How do humans behave when the worst thing happen? As we always think ‘it will never happen to me’ but disasters can strike any time anywhere – from hotel fires to train crashes to terrorist attacks. How would you cope if the unthinkable happened?
According to experts, people caught up in disasters tend to fall into three categories. About 10% to 15% remain calm and act quickly and efficiently. Another 15% completely panic, crying and screaming and obstructing the evacuation. But the vast majority (70%) of people do very little. They are ‘stunned and confused,’ says British psychologist John Leach.
Why is this? Research suggests that under great stress our minds take much longer to process information. So, in a crisis many people ‘freeze’ just at the moment when they need to act quickly. It also seems that a person’s personality is not a good guide to how they might react – a normally decisive person may not act at all quickly in a crisis and vice versa. ‘Most people go their entire lives without a disaster,’ says Michael Lindell, a professor at Texas A&M University. ‘So when something bad happens they are so shocked they just think, “This can’t possibly be happening to me,” instead of taking action.’
WHEN THE PLANE hit the World Trade Center on 11th September 2001, Elia Zedeño was working on the 73rd floor. She heard an explosion and felt the building actually move, as if it might fall over. Zedeño first shouted out, ‘What’s happening?’ You might expect that her next instinct was to run. But she had the opposite reaction. ‘What I really wanted was for someone to scream back, “Everything is OK! Don’t worry.” Luckily, at least one of Zedeño’s colleagues responded differently. He screamed, ‘Get out of the building!’ she remembers now. Years later, she still thinks about that command. ‘My question is what would I have done if that person had said nothing?’
Even then Zedeño still did not immediately run. First she reached for her bag, and then she started walking in circles. ‘I was looking for something to take with me. I remember I took my book. Then I kept looking around for other stuff to take. I felt as if I was in a trance .’ When she finally left, she went slowly. ‘It’s strange because the sound of the explosion and the way the building shook should have made me go faster.’ But Zedeño made it to safety. Experts have estimated that at least another 130 people would have got out of the World Trade Center alive if they had tried to leave the building sooner.
ON MARCH 27 1977 a Pan Am 747, which was waiting to take off from Tenerife airport, collided with a Dutch KLM 747 that was taking off in the fog. It was the worst air crash in history. Everyone on the KLM plane was killed but 62 passengers on the Pan Am plane survived. Many more would have survived if they had got off the plane immediately.
One of the survivors was 65-year-old Paul Heck. He led his wife Floy towards the exit and they got out just before the plane caught fire , just 60 seconds after the collision. Why Paul Heck and not others? In the hours just before the crash Paul did something highly unusual. While he was waiting for the plane to take off, he studied the 747’s safety diagram. He looked for the nearest exit and he pointed it out to his wife. He had been in a theatre fire as a boy, and ever since then, he always checked for the exits when he was in an unfamiliar environment. When the planes collided, Heck’s brain had the data it needed. He could work on autopilot, whereas other passengers froze, their minds paralysed by a storm of new information. Why don’t more people read safety information on aeroplanes and fire escape information in hotels? The answer, according to research, is that people think it’s not ‘cool’ to do so. So next time you fly or stay in a hotel or find yourself in any new environment forget about ‘being cool’ and take a few seconds to find out where the nearest emergency exit is. It may just save your life.
Adopted from New English File Intermediate, Student’s Book