Amanda Ripley

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Madrid Plane Crash

23rd Aug 2008 posted in Disaster Behavior

The crash of the Spanair flight in Madrid on Wednesday was exceptionally awful, even within the already grim category of plane crashes. Only 19 of the 172 people on board survived. In most serious plane accidents, the survival rate is higher, and passenger behavior can make a big difference. (The cause of the crash is still unknown.)

In this case, I was particularly struck by the story of one survivor from the crash—a young boy who was rescued by a firefighter. Moments after he was pulled from the fiery wreck, he repeatedly asked the firefighter where his father was—and if what was happening was real. “When will this film end?” he asked.

This is a heartbreaking example of how the brain strives to normalize even the most atrocious of catastrophes. I’ve seen different versions of this behavior in all kinds of disasters from terrorist attacks to shipwrecks.

Our brains work by recognizing patterns; when something happens, we sort through our database of experiences to make sense of it. But in a disaster, the only precedent we have in our heads may be what we have seen in the movie theater. So that is naturally what we think of.

There is something poignant about the way this boy’s mind was coping with the violence he had just experienced; he was wishing hard for the movie to be over.