under extreme duress. So, your sense of sight, and smell, and sound, all those things change dramatically.

But there is definitely a pattern as to what your disaster personality will probably look like, and it depends often on the phase of your life that you're in. So, for example, if you are a woman with children who's a tourist in visiting a city on vacation, you're going to be extremely risk-averse, and you're going to evacuate before anyone else.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RIPLEY: Then at other points in your life, you will calculate those risks differently. So, you see a difference there in gender already. But there also are clearly some indications that there's a biological component to how you behave in the moment. So, the military's done a lot of research on this, because they want to understand why two soldiers, both of whom are equally qualified and competent, and strong, and dedicated, behave so differently under extreme stress. And they have found a genetic component, literally differences in the chemicals in your blood before something goes wrong. There are differences, for example, in Special Forces soldiers even before they become Special Forces soldiers, which is interesting.

NEARY: What are the differences?

Ms. RIPLEY: Well, they seem to have the ability to absorb extreme stress without over-responding. In other words, going into the extreme fear response that is - can be debilitating, where you get that shut-down behavior.

NEARY: Yeah.

Ms. RIPLEY: And then they also seem to recover more fully and more quickly afterwards.

NEARY: Hm. Let's take a call now from Gary, and Gary is calling from San Francisco. Hi, Gary.

GARY (Caller): Hi there.

NEARY: Go ahead.

GARY: I survived the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, and was about five minutes from being killed in a building that collapsed. And I was driving at that time on an elevated freeway. And I can just give you my impressions of what I experienced and - which was quite bizarre, being that we are driving on this freeway. All the cars, without noticing it, seemed to have the same reaction.

Everyone was processing the situation. The elevated freeway was moving. I processed that a mine collapsed. It took awhile to figure out whether the tires were blown or it was an earthquake. But when I came to a stop, after going 40 to 50 miles an hour, every car was stopped exactly as if they were driving in the distance they were at full speed. There was no accident. The cars weren't up against each others' bumpers. It was very bizarre that the group had this similar reaction.


GARY: And I can't imagine that there was kind of shut down. There was a more of a processing of what was occurring. And I think the real issue of surviving disaster is the post-surviving and processing, and things like PTSD and so on, that come on after the initial reaction.

NEARY: Yeah. And what's your reaction to that, Amanda? I mean, to me, it almost does sound like people - well, go ahead. What's your reaction, Amanda?

Ms. RIPLEY: Well, I think it's really fascinating that everybody responded, you know, physically and emotionally in the same way.

NEARY: Yeah.

Ms. RIPLEY: And almost synchronized. And it shows you that by and large people perform very well. I mean, this is - this was the sort of irony about writing a book about disasters, is that I came away from it more hopeful than I ever was before. By and large, people do very well. They do better than we expect to do. And the more information they have beforehand, the more experience they have, the better they will perform.

I do think that there is a connection, however, between your performance during the event and your recovery afterwards. So, it's clear that posttraumatic stress disorder is linked in many cases to how convinced you are that you behaved well during the disaster. So, if you think that you did everything that you could do, and you feel some sense of agency over your own destiny, then you tend to recover more quickly and more fully. So, there is an interesting connection between the during and the after.

NEARY: Des that satisfy you, Gary? Or...

GARY: Thank you. I (unintelligible) next one's answer.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for calling. Bye-bye. We're going to take Constance now, and Constance is calling from Grand Junction, Colorado. Hi, Constance.

CONSTANCE (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call, and Amanda, I look forward to reading your book. I was an emergency planner after the '89 earthquake in Oakland, and spent time training neighborhood emergency-response teams. They had to be their own response teams and neighborhoods, and we put them through a test just like the firemen and police do. And it was always interesting to watch.

And I think the most important thing for neighborhoods to do, get to know your neighbors, find out if you've got somebody who has particular skills, and then talk about a meeting place that you would meet following in a nature disaster, because there's often a lot of resources right there, right handy, if you know about it and you don't have to just call and wait for 911 to respond. And thanks for your program.

NEARY: Thanks for calling. Amanda, you're nodding your head, so I think that's something that you - advice you would give people as well.

Ms. RIPLEY: Well, what I love about that point is that unlike, say, the preparedness tip to build a kit and store water, which is, you know, all very well and good, the idea of getting to know your neighbors brings benefits whether or not anything ever goes wrong. Because, you know, we have to do things that we're going to get something out of either way, I think. And I have a great story about a friend of mine this summer who lives in Tulsa, and they kept having tornadoes.

So, finally, somebody in her neighborhood said, why don't we have a block party? Because they would find themselves out on the street at night after the power was shut off, and they would suddenly realize that they had never met their neighbors before, and they started chatting. So, they have this block party. And at the party, they also exchange names and phone numbers, and they figure out, oh, that there's a blind lady who lives around the corner, and then there's an elderly gentleman and a disabled lady, and everybody gets assigned somebody to check in on.

And they also figure out that that one man has a generator. So, that goes to the point that there are a lot of assets around you that you probably don't know about. And sure enough, the next tornado rolled in, as it always does, and they followed through with their plan, and they checked on each other. And so they had - that's a great example of how a block party is perhaps the best way that you can build resilience in your community, and also get something out of it either way.

NEARY: Planning ahead of time, once again, that idea of planning ahead of time for what's going to come. If you'd like to give Amanda - give us a call and talk with Amanda Ripley about her book, "The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes," give us a call at 800-989-8255. I want to take a call from Upton. Upton is calling from Rockford, Illinois. Hi, Upton.

UPTON (Caller): Hello.

NEARY: Go ahead.

UPTON: I was on United 232 when it crashed in Sioux City, Iowa. And in that flight, of course, there were 112 people killed. I think one of the things that became very critical after the fact - in the first place, the people in the cabin seemed to remain very calm most of the time, although I think, based upon what people said afterwards, many of them were terrified. But I think that, in fact, the crew, the cabin crew and the flight crew did a remarkable job of keeping everything under control.

One of the things that I learned very clearly as a result of that experience was that although airplane crashes are extremely rare, there are things that you can do as a passenger to maximize your probability of survival. And there are lots of websites, the FAA and some other people have sites that have all kinds of information...

NEARY: What did you learn, Upton, that you could do? I mean, what did you learn from it?

UPTON: Well, in my case, among other things, my Dacron shirt was melted, and the lady next to me had her nylons, pantyhose, fused to her legs. That's a wrong kind of clothing to wear on an airplane. You should wear natural fibers - cotton or wool or leather - long-sleeved shirts, long pants, and things like that, so that you're covered up. You need to know exactly where all of the emergency exits are that are near you, not just one but two or three. You need to know how to open the emergency doors and get out.

And you hear people talking about the safety measures in an aircraft and how there are lights in the floor and all the rest of this thing in case you may crash in the dark. Well, in our case, the lights didn't work. It was the middle of the day. The doors didn't open because the fuselage of the airplane disintegrated. It broke into a whole bunch of different pieces. So, there are specific things that people can do in order to make sure that they have the best possible chance of survival, and then, remain calm and act quickly.

NEARY: Yeah. Did anybody panic - nobody panicked, then?

UPTON: Oh, I wouldn't say nobody panicked. There were people who were. But in an airplane as large as a DC-10, you know, you are aware of the people close to you. But people in a different compartment, you aren't even going to hear them.

NEARY: Yeah.

UPTON: So, there certainly could have been people who were very panicky, but the people around me seemed to be very calm.

NEARY: All right. Well, thanks so much for your call, Upton.

UPTON: You're most welcome.

NEARY: And Amanda, I wanted to ask you, Upton said something interesting, because it was a little bit counter to something I read in your book, which was - he said you have to act quickly, but you also said you have to - that the people who survive airplane crashes actually - and it's very counterintuitive - tend to move more slowly, or at least not, you know, get panicked and try and push out of the plane. I think you said something to that effect. Or did I - am I misinterpreting what you said?

Ms. RIPLEY: Well, I think that it's certainly true that you want to move as quickly as you can to get off a plane because the - how most plane crashes end up is on the ground and on fire. And so, you have very little time, a matter of seconds, before the smoke - because of what's on the plane, the smoke will become very toxic. So, Upton is correct that you need to move very quickly. But I also - every example I've looked at shows that, you know, widespread panic is very rare, just as he said.

The people who tend to do better in the research that has been done are the people who read the safety briefing cards. Believe it or not, when you listen to the silly, you know, pre-flight briefing that so many of us ignore, and I would argue the reason for that is not that those briefings are so good - they're really not that good - but because you've given your brain something to work with. The problem with airplane crashes - and obviously, they're very rare. But the problem is that we're so unfamiliar with the environment that most people tend to become very passive.

You really play the role that you were playing before the crash happened, of passenger, and you wait for somebody to tell you what to do. I was just looking at a study of what happens during rapid decompressions after this Qantas flight. And what they found is that people just stare, often, at the masks dangling from the ceiling when the oxygen masks drop down during a decompression, and they don't do anything. They're waiting to be told or helped. And the problem is that's not going to happen on a plane, because there just isn't the manpower for that.

So, I think it's certainly true, and anyone who studies plane crashes will tell you that they count the rows - as soon as they get on a plane, they count number of rows between their seat and the two nearest exits, because they know in a smoke situation, it's going to be like you're blindfolded. So, it's really helpful to have, you know, a little bit of data to work with. Again, they know that it's extremely unlikely there's going to be a crash, but given that this is something that we're genuinely afraid of, most people on some level, and also that it takes so little effort to give your brain a little something to work with, it does seem, you know, like, a reasonable idea.

NEARY: Amanda Ripley is the author of the book, "The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes." And you are listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I guess, Amanda, what - how can people kind of train their minds to really think clearly in a crisis? And you know, what's the one - probably the one real indicator that you might be able to survive a disaster, just in terms of personality or in terms of what you might do?

Ms. RIPLEY: It seems to me that the biggest predictor is what you've done before. So there are different predictors, right? It depends on the disaster, et cetera, et cetera. But if you've had - if you've given your brain anything to work with - so for example, you know, I now take the stairs out of my office every day. It's only six floors, and it's faster than the elevator, and because I'm patient, I get something out of that either way. But I also could do it blindfolded at this point.

So, if you have something to work with, your brain is incredibly agile, and your brain is really flexible. So, that's something that we're just beginning to really appreciate, is how much you can adapt to the situation. But it helps to have something to work with. If you do know that you're someone who tends to be pretty anxious on a normal day when nothing special is going on, then you may face a slightly higher risk that you will overreact or choose the wrong path under extreme stress.

So, in that case, again, it just makes sense to try to figure out what your biggest risks are, depending on where you live and how you live, and then give yourself a little rehearsal to the degree that that's possible, and you can really overcome those deficits. Those are not insurmountable problems. I really think that that's true. And you know, one kind of funny tip that police and soldiers have learned, I mean, they go through the same fear response, right?

NEARY: Mm-hm.

Ms. RIPLEY: Is what they call combat breathing, which I've actually started using all the time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RIPLEY: And you know, when you're in traffic or something's happened and you need to - you can feel your heart pounding...

NEARY: Yeah.

Ms. RIPLEY: And you know that you're going to perform better if you can just chill out a little bit. So, it's basically, you know, breath in for four counts, hold for four counts, out for four counts, hold for four counts and repeat. And it's no different, really, than yoga or Lamaze.

NEARY: Right.

Ms. RIPLEY: But of course, you know, we'll call it combat breathing because it sounds cooler. But you know, police officers and SWAT teams, like, serious people who deal with these situations have learned that just doing that in a moment really does - it's the only way that you can kind of consciously access the fear response in your brain and amp it down a little bit so that it becomes useful to you rather than debilitating.

NEARY: Let me see if I can read this one email before you have to go. As an eyewitness at a disaster - as eyewitnesses at a disaster are unreliable - this is from Mark - I'm curious how the author gathers her material. I was in an apartment fire. I woke up to flames, tried to douse them with water, searched for an extinguisher, then ran the length of the hallway to pull the fire alarm. When I returned, I stood in the room for a moment and watched my belongings burn.

At that point, another tenant entered with an extinguisher, though far too late to do any good. Later, I learned from a fireman that I'd been standing in the middle of the room in a daze, only that the other tenant had seen me there and he saw me only for an instant. He hadn't seen anything before or after, only that brief moment, and that became the story. And you've mentioned that in your book, that people don't even remember what they've done in the moment.

Ms. RIPLEY: Right. And that is a real challenge, is that you get - I'll talk to different people from different - the same disaster and get a very different narrative. So, I tried to sort of talk to as many people as possible, and then whenever possible, use footage and video and audiotape to try to piece together some semblance of the truth.

NEARY: Yeah. Amanda, if you can stay with us, we want to talk to you a little longer and take some more calls. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: Right now, we are talking with Amanda Ripley. She's a senior writer for TIME Magazine and the author of the book, "The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes." And we're going to take a call. Craig in Denver, Colorado, is on the line. Hi, Craig.

CRAIG (Caller): Hi, how are you?

NEARY: Good. Go ahead.

CRAIG: Well, in 1997, I was in Israel and I was on Ben Yehuda Street when there was a terrorist bombing, and I was actually in a jewelry store. The interesting thing was that the group that I was with, there were three of us in there, we all got down immediately. And the store clerk was right next to me, and I actually had to hold her down after the first bombing. About eight seconds later, there was a second bombing, and then, I guess, seven seconds after that, there was a third. And if she had gotten up and gone out, she probably have been killed. Now, later on, she said to me, which I thought was very interesting, that, you know, she's a native Israeli, who was very used to terrorist bombings, but her instinct was to get up and go out.

NEARY: Hm. And you knew immediately the thing to do is to get down or you're just...

CRAIG: Well, it's very interesting. Initially, because all the glass shelves broke and the lights broke out, you know, my instinct was, this is an earthquake, and then I realized where I was, and immediately got down on the floor. And I actually held her down because she kept trying to get up. And she said to me later on, you know, how was it that you knew to stay down? I mean, I'm born and raised here. And I think because I wasn't born and raised there, I knew this was dangerous.

NEARY: Interesting. Amanda, do you have any insight into that situation based on your research?

Ms. RIPLEY: Well, I think it's - you know, in so many situations, there is no true north, is there? I mean, it's really hard to know what the right thing to do is in the middle of the moment. There is a scenario where that building could've collapsed and she might've been right to run. Luckily, in this case, Craig's instinct was absolutely correct, and he probably saved her life, you know? But it is - what I've tried to do with the book is a little bit tricky. I mean, I'm trying to overlay incredibly irrational, chaotic moments with some rational analysis of how we behave. And so, there are definitely moments in doing that where I realized, you know what? There is no true north, and there is no way to know for sure, what the right thing to do is.

NEARY: Or what you will do or what...

Ms. RIPLEY: Or what you will do. But I would argue that the pendulum is way too far in the other direction. You know, our national conversation about disasters is very much about God and government and not about regular people. So, in other words, if we know that disasters are becoming more common and more expensive, which they are, then it makes sense to learn as much as we can about how we will behave and how we can do better, realizing that in many situations, it will be unclear what the right thing is to do. But you know, it's just like any risk, like cancer or getting in a car accident. You should do what you can, I think, to reduce the risk.

NEARY: All right, thanks so much for your call, Craig.

CRAIG: Thank you.

NEARY: And we'll just take one more call. We're going to go to Naina (ph) and she's calling from Royal Oaks, Michigan.

NAINA: Hello.

NEARY: Hi, Naina.

NAINA: Hi. Yeah, I was in the tornado that came through downtown Kalamazoo in 1980. I was a freshman in college. And downtown Kalamazoo was famous for its pedestrian mall, and we were literally in the middle of the mall, an out - open - outdoor mall, when we heard the sirens go off and felt the tornado come through. And we literally dove underneath some cement benches that were there for the - you know, for the shoppers. And my worry was I thought my hands were going to give out before the tornado was through. So, I wasn't - you know, I wasn't sure what was going to happen. I could hang on long enough before the tornado got (unintelligible)...

NEARY: So, it's just - again, this is an example of sort of just instinct taking over.

Ms. RIPLEY: Yeah.

NAINA: Yeah, I think it was my elementary-school training, you know, dive underneath your desk and cover your head, (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RIPLEY: You know, I'm glad you raised that point, because you remember, I think it was about a month or a month and a half ago, there was that tornado that went through the Boy Scout camp? And you know, four kids died. It was a serious tragedy, but it was also a lesson to the rest of us.

One of those boy scouts later told a reporter, if it had to happen somewhere, I'm glad it happened at a Boy Scout camp. Because the day before, they had done a drill for this exact problem, and when the - somebody saw a funnel cloud approaching, they flipped a switch and had a siren going, and all those kids started running for shelter. So, you see that the boy scouts, actually, have figured this out, and somewhere along the line as kids grow older, we lose this lesson. NEARY: All right, Naina, thanks so much for calling in.

NAINA: Thank you very much.

NEARY: Amanda, do you feel more ready to face a disaster in the event that it ever happens to you after having written this book?

Ms. RIPLEY: Well, there is some pressure there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RIPLEY: It certainly would be embarrassing if I screwed up. But I - you know what I do feel? Is I feel less worried about almost everything. And I didn't think of myself as excessively worried before, but covering a lot of disasters and crime and terrorism, you inevitably think about it more than the average person probably should. But I came away from it really very hopeful about the level of competence of most of the people around us, and the room for improvement is also vast and encouraging.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for being with us, Amanda.

Ms. RIPLEY: Thank you.

NEARY: Amanda Ripley is a senior writer for TIME Magazine. Her book is called "The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes." And there is a link to her website on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation, and she joined us here today in Studio 3A.

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