Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Unthinkable: Ultimate Survivors

The Unthinkable:  Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why by Amanda Ripley (155.935 RIP Main)

How likely are you to perish in a disaster? What are the odds you will be involved in a disaster? The answers to these questions and many more can be found in The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why, by Amanda Ripley.

In her book Ripley, a senior writer for Time magazine, takes us through the various stages of disaster and cataclysm, examining how individuals react to catastrophic situations. Especially interesting is the fact that some people who should survive don't, while others survive against seemingly insurmountable odds.

I believe that having read this book could save your life if you are ever involved in a real disaster. Why? The first emotional reaction in a disaster is the one that might get you killed before you extricate yourself from a situation. That response is DENIAL. Oh, yeah, that's a big one. Apparently disaster is difficult for some people to accept when it falls into their laps, so instead of believing that the building is on fire and getting the heck out of it, they might dither around straightening the paper clips on their desk or looking at a phone list, increasing their chances of perishing. Yes, people really do this.

In 2005 the National Institute of Standards and Technology conducted a study based on interviews with World Trade Center survivors.  They discovered that survivors, on average, waited six minutes before exiting the building. The average dithering wait was six minutes, but some waited as long as forty-five minutes before deciding to exit the building.

During her research, Ms. Ripley interviewed Jack Rowley, an instructor at the National Fire Academy in Maryland. In thirty-five years as a firefighter, before becoming an instructor at the Fire Academy, he often witnessed this sort of lethargic response to fire.

Rowley told Ripley that one particular type of fire had come to seem like a Saturday night ritual. Firefighters would be dispatched to a bar where they would find customers sitting and nursing beers in a room that contained smoke.

It's pretty obvious in this situation that there is a fire somewhere near, but when firefighters would suggest to customers that they evacuate the response they got was often one like, "No, we'll be just fine."

Through her interviews with survivors, Ripley takes us on a voyage through a burning skyscraper, a sinking ship, and a crashed airplane.  In each case, most if not all of the survivors are those who were able to assess the situation and take some action instead of passively waiting for rescue.  You would think this would be an obvious move but there’s that denial thing again, plus in some cases an authority figure would tell the people to wait.  Often this was someone who wasn’t in the situation but was making a call from another location, yet people would ignore what was happening in front of them to take the advice of someone who was far away and safe.

This is a very educational read, but more than that, I would have to say that it's a readable read. It made me think about how I behave during a crisis and to rearrange some of my thinking. During the process of writing this review I found myself wanting to read the whole book again. One thing is for sure: whether I read this book again or not, you should be sure you read it for the first time.


  1. Very interesting. I've often wondered how I would handle a catastrophe. I'll have to pick this one up.

  2. It's on my to read list now too. I have told people I'm utterly useless in an emergency and sadly, I'm not exaggerating. A co-worker told me about a time when a neighbor set her apartment on fire and my friend went to help try to put it out. She said she saw it was a grease fire and went looking for baking soda. She said she had a vivid memory of looking in the fridge for baking soda, checking cabinets, all that sort of thing. Fortunately, another neighbor came in with a fire extinguisher and put it out.

    I can see myself doing that-- the hunting for baking soda, not the fire extinguisher part!