Thinking About the Unthinkable

Who Survives — and Why

Posted July 7, 2008 at 3:59pm

Hill staffers may want to pay more attention during their next office fire drill.

A new book by Amanda Ripley, a senior reporter for Time magazine who covered the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina, says those who pay attention to safety information actually have a greater chance of surviving in a disaster.

“When you’re in a fire, finding your way out of a complex building like the Capitol becomes as difficult as finding your way out of a building you’ve never been in with a blindfold on,” Ripley said. “You have to understand the brain will change under stress.”

In her new book, “The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes — and Why,” Ripley weaves first-hand accounts of disaster survival with scientific evidence explaining how people behave in a disaster.

Readers will find the book hard to put down, and Ripley’s conclusions will make readers think twice before spending the next fire drill chatting with co-workers.

In addition to preparation, Ripley found that certain biological features such as a larger hippocampus — the area of your brain responsible for short-term memory and spatial navigation — can enable victims to respond more coherently in a disaster, increasing their chances of survival.

Nevertheless, Ripley says a majority of people do not realize that doing simple things, such as paying attention during fire drills and reading safety information cards on planes, can sometimes mean the difference between life and death.

In her book, Ripley argues that we need to move away from focusing only on professionals and first-responders because in most cases the experts arrive at the scene too late.

“They just can’t be there — and they’ll be the first to tell you that,” Ripley said. “There are not enough of them and there will never be.”

Instead, Ripley says we need to put more trust in regular people and educate them about how to survive disasters. She cites California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s creation of a cabinet-level office for volunteer management last February as an admirable step forward.

“The public performs much better than we expect as long as we give them the truth and as much information as possible,” Ripley said, recalling United Airlines Flight 93. “Schwarzenegger’s new position recognizes regular people.”

Over the course of her research, Ripley spoke with numerous survivors from a variety of disasters, including the 1982 Air Florida Flight 90 crash into the 14th Street bridge in Washington, D.C., the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the 2007 fatal shooting at Virginia Tech. Ripley expected most survivors to refuse interviews, but instead many wanted to share things they wished they had known before disaster struck in order to prepare others.

“I was perpetually amazed at the openness of survivors,” Ripley said. “People, if you approached them for a constructive purpose … are incredibly interested in sharing what they learned. They want their survival to be worth something.”

Ripley also spoke with military psychologists, brain scientists and disaster experts to learn the science behind an individual’s behavior during trauma.

“The most challenging part was probably finding useful, pragmatic information for people without oversimplifying,” Ripley said. “It was important to balance the stories out with the science and also the pragmatic, constructive lessons that could come out of all of this.”

Ripley even made herself a test subject, participating in simulated plane crashes at the Federal Aviation Administration, experiencing what it would be like to escape a fire at the Kansas City Fire Department’s burn tower, and allowing her brain to be examined by a trauma psychiatrist.

Out of all the simulations, Ripley said the burn tower was the most persuasive. Accompanied a trained firefighter, Ripley watched the building become consumed by thick, nontoxic smoke and then tried to grope her way out of the multifloored structure.

“I don’t think most of us realize that smoke is the main event,” Ripley said, referring to the fact that smoke inhalation is the primary cause of death in indoor fires.

“In general, people do not take drills very seriously because people do not understand that their brain is going to perform nonfunctionally when this really happens. … I went home and changed my smoke-detector batteries afterward,” she added.

Ripley began working at Time in 2001, taking a circuitous route to get there. After graduating with a degree in government from Cornell University, she was unable to find a job in journalism so she worked at Starbucks in Dupont Circle and interned for free at the Washington Monthly. She also worked at Congressional Quarterly and the Washington City Paper before moving to the newsweekly.

After seven years of disaster coverage at Time and three years of intense research for her book, Ripley says she actually worries less about unanticipated disasters.

“The book was a way for me to find a foothold in all of that,” Ripley said. “What I found was really more encouraging than it was depressing.”

For more information about “The Unthinkable” and for a real-time map of disasters occurring worldwide, visit theunthinkable.com.