Monday, April 29, 2013

Survivor Stories from the Titanic

Author: Walter Lord
A Night to RememberRW Holt, 1955260 pages
ISBN 0-03-027615-2
Book Review by Nasser Almareh
  ‘God himself could not sink this ship’ – this is just one quotation which describes Titanic – the ship that embodied all the technical innovations, hopes and fears of the humanity.
        A Night to Remember was written by Walter Lord about the sinking of this great and powerful ship. This book contains real events and stories that were presented to the author by sixty survivors from the real Titanic. Being non-fiction book, A Night to Remember is able to combine historical facts and journalistic approach to create the definite chronicle of events which happened on 15 April 1912. To my mind, the choice of such title of the book was not random. The story had this title, because Walter Lord wanted to stress that the mankind should learn on its mistakes and remember all the events that happened in the past to avoid their repetition. In other words, people can rely on technical development; however they should also be ready for unexpected turn of events and have a back-up plan in case something goes wrong.
        The story takes place on the ship while its sailing along the Atlantic Ocean. The book does not have a single narrator, but different survival stories are presented form different characters. From the beginning, the idyllic picture of the luxury ship is shown to the readers. At one point, the watchman sees the iceberg, however he does not react to this danger, because he (the same as everyone else) is sure that the ship is unsinkable. The passengers continue to have a rest, listen to the music band and enjoy the views even when they hear noises coming from the ship.
        However, when the rumors about the collision with an iceberg are confirmed, people begin to panic. In the course of events it turns out that the number of row boats in not enough to save all the people that’s why only women and children are able to survive. Above all, the author manages to show us many little tragedies of people: the separation of a happy family when mother and three daughters go in the lifeboats but father has to die; the despair of a man who let the woman have his seat in the boat and then got drunk; the story about young people who did not want to fight for seats and stayed at the ship till the end.
        Apart from the people who are placed in the boats, there are passengers on the ship which continues to sink and the crew realizes that they have to react quickly. The next day a wireless call for help is made but no one hears it. The survivors think that there is no hope to save their lives, while in reality they are saved by another boat, the Carpathia.
        Additionally, the book contains a list of all passengers’ names and after each name it is marked whether the person was or was not able to survive. In such a way it is possible to observe the destiny of every man and woman.

Willy Stöwer (22 May 1864 – 31 May 1931) was a German artist,
illustrator, author who 
depicted historical maritime events such as the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912.

        The book written by Walter Lord contains his own psychological research about people’s behavior in an emergency. Thus, the human aspect is an essential part of the Titanic story. Every person reacts in a specific way, which shows peculiarities and features of the character. For instance, when people find out information about the danger all of them try to save valuable things. However, the majority takes money and jewelry, while only one boy grasps the Bible. To my mind, it illustrates us how materialistic the people are and even in an emergency they continue to worry about their things, but not about spiritual values.
        Trying to save their lives some people behaved like animals, others – tried to help, no matter how complicated it was. One of the most emotional moments in the book was connected with the music band, which played while the rest of the people were running, crying and screaming. In critical situation some passengers waited calmly, some jumped from the deck into icy water. Hence, the real potential of the person, main benefits and drawbacks of the character are realized in life-or-death situations.
        Two more features that are demonstrated by the author are arrogance and carelessness. If people reacted quicker to the signs of danger, they could have been saved. However, they believed in technology which developed rapidly and even could not imagine the fact that something could be out of control. Moreover, this accident showed how fragile the life of the person is.
        Not only did this book touch psychological but also social and political aspects. Division into three classes is rather obvious. When the first-class passengers were given the boats, the third-class was locked in their compartments and doomed to die. Only some people managed to survive and get on the boats. Nevertheless, such cases were mostly exceptional than regular. What’s particularly remarkable is that all people at the ship knew about such order and even were not surprised by this social inequality.
        All things considered, the ship itself stands as a symbol of the society’s microcosm. Therefore, the author depicted the environment in which he lived with the help of the biggest victory and defeat of his time – Titanic.
        Walter Lord narrates about everything in a very realistic manner. Furthermore, the author himself stated that Titanic is ‘unsinkable subject’ and everyone should read about it and think about his/her behavior in such situation. I suppose that A Night to Remember can be recommended for different categories of people. Those, who are interested in history, would find there a lot of facts and real events; those, who are major in psychology, can analyze emotions and actions of participants; those, who want to know about technology, can focus on specifics of the ship itself. It is impressive that each person who reads it has different opinions. This illustrates the fact that A Night to Remember has many aspects and levels which enables everyone to choose their own vision of the story.
        The book about Titanic is an absolute page-turner. On the whole, the simple but remarkable and deep style of writing, presence of many life stories, historical context and author’s conclusions impressed me. The chronicle is worth reading because it makes everyone think, analyze and definitely will not leave the person indifferent. Due to this Lord’s plot was used as the basis for many other books about Titanic (‘The Long Night’, ‘Titanic: An Illustrated History’, ‘Remembering the Titanic’ etc.) and movies (the most famous one was directed by James Cameron).
        As shown above, A Night to Remember has influenced not only its readers, but made great impact on the development of world’s literature and cinematography.

Lord, Walter A Night to Remember. R&W Holt. First published in November 1955. 260 p. ISBN 0-03-027615-2

“The Right Thing” by Scott Waddle

Author:  Scott Waddle, Commander USS Greeneville, United States Navy (Ret.)
Title:  “The Right Thing”
Publisher: Integrity Publishers, A division of Integrity Media, Inc., 2002Non-fiction book, describing first-hand events aboard the USS Greeneville, 242 pages$21.99
Book Review by Michael Young
            Commander Scott Waddle was a devout United States Naval Officer who found himself in a life-changing event in the afternoon of February 9, 2001.  A “freak” collision accident between his Nuclear Submarine, the USS Greeneville and the fishing vessel, Ehime Maru resulted in a formal Naval inquiry which subsequently cost Commander Waddle his naval career.  In one, brief, eight minute period, the lives of nine Japanese civilians were taken accompanied by life-long suffering and anguish, experienced by the crew and Officers of the USS Greeneville.
The Author:
Scott Waddle
            Scott Waddle spent his entire life in and around the United States military.  His father, a retired Lieutenant Colonel with the United States Air Force, served a distinguished military career flying fighter jets all over the world.  Instinctively, Scott wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps; however, due to a sinus problem, flying was not in the “cards” for Scott. 
            With Scott’s dreams of being a pilot fading in the United States Air Force, a secondary thought of piloting aircraft for the Unites States Navy grew.  However, another less than favorable report from the Navy surgeon regarding Scott’s nasal problem further revealed Scott would never find himself within the cockpit of an aircraft.  The Navy, on-the-other-hand had another idea for Scott.  A career as a submariner looked intriguing and best of all, there were no stipulations with regards to nasal or sinus issues.
            Scott worked his way up the naval career ladder as a decorated and accomplished officer.  Various Navy assignments found Scott all over the world which subsequently resulted in a duty station at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  Now married and a father of one, Scott was at the top of his career serving as the Captain aboard the nuclear submarine, USS Greeneville.  With his future looking bright, a series of bad events accompanied by a few minutes of lackadaisical procedures implementation, the future of Commander Scott Waddle was instantly changed on 9 FEB 01 when his submarine collided with a Japanese fishing trawler off the coast of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  Despite Scott’s impeccable reputation as a decorated Naval Officer and clean track record, his numerous qualifications, degrees, and method of strict policy adherence came into question as Scott now faced his peer’s and friends before a United States Naval inquiry. 
            This is the first and only book authored by Scott Waddle.  It describes the firs-hand events of the tragic collision as they took place.  The events which lead up to the collision are intriguing as the leader learns and acquires a sense of what children within a military family might feel as they find themselves in new locations all over the world.  Even more interesting about the author, the reader learns of anguish, remorse, and hatred from the many life’s this tragic event encompassed towards the author.  Scott Waddle literally had to “put worlds back together” which included families of the nine deceased Japanese civilians, the crew of the USS Greeneville which included not only the author’s life, but his wife and daughter’s life as well.
Book Review:
            “The Right Thing” is book about honesty, integrity, tragedy, and life lessons.  As a reader involved in supervision and leading of personnel, I found this book to be a “guide” of what to do, what not to do and how to view one’s own career.  Scott Waddle was a career naval officer, who undoubtedly would have found himself among high ranking Navy commanding Officers.  His life was a journey trying to achieve the esteemed upper echelon levels within his branch of Military service.  Ironically, within mere minutes of that fateful collision between the USS Greeneville and the Ehime Maru, Scott quickly realized that everything he had done and aspired to do in his life’s journey of hard work, education, and steadfast dedication to the United States Navy was now sinking into the oceanic waters along with the crippled remains of the Ehime Maru off the coast of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
            “The Right Thing” is exactly the type of book every aspiring leader should seek out and read.  As this is not a scholarly book, it quite easily could find itself a required read within programs pertaining to leadership and supervision.  The author describes in detail his many different jobs and titles which directly affect leadership, training, preparation, and delivery of services as he strived for high remarks from his peers and favorable reflections from those he commanded and affiliated with.  Readers who find themselves in similar occupations dealing with leadership and supervision will find the author’s experiences and outlines beneficial and noteworthy as they prepare and strive to achieve similar accomplishments within their own work place.
            Additionally, readers of this book will find the importance of “owning up to one’s own mistakes”.  Commander Waddle found himself in a situation of “trying to please the crowd”.  As a result of this crowd pleasing, Commander Waddle failed to follow his own policies and commonly found practices of “doing things by the book”.  This failure to follow standardized procedures directly resulted in the accidental collision between the USS Greeneville and theEhime Maru.  Commander Waddle found himself defending his decisions and “owning up to his mistakes” before a formal Navy board of inquiries which subsequently cost Commander Waddle his command of the USS Greeneville, his career within the United States Navy as well as countless friends, colleagues, and his reputation.  It would have been easy to blame the failed SONAR contact of the Ehime Maru on those crew members who had been tasked with tracking any contacts within the vicinity of the USS Greeneville; however, as Commander Waddle states, “the buck stops here” and he describes his decision to accept any and all successes and failures which took place on-board the USS Greeneville during his command.
            Commander Scott Waddle’s career as a naval Officer is to be commended.  His integrity and character is that which is found to be in the highest degree of quality.  The collision between the USS Greeneville and Ehime Maru was nothing more than a “freak accident” and couldn’t be recreated in a thousand years.  The forever life-changing outcomes of this incident will remain in history as one of the most tragic submarine accidents in the history of the United States Navy.  However, the integrity which is displayed by Commander Waddle is also a story which should be remembered and outlined in the future to come.  Leading by example is a quality found to little amongst today’s emerging leadership.  “The Right Thing” is guide to be followed, recognized, and lived among leaders, supervisors and persons aspiring to levels of leadership.  I would highly recommend this book to all.  It is a very interesting and moving read!

Waddle, S. (2002). The Right Thing. Brentwood: Integrity Publishers.

How tragedy affected a city's people

The Unfinished Bombing – Oklahoma City in American Memory
Author:  Edward T. Linenthal
Oxford University Press, 2001
Paperback, 320 pages
ISBN-13: 978-0195161076

A Review by Julie Bowman
            Linenthal’s book, The Unfinished Bombing – Oklahoma City in American Memory, tells the story of the people of Oklahoma City and beyond in the aftermath of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.  The book focuses on the survivors, the residents of Oklahoma City, and the nation at large and the ways they all have struggled to find meaning and some sense of understanding in the five years after the bombing took place.  This is not a book about the bombing itself, and while I knew that opening the cover, I still expected to read a rehashed version of the actual events that occurred on April 19, 1995.  Instead, I found myself reading personal stories of survivors and family members and the many and varied ways in which not only did the event impact them, but how they have survived in the aftermath.  Linenthal’s book could be broken down into five parts:
  • How Oklahoma City fell into history,
  • Three different narratives that tell the story – the progressive, the redemptive and the toxic,
  • The inner life of a wounded community,
  • American culture and a need to memorialize/how the Oklahoma City memorial came to be, and finally,
  • Bonds of affection.
            Oklahoma City fell into history long before the bombing of the Murrah building when Native American’s were forcibly relocated there in the 1820s and then again during the homestead land grabs in the 1880s and 1890s.  However, Linenthal reminds us that these events and others did not violate “the assumed security and sanctity of the heartland” in the manner of the 1995 bombing.  We are told Oklahoma City fell into history because we were attacked from within by two of our own seemingly Americanized men, both having served honorably in the United States military.  We are reminded in the book that not only was the nation quick to blame some unknown Muslim group for the bombing, but when the pictures of the actual perpetrators were posted throughout the news for us to see, we wanted to deny the possibility that we could have possibly been attacked by our own.  “Despite the tenaciousness of the convictions of innocence, the bombing was widely felt as a fall into history, as if a contemporary Pandora’s box had been opened” (Linenthal, 2001).  We are told of the many different political voices – those looking for the “good” and those who thought the bombing would create a widespread climate of fear in the nation.  Ironically, Linenthal’s book did not reach bookstore shelves until a month after the events of 9/11, yet one can still hear these same differing political voices now speaking about New York City.

Three Narratives 
Edward Linenthal
            Linenthal uses three different narratives that tell three very different versions of the aftermath of the events of April 19, 1995.  This is what I believe to be the “meat” of the story.     First, the progressive narrative focuses on the sense of caring and connection that was created in a disaster shared by the community.  The progressive tells of the desire and determination the citizens of Oklahoma City possessed to find the positive in the tragedy.   Linenthal writes how the progressive narrative “invites people to focus on possibility, opportunity, healing, rebuilding.”  One such story the Author includes in the progressive narrative is that of a nurse, Rebecca Anderson, who is described as having “rushed into the building to help, was struck by falling concrete, and died four days later.  Her heart, liver, kidneys, and eyes were transplanted” (Linenthal, 2001).  Her desire and the desire of her family to donate her organs was truly a positive outcome from the tragedy.

          The redemptive narrative shows the widely varied response of the religious community in their own attempts to find meaning out of the events.  Linenthal refers to this as the “crisis of meaning” produced by the bombing.  One example Linenthal uses to illustrate the crisis of meaning is that of an FBI chaplain who told the author “My belief in the sovereignty of God is that he could have prevented it but he didn’t and I don’t know why” (Linenthal, 2002).  The redemptive narrative seeks to find reconciliation in the irreconcilable.

          Finally, we are taken to the toxic narrative in the story.  Toxic, Linenthal explains, in a manner opposite the progressive narrative.  “Just as the bomb brought the community and many families together, it also strained relations in offices and homes” (Linenthal, 2002).  The story tells the reader of Doris Jones, who lost her daughter, Carrie, in the bombing.  Carrie was pregnant when she was murdered in the bombing and while Jones had always had a good relationship with her son-in-law, the relationship fractured after three years, when he began a new relationship.  Jones said she could not get over how he was able to move on and find a new love, but that she would never have another daughter.  The toxic narrative also focuses on the lasting impacts to fire fighters and other rescue personnel, the conspiracy theories, resentment toward the very people sent to aid the survivors and the victims’ families, and the controversy surrounding the distribution of relief funds.  The toxic narrative also covers what Linenthal calls the “traumatic vision”, a debate questioning just who the bombing victims really were. 
            As the book progresses through to the “new world”, we are taken inside the wounded community that Oklahoma City had become.  We experience the lunacy of the sheer volume of mental health workers that descended upon the city; many of whom were young counselors who had no experience with death or its related issues.  “To say they were traumatized by the stories they heard is an understatement” (Linenthal, 2002).  Linenthal looks at the ways grief was medicalized (how many of the “wounded” needed a name for what they were suffering), the way grief played out actively in the media (Kathleen Treanor who lost three family members recalled, “We were one of two families who had lost three people.  The media could get one-stop shopping with us.”), and through legislation (the victims bill of rights).     
            Next, Linenthal takes us through the memorial process.  First by examining Americans’ need to memorialize and then on to the memorial project itself.  Within hours, we are told, there were countless memorial ideas floating around Oklahoma City.  Linenthal has spent time studying the history of this American need to permanently memorialize everything; everything from the victims of an auto accident alongside the road, to the Holocaust through his work for the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.  The author writes “When people have died a sudden, violent death there is an understandable impulse to replace the senselessness of the violence with some kind of meaning.”  Linenthal goes through the process of determining what kind of memorial Oklahoma City would have.  Initially, we are taken to the fence and the makeshift memorial that was created next to the still standing remains of the Murrah building and on through the political wrangling, heated debate, and finally a committee that came together to sponsor the design process.  Recognizing the need for one memorial agenda, then Mayor Norick pulled together a handful of people to take control of the memorial committee.  A prominent Oklahoma City attorney, Robert Johnson, was chosen to head the group.  He understood the importance of working from a mission statement and how that could bring many fractured groups together working for a common goal.  We are told, “Through a painstaking process they learned to work together, crafting a mission statement that declared the memorial would be shaped primarily by the sensibilities of family members and survivors.  It would not be done for them, but it would be done bythem.”  Linenthal’s examination of the process to design the memorial was painstaking to read at times, but the reader is able to gain a genuine  understanding of the arduous process this memorial was from his writing. 
            Linenthal recognizes that out of the three different narratives, there are also bonds between them, bonds he refers to as bonds of affection.  He writes:
“Therefore, it seems appropriate to conclude with examples of the bonds of affection that exist alongside the toxic impact of the bombing.  There were publically invisible bonds, for example, between recovery personnel and family members of the loved ones whose bodies they had located or brought out of the building, was well as bonds between rescuers and survivors.  There were also bonds of affection that brought together people from different cultures impacted by mass death, transnational links between bereaved communities.”  “They do not in any way lessen the impact of the toxic narrative.  They do, however, say something about human determination to offer acts of kindness and caring in the face of acts that threaten to obliterate our confidence in the power of the humane.”
            Linenthal, in his book The Unfinished Bombing—Oklahoma City in American Memory, is able to give us a small view of what happened AFTER the bombing and provides the details of how a National Memorial that almost didn’t, came to be.  168 men, women and children died in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah building on April 19, 1995.  They each left behind a personal legacy that for a time became the property of the American public at large.  Linenthal does an excellent job getting the reader to consider his or her own perceptions and actions after this or another tragic event.    Having visited Oklahoma City and the memorial myself, I found Linenthal’s book a fascinating read.  It provided insight and understanding into what I had seen and experienced there.

About the Author
            Edward T. Linenthal is a Professor of Religion and American Culture at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh.  He has written several books exploring the creation of history through historical events and how that information is then delivered to the public. Linenthal has also spent time extensively reviewing how Americans memorialize tragic events and the sites where they occur.  Other books he has written include Sacred Ground: Americans and Their Battlefield, and Preserving Memory:  The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Museum.  In 2002, Linenthal was named to serve as a special advisor to the National Park Service Public Programs, and was tasked to provide necessary consultation for the memorialization of the events of September 11 as well as the “National Park Service and Civic Dialogue” initiative.

Linenthal, E.T. (2001). The Unfinished Bombing – Oklahoma City in American Memory, Oxford. New York, NY.

"The Thirtymile Fire" portrays grim reality of fighting wildland fires

The Thirtymile Fire: A chronicle of bravery and betrayal 
Author: John N. Maclean
Copyright 2007
New York: Holt Paperbacks
Book Review by Alex Kopelson

You won’t find any white collars here.
Don’t come looking for easy cash.
We fight the fires in your lost canyons,
Faces stained by sweat and ash.
—from  Storm King Angles by Chip Kiger
            The Thirtymile Fire started as an escaped picnic fire on July 9, 2001. It was located in the North Cascades Range of the Okanogan National Forest in central Washington. This fire exceeded one thousand acres before it was contained. Unfortunately four fire fighters were killed: Tom Craven, Karen FitzPatrick, Jessica Johnson, and Devin Weaver; they were on the Northwest Regular number six Crew. For those of you who don’t know what a “regular crew” is I will give a quick explanation. It is essentially 20-24 people that are thrown together throughout possibly many agencies and departments to create a crew to fight fire when there is a higher need for handcrews. I am going to be reviewing the book written by John N. Maclean and then focusing on discussing lessons learned and standards that have changed in the wildland firefighting world because of this fire.
John N. Maclean
This book was written very well. As was the other books John N. Maclean has written such as Fire on the Mountain and Fire and Ashes. He is a very credible author and although these stories are grim he brings together the positive energy of the firefighters and the important lessons learned to create a book that is worth reading. It is approximately 224 pages including an appendix and notes, the ISBN is 978-0-8050-8330-9, and it cost 15.99 at Barnes and Noble.
This book dives into the personal lives of the four victims and their families. The accounts given from the families are very useful in understanding the victims and it makes it very easy to relate to the family’s struggle and hardship. The introduction is a great example of this. “As Kathie FitzPatrick struggled to bring a bickering home buyer and seller to terms, she stole a glance at her watch. It was almost 5:30 PM, and once again her workday had stretched into evening. Kathie had snatched a personal moment a few hours earlier to place a cell phone call to her eighteen-year-old daughter Karen, who had just become a wildland fire fighter for the Forest Service, much against her mother’s wishes” (Maclean, 2007).This book blends together the official reports with the stories told by the surviving fire fighters creating a very personal and accurate account of what happened on the day of the fatalities. Furthermore this book explains the controversy and recriminations that raged in its aftermath.
The most unsettling part of the book is near the end when Maclean tells the stories when the parents get the calls about their children’s deaths. It got very emotional for me because I could easily relate to what my parents would have felt like if they were to get a call of my death when I was on a fire as I am sure they worried about that often when I was gone.
Overall this book was written very well. The pictures and maps within the book make it more relatable and informative. I would suggest this book to any person.
Lessons Learned
            I think this is the most important section of the book review because the lessons learned from this fire are important because we don’t want to lose more lives due to the same mistakes. The ten Standard Fire Fighting Orders were created in 1957 due to several fatality fires over several decades (Maclean, 2007). These serve as the bedrock safety rules for fighting wildland fires and now everyone going through the basic wildland class must memorize them. Other safety implementations such as LCES and the eighteen Watch Out Situations have been added over time to address situations of concern. The book contains notes from the official report given by the Forest Service and this makes this book very useful in understanding the mistakes made.
All ten Standard Fire Orders were violated or disregarded at one time or another during the course of the incident. The following are some examples of these situations.
  1. Fight fire aggressively but provide for safety first. The tactics implemented provided for aggressive suppression but lacked critical safety procedures, including mandatory escape routes.
  2. Initiate all actions based on current and expected fire behavior. Aggressive attach with over-extended resources continued in spite of onsite indicators of an increased rate of spread, multiple spots, and crown fire.
  3. Recognize current weather conditions and obtain forecasts. Although received by Okanogan Dispatch, no afternoon fire weather forecast was transmitted to the Thirtymile Fire on the Methow Valley District. No Spot Weather Forecast was requested by management or incident commanders.
  4. Ensure that instructions are given and understood. Instructions were given without any direct tie to strategy or tactics at the time of the entrapment. At the deployment site instructions were given and not all were adhered to, but it is unknown whether they were heard or understood by all. Instructions were coming from multiple sources adding to the confusion.
  5. Obtain current information on fire status. Air attack was utilized but due to smoke conditions could not always see the ground. No assigned lookouts were used after 2 PM.
  6. Remain in communication with your crew members, supervisors, and adjoining forces. Although the communication equipment was adequate, the lines of communications on the incident were poor due to lack of plan and poorly established command structure. There was no viable strategy established during the afternoon of the incident.
  7. Determine safety zones and escape routes. After the 3 PM lunch break, the crews were up the canyon during the frontal assault and had no alternative escape route or safety zone identified. They had nowhere to go when their only escape route was cut off.
  8. Establish lookouts in potentially hazardous situations. No lookouts were established during the burning period beyond what could be seen from the road and from air attack, who had limited visibility of the fire due to smoke.
  9. Retain control at all times. Leadership was fragmented and ineffective at all levels during the afternoon of July 10th. Resources were being ordered and directions given by others than the IC. While a suitable deployment site was found and orders were given there was no evidence of strong leadership on the deployment site to implement the orders given.
  10. Stay alert, keep calm, think clearly, act decisively. Supervisors, managers, and firefighters failed to stay alert and recognize changing conditions.  Fatigue and collateral duties impeded the abilities of key leadership to think clearly and to act decisively to use available time on the shelter deployment site to prepare for the burnover” (Maclean, 2007).
Other lessons learned that affected this incident were lack of sleep. Since then the 2:1 work:rest ratio has been implemented to help offset fatigue. The lessons learned from this fire and written in this book serve an important purpose to keep the fire community safe from fatalities so nothing like this happens again.
Maclean, J. N. (2007). The thirtymile fire. New York, NY: Holt Paperbacks.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why
Author: Amanda Ripley
Three Rivers Press

Review by William Taylor

        The book The Unthinkable by Amanda Ripley discusses how people react during a crisis or catastrophe, noting how particular reactions can kill some and yet help others survive. The value of The Unthinkable is tremendous to whoever decides to read it as it addresses the average citizen, narrates real life events, and applies to everyday life in a direct and meaningful way.
On December 6, 1917, in Nova Scotia, a freighter carrying 25 tons of TNT exploded in the harbor after an accidental collision. The freighter caught fire as a result of the collision, but when it also brushed up against a dock in the harbor, it set the whole town of Halifax ablaze, killing 1,963 people. Such an accident had an enormous effect on many of the survivors, including a priest in Halifax. After the disaster, he opened his church to the injured, but eventually decided to leave his parish to pursue a PhD in sociology in New York City. He was the first to analyze how humans react during disasters in a paper entitled “Catastrophe and Social Change.”
        The survival arc, depicted below, describes three phases people go through during any type of disaster situation. Ripley bases the majority of her book on these three phases, as they are important to everyday citizens, her target audience.

During this initial phase, a person’s brain tries to process what has happened after a disaster. People typically don’t just start running for the doors when something happens; instead, they tend to procrastinate. Ripley gives an example of a lady during the 9/11 attacks who was in the first tower to be hit. While this lady was making sense of what happened with each piece of information she received, she went from, “Poor pilot, he must have had a heart attack,” when the first plane hit to, “It was intentional,” after the second plane crashed.
  There are many interesting things that Ripley discusses about the Denial phase. One of these is the ability people have to become paralyzed. There are physiological reasons for this that stem from a natural instinct our bodies have. An example of this is a young man who did absolutely nothing during the Virginia Tech massacre, and lived because of it. He never left the denial phase, but stayed there the entire time. The young man recounted how he got under a desk and simply played dead. He said that it felt natural to act this way—so natural that when he tried to move hours later, it was very difficult. Such a phenomenon occurs naturally when the brain sends a stress hormone through the body during an emergency to act as a natural painkiller and creates paralysis. In studies of animals, researchers have found that if an animal is left in this state of natural paralysis, they can actually die from cardiac arrest. Rollo May, in his book The Meaning of Anxiety, stated the following about paralysis:
       These instances demonstrate that anxiety involves a paralyzing, to a greater or lesser degree, of the productive activates of the individual on various fronts—his thinking and feeling capacities as well as his capacity to plan and to act. This impoverishing effect of anxiety underlies the common dictum that “anxiety cancels out work. (May 1977, p.383)

The deliberation phase is one that can also get people killed. During the 9/11 attacks, there was a man in the first tower, who, with five other people, deliberated about what to do for over thirty minutes before taking the stairs. Though deliberating can be an essential element during a crisis phase, spending too much time there can be deadly, just as it is in the denial phase. [In the example you gave of the denial phase, though, the man actually survived precisely because he stayed in that phase so long. You might want to include another example of someone who was less fortunate and didn’t survive.] During this phrase, many people relate that they experience time speeding up or slowing down. Part of this has to do with the brain looking at the options and deciding what to do; the brain may seem to slow down time because of the energy being used up in other vital parts of the body, but then it may seem to speed up as the brain does the same thing.
Deliberation doesn’t necessarily happen during a crisis, but often does leading up to one, as in the case of a hurricane. Two days before hurricane Katrina made a landfall on New Orleans, the mayor thought about giving a mandatory evacuation order, but had to consult his lawyers first to make sure that there couldn’t be a lawsuit brought against him. Such deliberation, I am sure, wasted valuable time.
According to Ripley’s book, there aren’t many people who stay in deliberation very long; if they get out of the denial phase, then they are usually on their way to the decisive moment, or action. Many of the people interviewed went from denial to action; some even skipped denial and deliberation and just acted.

Decisive moment
During the decisive moment, a person acts. The one thing that most people have in common who skip almost immediately to this phase is military training, or at least some sort of training. During a plane disaster, the one thing that most survivors have in common is that they had all read the emergency pamphlet in the back of the seat. This allowed their brain to easily recall what to do and kicked them into the action phase almost immediately.
The Pan Am flight, which collided with another airliner in 1977, killing 326 of the 396 people on board, should have had limited casualties on their plane. One couple was saved because the husband skipped the denial phase and went straight into action. His wife explains her reaction: “My mind was almost blank. I didn’t even hear what was going on.” But her husband, Paul Heck, reacted immediately:
         He unbuckled his seat belt and started toward the exit. “Follow me!” he told his wife. Hearing him, Floy [his wife] snapped out of her daze and followed him through the smoke “like a zombie.” Just before they jumped… Floy looked back at her friend, 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. (Ripley, 2009, p.176)
          What Paul did that day could be described as Recognition-Primed Decision (RPD). As previously mentioned, reviewing the emergency pamphlet in the back of the plane seat can save lives, and the RPD model is why. “In the recognition-primed decision model, proficient decision makers are described as being able to detect patterns and typicality. They can size up a situation in a glance and realize that they have seen it, or variants of it, dozens or hundreds of times before” (Klein 1999, p. 151). While Paul didn’t have experience in actually evacuating a plane, he had the information he needed, which helped him become an expert. Being an “expert” doesn’t have to be an intensive training course or years of experience; it can be as simple as reviewing some information. This isn’t true across the board, but was for Paul and Floyd. Part of the power that Paul did use to help his RPD be effective is mental simulation. “Mental simulation covers the ability to see events that happened previously and events that are likely to happen in the future” (Klein 1999, p.149).
As this book demonstrates, ordinary people can survive disasters. While fire-fighters, officers, and paramedics are great and do wonderful things, they aren’t always going to be there. Amanda Ripley shows the importance of self-preparation in self-preservation. Part of the ability to make decisions like Paul, comes from individual preparation, something as simple as reading a pamphlet. Through such preparation, the brain can imagine what something might be like and prepare to act in advance. In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell explains our subconscious:
       Our brain uses two very different strategies to make sense of the situation… The first is the conscious strategy. We think about what we’ve learned, and eventually we come up with an answer. There’s a second strategy though. It operates a lot more quickly. It has the drawback, however, that it operates-at least at first-entirely below the surface of consciousness. It’s a system in which our brain reaches conclusions without immediately telling us that it’s reaching conclusions. (Gladwell 2007, p.10).
        The Unthinkable describes how the process of doing simple things makes a whole lot of difference. This is why our subconscious figures it all out long before we do; however, it can only do so if information is readily available to it.
The Unthinkable by Amanda Ripley provides a wealth of information to help the average person better deal with everyday possible disasters. The stories told of people evacuating the World Trade Center are very applicable to everyday life as most people are in buildings constantly. The question is, does everyone read the emergency plans and imagine what he/she would do and where he/she would go? Amanda Ripley has done an excellent job of helping others become better prepared.


Gladwell, M (2007). Blink. New York, New York: Little, Brown and Company.
Klein, G (1999). Sources of Power. United States of America: Massachusetts Institute of
May, R (1996). The Meaning of Anxiety. New York, New York: Norton.
Ripley, A (2009). The Unthinkable. Crown, New York: Three Rivers Press.