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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But once some (nontoxic) smoke started pouring into the cabin, everyone got quiet. As most people do, I underestimated how quickly the smoke would fill the space, from ceiling to floor, like a black curtain unfurling in front of us. In 20 sec., all we could see were the pin lights along the floor. As we stood to evacuate, there was a loud thump. In a crowd of experienced flight attendants, still someone had hit his or her head on an overhead bin. In a new situation, with a minor amount of stress, our brains were performing clumsily. As we filed toward the exit slide, crouched low, holding on to the person in front of us, several of the flight attendants had to be comforted by their colleagues.

Remember: those were trained professionals who had jumped down a slide at some point to become certified. I could imagine how much worse things might go in a real emergency with regular passengers and screaming children. As we emerged into the light, the mood brightened. The flight attendants cheered as their colleagues slid, one by one, to the ground.

Mac McLean has been studying plane evacuations for 16 years at the FAA's Civil Aerospace Medical Institute. He starts all his presentations with a slide that reads IT'S THE PEOPLE. He is convinced that if passengers had a mental plan for getting out of a plane, they would move much more quickly in a crisis. But, like others who study disaster behavior, he is perpetually frustrated that not more is done to encourage self-reliance. "The airlines and the flight attendants underestimate the fact that passengers can be good survivors. They think passengers are goats," he says. Better, more detailed safety briefings could save lives, McLean believes, but airline representatives have repeatedly told him they don't want to scare passengers.

And so most passengers are indeed goats. Should the worst occur, says McLean, "people don't have a clue. They want you to come by and say, O.K., hon, it's time to go. Plane's on fire."

If we know that training--or even mental rehearsal--vastly improves people's responses to disasters, it is surprising how little of it we do. Even in the World Trade Center, which had complicated escape routes and had been attacked once before, preparation levels were abysmal, we now know. Fewer than half the survivors had ever entered the stairwells before, according to the NIST report. Thousands of people hadn't known they had to wind through confusing transfer hallways to get down.

Early findings from another study, sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control, found that only 45% of 445 Trade Center workers interviewed had known the buildings had three stairwells. Only half had known the doors to the roof would be locked. "I found the lack of preparedness shocking," says lead investigator Robyn Gershon, an associate professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University who shared the findings with TIME.

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