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Don't just stand there, survive

From deconsumption via Code Three (originally appearing in Time magazine):

How to Get Out Alive

When the plane hit Elia Zedeno's building on 9/11, the effect was not subtle. From the 73rd floor of Tower 1, she heard a booming explosion and felt the building actually lurch to the south, as if it might toppl ... she shouted, "What's happening?" You might expect that her next instinct was to flee. But she had the opposite reaction. "What I really wanted was for someone to scream back, 'Everything is O.K.! Don't worry. It's in your head.'"

She didn't know it at the time, but all around her, others were filled with the same reflexive incredulity. And the reaction was not unique to 9/11. Whether they're in shipwrecks, hurricanes, plane crashes or burning buildings, people in peril experience remarkably similar stages. And the first one--even in the face of clear and urgent danger--is almost always a period of intense disbelief.

Luckily, at least one of Zedeno's colleagues responded differently. "The answer I got was another co-worker screaming, 'Get out of the building!'" she remembers now. Almost four years later, she still thinks about that command. "My question is, What would I have done if the person had said nothing?"

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...The people who made it out of the World Trade Center, for example, waited an average of 6 min. before heading downstairs ... But the range was enormous. Why did certain people leave immediately while others lingered for as long as half an hour? ... About 1,000 took the time to shut down their computers, according to NIST.

... Large groups of people facing death act in surprising ways. Most of us become incredibly docile. We are kinder to one another than normal. We panic only under certain rare conditions. Usually, we form groups and move slowly, as if sleepwalking in a nightmare.

Zedeno still did not immediately flee on 9/11, even after her colleague screamed at her ... "I never found myself in a hurry," she says. "It's weird because the sound, the way the building shook, should have kept me going fast. But it was almost as if I put the sound away in my mind."


In a crisis, our instincts can be our undoing. William Morgan, who directs the exercise-psychology lab at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, has studied mysterious scuba accidents in which divers drowned with plenty of air in their tanks. It turns out that certain people experience an intense feeling of suffocation when their mouths are covered. They respond to that overwhelming sensation by relying on their instinct, which is to rip out whatever is in their mouths. For scuba divers, unfortunately, it is their oxygen source. On land, that would be a perfect solution.

... Even when we're calm, our brains require 8 to 10 sec. to handle each novel piece of complex information. The more stress, the slower the process. Bombarded with new information, our brains shift into low gear just when we need to move fast ... That neurological process might explain, in part, the urge to stay put in crises. "Most people go their entire lives without a disaster," says Michael Lindell, a professor at the Hazard Reduction & Recovery Center at Texas A&M University. "So, the most reasonable reaction when something bad happens is to say, This can't possibly be happening to me."


On March 27, 1977, a Pan Am 747 awaiting takeoff at the Tenerife airport in the Canary Islands off Spain was sliced open without warning by a Dutch KLM jet that had come hurtling out of the fog at 160 m.p.h. The collision left twisted metal, along with comic books and toothbrushes, strewn along a half-mile stretch of tarmac. Everyone on the KLM jet was killed instantly. But it looked as if many of the Pan Am passengers had survived and would have lived if they had got up and walked off the fiery plane.

Floy Heck, then 70, was sitting on the Pan Am jet between her husband and her friends, en route from their California retirement residence to a Mediterranean cruise. After the KLM jet sheared off the top of their plane, Heck could not speak or move. "My mind was almost blank. I didn't even hear what was going on," she told an Orange County Register reporter years later. But her husband Paul Heck, 65, reacted immediately. He ordered his wife to get off the plane. She followed him through the smoke "like a zombie," she said. Just before they jumped out of a hole in the left side of the craft, she looked back at her friend Lorraine Larson, who was just sitting there, looking straight ahead, her mouth slightly open, hands folded in her lap. Like dozens of others, she would die not from the collision but from the fire that came afterward.

We tend to assume that plane crashes--and most other catastrophes--are binary: you live or you die, and you have very little choice in the matter. But in all serious U.S. plane accidents from 1983 to 2000, just over half the passengers lived, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. And some survived because of their individual traits or behavior--human factors, as crash investigators put it. After the Tenerife catastrophe, aviation experts focused on those factors--and people like the Hecks--and decided that they were just as important as the design of the plane itself.


What happened? Aren't disasters supposed to turn us into animals, driven by instinct and surging with adrenaline?

In the 1970s, psychologist Daniel Johnson was working on safety research for McDonnell Douglas. The more disasters he studied, the more he realized that the classic fight-or-flight behavior paradigm was incomplete. Again and again, in shipwrecks as well as plane accidents, he saw examples of people doing nothing at all. He was even able to re-create the effect in his lab. He found that about 45% of people in his experiment shut down (that is, stopped moving or speaking for 30 sec. or often longer) when asked under pressure to perform unfamiliar but basic tasks. "They quit functioning. They just sat there," Johnson remembers. It seemed horribly maladaptive. How could so many people be hard-wired to do nothing in a crisis?

But it turns out that that freezing behavior may be quite adaptive in certain scenarios. An animal that goes into involuntary paralysis may have a better chance of surviving a predatory attack. Many predators will not eat prey that is not struggling; that way, they are less likely to eat something sick or rotten that would end up killing them. Psychologist Gordon Gallup Jr. has found similar behavior among human rape victims. "They report being vividly aware of what was happening but unable to respond," he says.

In a fire or on a sinking ship, however, such a strategy can be fatal. So is it possible to override this instinct--or prevent it from kicking in altogether?

In the hours just before the Tenerife crash, Paul Heck did something highly unusual. While waiting for takeoff, he studied the 747's safety diagram. He looked for the closest exit, and he pointed it out to his wife. He had been in a theater fire as a boy, and ever since, he always checked for the exits in an unfamiliar environment. When the planes collided, Heck's brain had the data it needed. He could work on automatic, whereas other people's brains plodded through the storm of new information. "Humans behave much more appropriately when they know what to expect--as do rats," says Cynthia Corbett, a human-factors specialist with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).


Manuel Chea, then a systems administrator on the 49th floor of Tower 1, did everything right on 9/11. As soon as the building stopped swaying, he jumped up from his cubicle and ran to the closest stairwell. It was an automatic reaction. As he left, he noticed that some of his colleagues were collecting things to take with them. "I was probably the fastest one to leave," he says. An hour later, he was outside.
When I asked him why he had moved so swiftly, he had several theories. The previous year, his house in Queens, N.Y., had burned to the ground. He had escaped, blinded by smoke. Oh, yes, he had also been in a serious earthquake as a child in Peru and in several smaller ones in Los Angeles years later. He was, you could say, a disaster expert. And there's nothing like a string of bad luck to prepare you for the unthinkable.

The full text of the article is here.

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