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Old 07-12-2017, 07:58 PM   #1
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Default What not to do in a disaster

What not to do in a disaster

“I’ll never forget the sound. The sound of metal crunching,” says George Larson, a passenger on Indian Airlines Flight 440 from Chennai (Madras) to New Delhi in 1973. It was 22:30 – pitch black outside. A storm was raging, and the plane was flying low.

The rear end slammed into the ground first. Larson was thrown from his seat. Meanwhile, the plane kept moving. Electric cables sparked and fellow passengers screamed as the fuselage began to split in half.

The next thing Larson knew he was awake, lying on his back on some wreckage. He tried to move his legs, but he was stuck. Soon there was an explosion as the heat ignited fuel tanks by the wings.

As debris rained down all around him, Larson realised he’d have to save himself. With one last breath – “it seared my lungs, the air was so hot” – he pushed off the wreckage and rolled down onto the ground. Then he clawed his way to safety. Of 65 passengers and crew on board, Larson was one of just 17 survivors.

Larson was actually extraordinarily lucky. A few minutes earlier, he had done something ill-advised. He was sitting on the back row, chatting to the flight attendant next to him. Though the seat belt signs were on, he undid his. “No rhyme, no reason, I just did,” he says. The majority of people who unbuckle before a plane crash don’t survive.

However, after the crash, Larson also had the quick thinking and grit to claw himself to safety before the fire spread.

Those not wearing a seatbelt are nearly four times more likely to die in the event of a plane crash (Credit: Alamy)

Surprisingly, plenty of other people in deadly scenarios don’t act fast enough to save their own lives. From arguing over small change while a ship sinks into stormy water, to standing idly on the beach as a tsunami approaches, psychologists have known for years that people make self-destructive decisions under pressure. Though news reports tend to focus on miraculous survival, if people escape with their lives it’s often despite their actions – not because of them.

“Survival training isn’t so much about training people what to do – you’re mostly training them not to do certain things that they would normally think to do,” says John Leach, a psychologist at the University of Leicester who survived the King’s Cross fire disaster in 1987. He estimates that in a crisis, 80-90% of people respond inappropriately.

Footage of the Japanese earthquake in 2011 showed people risking their lives while rushing to save bottles of alcohol from smashing in a supermarket. And when a plane caught fire at an airport in Denver earlier this year, evacuating passengers lingered by the plane to watch the flames and take selfies.

During the 2011 earthquake in Japan, people ran to save bottles of alcohol from smashing in supermarkets while their lives were in danger (Credit: Getty Images)

Intelligence doesn’t come into it – the brain fog that descends in emergency situations is reassuringly even-handed. Back in 2001, a lecturer at the University of Cambridge was kayaking in the rough seas off the Isle of Wight when he capsized.

Though he had a mobile phone on board, he clung helplessly to the upside-down boat for more than 20 minutes before he remembered. When he finally retrieved it, first he called his sister in Cambridge – then his father who was more than 5,000km (3,436 miles) away in Dubai. He was eventually rescued when his clear-headed relatives alerted the Coast Guard.

So, if faced with a life-threatening scenario, what behaviours should you do your best to avoid?

Emirates plane crash fire (Credit: Getty Images)
When a plane crash-landed in Dubai last year, passengers stopped to collect their bags though the plane was on fire (Credit: Getty Images)


When we think of disaster, we tend to think of mass hysteria. In the movies at least, people run away with their arms flailing. But the reality is the most natural human response in the face of danger is to simply do nothing.

During the recent stabbing at London Bridge, an off-duty police officer who tackled the attackers reportedly described members of the public nearby as standing “like deers [sic] in the headlights”.

The reaction is so universal, psychologists now talk of the fight-flight-freeze response.

Though it looks passive from the outside, when we’re paralysed with fear the brain is actively putting on the brakes. As adrenaline surges through the body and our muscles tense, the primitive “little brain” at the base of our necks sends a signal to keep us rooted to the spot.

It’s the same mechanism across the animal kingdom, from rats to rabbits, where it’s a last-ditch attempt to stop a predator from spotting us. But in a disaster, fighting this hangover from our days out on the savannah is vital to survival.

In 2015, Michael Bond wrote an in-depth article for BBC Future on why people freeze. Read more here.
Charred escalator at King's Cross station (Credit: Getty Images)
The great fire at King’s Cross Underground station in 1987 killed 31 people (Credit: Getty Images)


The first clues that our brains tend to go into meltdown under stress came from an alarming discovery.

During the Gulf War in the early 1990s, Israel was bracing itself for attack from Iraq. Following the extensive use of poison gas by the Iraqi army in the 80s, the Israeli government prepared for the worst. Gas masks and auto-injectors carrying the antidote to nerve gas were distributed to the entire population. Israeli families were instructed to select a sealed “safe” room in their homes. On the sounding of an alarm, the public should retreat there – then put on their gas mask.

Between 19 and 21 January, there were 23 attacks. In all, more than 11,000kg (nearly 13 tonnes) of high explosives were dropped on the densely-populated city of Tel Aviv.

Though no chemical weapons were used, more than a thousand people were injured. But not in the way you might think. A closer look at the hospital admissions revealed that just 234 (22%) of the casualties had been directly harmed by an explosion. The vast majority – more than 800 people – had occurred in the absence of any danger. They had occurred during one of several false alarms.

This included 11 cases of death, seven of which were caused by putting on a gas mask and then forgetting to open the filter. Hundreds of people had injected the antidote to the nerve gas though they hadn’t been exposed. Another 40 (mostly sprains and fractures) had occurred while the victim was rushing to the sealed room.

More here http://www.bbc.com/future/story/2017...-in-a-disaster
“The price of freedom is the willingness to do sudden battle anywhere, any time and with utter recklessness.”
― Robert A. Heinlein, The Puppet Masters
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