How Would You React in a Disaster?


Imagine that you were working on the 73rd floor of Tower 1 in the World Trade Center on Sept 11th, 2001. How would you react when the first plane hit and the building shook?

Would you run for the stairwell immediately? Would you first take some time to gather belongings, chat with friends, and then slowly make your way to the exits? Would you be paralyzed and unable to move? Or would you just stay at your desk and convince yourself that it was nothing?

People exhibited all of the above behaviors. Do you know which you would do?

That is the subject of The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes by Amanda Ripley. Ripley interviewed survivors of various recent disasters (including 9/11, Katrina, and various hostage situations) looking for patterns in those who survived. It is fascinating what she found.

She discovered that there is a “survival arc” that all survivors go through consisting of: Denial, Deliberation, and the Decisive Moment. Quickly getting through the phases of the survival arc is often the key to living through the disaster.


As I’ve discussed before, the brain is very good at taking extreme situations and making them seem normal. This is necessary because oftentimes there isn’t anything life-threatening going on. You hear an odd noise at night and, most likely, it’s not a threat to you. So you brain tries to look for patterns that you’ve seen in the past and convince you that all is well.

This is necessary because we can’t sustain being on alert all the time. Unfortunately, this also sometimes prevents people from acting. During Katrina, many people convinced themselves that it would not be that bad and that they could ride it out just like they had many other hurricanes in the past. In fact, Ripley comments that age contributed to Katrina deaths more than economics:

    “As it turned out, the victims of Katrina were not disproportionately poor; they were disproportionately old. Three-quarters of the dead were over sixty”

In a true disaster scenario, survivors are able to identify it as such and move on to the next phase, Deliberation.


Once you have moved passed denial, and identified the situation as life-threatening you move onto deliberation. In other words, what should you do about it?

You have to make a decision, and it has to be done with fear coursing through your veins. As Ripley describes, fear gives you many benefits but it also impairs your decision-making:

The brain must decide what to prioritize and what to neglect. Our muscles become taut and ready. Our body creates its own natural painkillers. Bur out abilities to reason and perceive our surroundings deteriorate. Cortisol interferes with the part of the brain that handles complex thinking. We suddenly have trouble solving problems, even simple ones–like how to put on a life jacket or unbuckle a seat belt.

One important way to get through this phase of the survival arc as quick as possible is preparation. If you have been through this situation before or trained for it in simulated situations you are much more likely to make a quick decision.

In the book, Ripley tells stories of people who survived the trade center collapse because they had been in the stairwell before so they new exactly where to go. Or those in plane crashes who had studied the exits so they knew exactly where to go when disaster struck without having to spend a lot of time thinking about it.

I always feel like this phase would be my Achilles heal. I like to really think through alternatives methodically before making a decision. I’d like to train myself to make quicker decisions with only say 80% of the information I need so that if I’m ever in a disaster, I can make it to the next phase, the Decisive Moment.

The Decisive Moment

We have now made it to the last step of the survival arc — the Decisive Moment. This is when you take action and see the final outcome. Preparation also plays a large part in the decisive moment. For the action that you’ve chosen to take, can you actually do it under stress? In fact, due to the stress, some people freeze up and take no action.

One of the best examples of preparation from the book is the story of a police officer who had survived a record number of shootouts. Before he went out chasing the bad guys, he ran the police shooting range for many years and, due to that, the knowledge of how to shoot a gun became second nature to him:

“[While on a stakeout], the crotch piece on his bulletproof vest fell off, clattering to the floor. The robbers turned around and pointed their guns at him. What happened next was nothing short of a miracle, Cirillo said. His training took over. His pistol sights came into focus, nice and steady, just like the shooting range. He found he could count the serrations on his front sight…he heard a shot and saw a flash of fire from his own gun barrel. ‘My subconscious was saving my ass.’ He felt the revolver buck in his hand several times. And his conscious mind said, “Who the hell is shooting my gun?”

Will you quickly make it to the decisive moment in a disaster? In some ways, you will never know until you are in that situation. But until that time comes, you can make sure you are always prepared.

I cannot imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel. Modern ship building has gone beyond that. -Captain Smith, Commander of Titanic

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4 thoughts on “How Would You React in a Disaster?

  1. That’s not to say you cannot train yourself into more decisive action. For example, in several places where I’ve worked, fire alarms went off randomly, without cause and frequently enough that people conditioned themselves to not react to them. Even new people, who were either picking up on the actions of their neighbors or were acting from their own previous conditioning, didn’t react.

    To hell with that. Every time the fire alarm sounded, I started down the stairs.

  2. Reading this via stumbleupon. That is why the military drills over and over and over and over and over and over and over. (and over adnauseum). When the chips go down, you have to know what to do. Yea, you think you can point your weapon and fire when you need to, but unless you train to do so you will stand there with a multitude of conflicting ideas frozen to inaction.

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