The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes — and Why

“Most of us, I think, have imagined what it might be like to experience a plane crash or a fire or an earthquake,” writes Amanda Ripley in her engaging, enlightening and surprisingly upbeat new book, The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes — and Why. “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 ?”

Perhaps you thought it was just you? If so, who can blame you? Anxiety about how we may respond under duress — personal or shared — is hardly the stuff of chipper cocktail party chatter, or even family table talk. Often, it’s not even something we divulge to our closest confidants. And so we keep the fretful monologue to ourselves — doomed to repeat it without ever resolving it, hoping it will never matter anyway.

Alas, this collective silence can leave us unprepared if we do ever encounter the disasters we secretly mull, contends Ripley, a Time magazine staff writer, who likens it to “holding dress rehearsals for a play without knowing any of our lines.” But Ripley’s book — which grew out of an article she wrote about 9/11 survivors, the lucky thousands who got out of the World Trade Center alive after the 2001 terrorist attacks — is not a how-to book but rather an exploration of our “disaster selves.” It aims to help us predict how we might behave by tracing common disaster responses — the behavior of those who survive, those who do not, and those who rush in to save others — and so increase our chances of survival. Because though it’s not likely that we will die in a disaster, it is very likely that, at some point, we will be affected by one: “In an August 2006 Time magazine poll of one thousand Americans, about half of those surveyed said they had personally experienced a disaster of public emergency,” Ripley notes.

I know, I know. The book sounds like a total downer. But really, it’s not only hopeful but also?strangely soothing, filled with real answers for those perpetual questions in our head. For instance, according to Ripley’s research, pretty much everyone facing an unexpected calamity goes through three stages: denial, which can cause a deadly delay in response or allow us to function calmly in the midst of upheaval; deliberation, in which we figure out how we will respond to the situation we’ve finally come to accept; and the decisive moment, in which we take action.

These three phases of the “survival arc” provide the structure of The Unthinkable. Within them, Ripley explores why procrastination cost some 9/11 victims their lives and why others efficiently filed down seemingly endless flights of stairs and into safety. She examines why so many people failed to leave New Orleans despite ample evidence that Hurricane Katrina was far more vicious and deadly than any other storm they’d seen before. Tracing the experiences of hostages, hostage takers, fire, gun-rampage, stampede, and airplane-crash survivors, and rescuers — and consulting countless experts — she reveals what fear can do, what resilience looks like, and how the phenomenon of groupthink can, paradoxically, either save lives or spell doom.

More than anything, Ripley wants us to learn from the experiences of the many people who have given her remarkably revealing, candid interviews. From Clay Violand, a junior at Virgina Tech when Seung-Hui Cho opened fire on his French class, we learn that our bodies sometimes tell us exactly what to do in an emergency, and that going completely limp can be the key to surviving a shooting rampage. (Violand made it out alive by playing dead under his desk.) Ripley likens this sudden numbness to the response some animals have when confronted by a predator: “Animals that go into paralysis have a better chance of surviving certain kinds of attacks,” she writes. “Paralysis?may be more adaptive than it seems.” Context, however, is key: in the case of airplane travelers who remain stunned and immobile in their seats in the midst of an emergency evacuation, paralysis can be deadly.

The narratives of Darla McCollister and Walter Bailey, survivors of the 1977 fire at Cincinnati’s Beverly Hills Supper Club that killed 167 people, reveal much about how people stick to certain roles in an emergency. Hosts and supervisors — people in even nominal leadership positions — tend to take charge; guests wait to be told what to do. Yet, we also learn that sometimes, people step out of those roles in remarkable ways, as did Bailey, an 18-year-old busboy who took control and rescued hundreds.

One of the most gripping stories recounted here is that of Rick Rescorla — the head of security for Morgan Stanley Dean Witter at the World Trade Center on September 11th. From him we learn the value of preparedness, of practice, and of resistance to the impulse toward everyday denial. In order to know what to do when disasters strike, we first have to admit to ourselves that they happen, and content with that fact. Rescorla’s longtime insistence that every one of Morgan Stanley’s employees — and their visitors — know how to exit their offices in the World Trade Center’s upper floors and his guidance on that day (“Be still. Be silent. Be calm,” he ordered through his bullhorn as the evacuating Morgan Stanley employees felt the second plane hit), saved thousands of lives on 9/11. He died trying to save more.

As former FEMA director James Lee Witt tells Ripley, “What I’ve always found is that people will respond to meet a need in a crisis if they know what to do. You give people the opportunity to be part of something that will make a difference, and they will step up.” Amanda Ripley wants us all to acknowledge the unthinkable and learn what to do in the event that it does happen. So that, like the survivors she consults and Boy Scouts everywhere, we can be prepared — and live to help others.