How to Get Out Alive

From hurricanes to 9/11: What the science of evacuation reveals about how humans behave in the worst of times

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KELLY PRICE / POLARIS

EXODUS: A man flees the collapsing towers on 9/11. Most people who died that day didn't have a chance

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Unlike tall buildings, planes are meant to be emptied fast. Passengers are supposed to be able to get out within 90 sec., even if only half the exits are available and bags are strewn in the aisles. As it turns out, the people on the Pan Am 747 had at least 60 sec. to flee before fire engulfed the plane. But of the 396 people on board, 326 were killed. Including the KLM victims, 583 people ultimately died--making the Tenerife crash the deadliest accident in civil aviation history.

What happened? Aren't disasters supposed to turn us into animals, driven by instinct and surging with adrenaline?

In the 1970s, psychologist Daniel Johnson was working on safety research for McDonnell Douglas. The more disasters he studied, the more he realized that the classic fight-or-flight behavior paradigm was incomplete. Again and again, in shipwrecks as well as plane accidents, he saw examples of people doing nothing at all. He was even able to re-create the effect in his lab. He found that about 45% of people in his experiment shut down (that is, stopped moving or speaking for 30 sec. or often longer) when asked under pressure to perform unfamiliar but basic tasks. "They quit functioning. They just sat there," Johnson remembers. It seemed horribly maladaptive. How could so many people be hard-wired to do nothing in a crisis?

But it turns out that that freezing behavior may be quite adaptive in certain scenarios. An animal that goes into involuntary paralysis may have a better chance of surviving a predatory attack. Many predators will not eat prey that is not struggling; that way, they are less likely to eat something sick or rotten that would end up killing them. Psychologist Gordon Gallup Jr. has found similar behavior among human rape victims. "They report being vividly aware of what was happening but unable to respond," he says.

In a fire or on a sinking ship, however, such a strategy can be fatal. So is it possible to override this instinct--or prevent it from kicking in altogether?

In the hours just before the Tenerife crash, Paul Heck did something highly unusual. While waiting for takeoff, he studied the 747's safety diagram. He looked for the closest exit, and he pointed it out to his wife. He had been in a theater fire as a boy, and ever since, he always checked for the exits in an unfamiliar environment. When the planes collided, Heck's brain had the data it needed. He could work on automatic, whereas other people's brains plodded through the storm of new information. "Humans behave much more appropriately when they know what to expect--as do rats," says Cynthia Corbett, a human-factors specialist with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

To better understand how the mind responds to a novel situation like a plane crash, I visited the FAA's training academy in Oklahoma City, Okla. In a field behind one of their labs, they had hoisted a jet section on risers. I boarded the mock-up plane along with 30 flight-attendant supervisors. Inside, it looked just like a normal plane, and the flight attendants made jokes, pretending to be passengers. "Could I get a cocktail over here, please? I paid a lot of money for this seat!"

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