Amanda Ripley

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How to Behave in a Plane Crash

15th Jan 2009 posted in Disaster Behavior

I just watched Bill O’Reilly “interview” one of the survivors of the US Airways crash on Fox. I am reluctant to use the word interview since that would imply asking a question and then listening to the answer before talking again. But let’s put that aside for now.

Like most people, O’Reilly was absolutely convinced that there must have been panic and mayhem aboard the flight. He repeatedly questioned the survivor, a man who had barely dried off from a crash landing in the Hudson several hours before, about whether people were screaming and pushing on the plane. When the man explained that no, people had been generally calm and helpful, O’Reilly was amazed. He asked again and again why people had not become violent and hysterical, until the survivor agreed it was shocking indeed.

The truth is, in almost every disaster I have studied, people treat each other with kindness and respect. Violence and panic are extremely rare. An instant camraderie springs up between strangers—on a sinking ship or a bombed-out subway car. That is the rule, not the exception.

After the terrorist bombings on the London transit system on July 7, 2005, which killed 52 people and wounded hundreds, some victims actually resisted leaving the tube station. “I needed the [others] for comfort,” one survivor explained to U.K. psychologist John Drury. “I felt better knowing that I was surrounded by people.”

One study of U.S. mining disasters found that miners tended to follow their groups even if they disagreed with the group’s decisions. Grown men trapped underground would rather make a potentially fatal decision than be left alone.

In other airplane crashes, passengers have risked their lives because they climbed over seats to regroup with the rest of their family before evacuating. In skyscraper fires, people making arduous journeys down hundreds of stairs will tend to insist that those entering the stairwell from lower floors go ahead of them. In fact, I’ve yet to meet a 9/11 survivor who didn’t help or receive help from a stranger on the way out of the towers.

Why don’t we turn into raving maniacs? Because it is in our interest to be nice to each other. Under threat, we need each other more than ever.