Books : reviews

Amanda Ripley.
The Unthinkable: who survives when disaster strikes---and why.
Arrow. 2008

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 12 May 2012

People act in a host of different ways in disasters, some very counterintuitive. In the book Ripley examines a variety of events, from plane crashes, tsunamis, fires, high school shootings, and the Twin Towers collapse, speaking to survivors and heroes, trying to unpick what was going on. Some of the anecdotes are fascinating, and demonstrate the amazing powers of people to adapt to horrendous circumstances.

That in fact is one of her main findings: in most disasters, most of the time, most people don't panic and riot (although panic can be induced in very special circumstances: a fear of being trapped, along with a sense of helplessness, and a sense of isolation). Instead of becoming headless chickens, during and immediately after major events, ordinary people usually act with great selflessness to help others. Yet most official disaster policies deliberately do not involve citizens in their planning, assuming (one almost thinks, ensuring) the public will be at best passively useless, at worst actively getting in the way.

The main, and unsurprising, finding is that people who have practised beforehand cope better during emergencies. For example, she suggests finding the stairs in your hotel (I already always do this: not only finding them, but actively walking down them several times during my stay). I was also horrified to discover that many American corporations do not have regular fire drills that actively evacuate the building; these are essential for knowing your way out, for practising, and even for helping discover when doors have become blocked. The story of Rick Rescorla, head of security for Morgan Stanley Dean Witter on the 73rd floor of the World Trade Centre, demonstrates this. After the bomb attack in 1993 he instituted a rigorous set of evacuation drills (apparently he had tried to do so beforehand, but had been ignored). In 2001:

p210. Rescorla taught Morgan Stanley employees to save themselves. It's a lesson that had become, somehow, rare and precious. When the tower collapsed, only thirteen Morgan Stanley colleagues---including Rescorla and four of his security officers---were inside. The other 2,687 were safe.

Rescorla and his people probably died trying to rescue those who had refused to save themselves.