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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Until last year, it was illegal to require anyone in a New York City high rise to evacuate in a drill. That is absurd, of course. Under regulations being debated, building managers will probably have to run full or partial evacuation drills every two years so most people in those buildings will have entered their stairwells at least once. Some people may even descend to the bottom, and they will never forget how long it takes. The disabled will figure out how much assistance they need. The obese will see that they slow down the whole evacuation as they struggle for breath.

Manuel Chea, then a systems administrator on the 49th floor of Tower 1, did everything right on 9/11. As soon as the building stopped swaying, he jumped up from his cubicle and ran to the closest stairwell. It was an automatic reaction. As he left, he noticed that some of his colleagues were collecting things to take with them. "I was probably the fastest one to leave," he says. An hour later, he was outside.

When I asked him why he had moved so swiftly, he had several theories. The previous year, his house in Queens, N.Y., had burned to the ground. He had escaped, blinded by smoke. Oh, yes, he had also been in a serious earthquake as a child in Peru and in several smaller ones in Los Angeles years later. He was, you could say, a disaster expert. And there's nothing like a string of bad luck to prepare you for the unthinkable.

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