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.

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