The Unthinkable

The Unthinkable: Who Survives when Disaster Strikes — and Why
© 2008 Amanda Ripley
288 pages



We all wonder what we would do in an emergency. How would it feel to be onboard a doomed plane, or trapped in a burning building?   Would we panic?   The Unthinkable  combines extensive interviews with the survivors of various disasters and a review of  psychological studies with a fear/panic/disaster-response to share what really happens in a moment of crisis, and what we can do better.

Oddly enough, panic as a reaction isn’t the most common.  Most people involved in an intimate disaster experience a strange kind of disassociation, a sense that whatever is happening is unreal. Some will linger in denial, sitting calmly long after they should have begun taken action.  When they finally do stir to move,  latent instincts for gathering information and belongings further slow responses.  Once in action, fear and adrenaline can kick in, and these can both help or hinder —  increasing speed and stamina, for instance, but at a cost of cognition – and that can lead to sorrow, like fifty people dying in a parked airplane because they were incapable of opening the doors and proceeding out in an  orderly manner when the cabin filled with smoke.

There are those, however, who are not sitting in a stupor, or fumbling clumsily at locks and straps. There are people who, in a disaster recognize  it and begin taking action immediately.   Part of this may owe to genes –  the size of the amygdala is a contributor – but the most pervasive difference-maker is training and preparation.  It’s vital to have a realistic appraisal of one’s environment and the dangers in it, however: people often have a distorted view of what is most likely to happen to them, fearing unusual disasters like nuclear meltdowns far more than more mundane events like kitchen fires or automobile accidents. Those who anticipate what kind of things are likely to happen, those who make a plan — those are the people who, when push comes to shove, are ready to act.  Ripley notes that working-class males overwhelm this category, which she suspects owes to their dominating dangerous jobs that entail anticipating physical threats.

The Unthinkable isn’t a book devoted to celebrating the Few, The Proud, The Possessors of an Internal Locus of Control..   Instead,  following the survey of how we react in disasters,  it  shifts to an argument that American society,  both government and civil structures, have a top-heavy approach to disaster response that discounts and demeans the ability of ordinary people to make a difference, hiding information to prevent panics and keeping response tools reserved for professionals.    In any disaster, it’s the ordinary people on the ground who make the greatest  impact –   they are there long before emergency personnel, present when seconds can make the difference between life and death.  What’s most crucial is awareness and training: People who are aware of the dangers in any situation, and prepared to respond to them,  will at the time of crisis be able to recognize what they’ve trained for and move, based on their prior practice.  Even simply reviewing the safety cards in an airline seat,  or knowing where the emergency exits are when present in an unfamiliar room, can make a decisive difference when something happens.

The Unthinkable is one of the most thoughtful and all-around interesting books I’ve read all year, from the disaster play by plays – heroics included —  to the psychological analysis.   The amount of time spent in the Twin Towers was particularly informative – I had no idea there were any survivors from above the impact zones in either tower, but the South Tower had one stairwell that could be made navigable, and four people were able to make it out before the building was lost. I also didn’t realize that the Port Authority had made some token efforts at disaster mitigation following the 1993 attack, but that these were largely ineffectual: people appointed as fire wardens throughout the building were never given any training, and the procedures promoted were fairly useless —  gather  in a common area and await instructions from The Authorities.   (Instructions like… “The South Tower is secure. Please return to your offices”, which turned hundreds of people following their instincts out of the building into victims  fifteen minutes later.)

Definitely recommended.

How To Be Your Own Bodyguard, Nick Lane.  A piece of advice common to both of these books is a negative visualization and practice routine, i.e: what could go wrong, and what steps do I need to take to response?  The  mere act of rehearsing what you might do helps when it needs to be done.




About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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6 Responses to The Unthinkable

  1. Anonymous says:

    I have this! I was probably going to read it over my LONG extended Christmas break this year. Obviously I’ll let you know what I think. I think it’s true that a lot of survival is to do with mindset. As the baddie said in Under Siege 2 “Fortune favours the prepared mind.” That’s very true. If you’re waiting around for someone to come save you…. you’re probably already dead.

    You may also be interested in ‘Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why’ by Laurence Gonzales which seems to cover similar ground.

  2. Marian says:

    This sounds like a really useful book on many fronts. The topic has been on my mind a lot this year… in fact, here in WA (volcano/earthquake territory), a constitutional amendment was just passed to give the legislature increased powers in times of “catastrophic incident.” I don’t put much hope in the govt coming to my rescue, simply because the damage will be so vast, it will probably take them a long time to reach everyone. Learning how to survive/cope from others’ experiences, and stocking up on supplies, seems more practical.

    • In an urban area, especially, there will be so much going on the government at every level will probably be overwhelmed. Here the big threat is tornados, which at least give their victims SOME warning — at least, those who pay attention to weather radios or news will know if they’re under a watch. Earthquakes are a different matter altogether..

  3. Brian Joseph says:

    I have always had a fascination with disasters. However, I usually dig into the nuts and bolts and technical aspects of them. It sounds as if this book digs into psychology and human nature which seems very interesting.

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