When the worst happens
“I’ll never forget the sound of metal crunching,” says George Larson, a passenger on Indian Airlines Flight 440 from Chennai to New Delhi in 1973. It was 10:30pm. On the final approach, the plane hit power lines and slammed into the ground. Larson was thrown from his seat. Passengers screamed as the fuselage began to split in half.
The next thing Larson knew, he was lying on some wreckage. Soon there was an explosion as the fuel tanks ignited.
As debris rained down, Larson pushed off the wreckage and rolled down onto the ground. In survival mode, he clawed himself to safety before the fire spread. Of 65 passengers and crew on board, Larson was one of just 17 survivors.
Surprisingly, plenty of people in deadly scenarios don’t act fast enough to save their own lives. 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 landed with one engine on fire at a Denver airport last year, evacuating passengers lingered by the plane to watch the flames and take photographs.
“Survival training isn’t only about training people what to do – it’s also about training them to inhibit certain actions that they would routinely do,” says John Leach, survival psychologist at the University of Portsmouth. He estimates that in a crisis, 80 to 90 percent of people respond inappropriately.
So, if faced with a life-threatening scenario, what behaviours should you avoid? Plus, learn some proven skills that’ll help you survive in dire circumstances.
One response in the face of danger is to simply do nothing. During the stabbing at London Bridge last year, an off-duty police officer who tackled the attackers reportedly described members of the public nearby as standing “like deer in the headlights.”
The reaction is so universal, psychologists talk of the fight-flight-freeze responses to threat. As different neurochemicals surge 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 impulse is vital to survival.
Inability to think
During the Gulf War, Israel braced itself for a poison gas attack from Iraq. Gas masks and the antidote to nerve gas were distributed to the entire population. On the sounding of an alarm, the public should retreat to a sealed “safe” room, then put on their gas mask.
Between January 18 and February 28, there were 39 missile attacks on Israel, most of them directed at Tel Aviv. Though no chemical weapons were used, more than a thousand people were injured. But not in the way you might think.
Hospital admissions reveal that just 22 percent of the casualties were directly harmed by an explosion. The vast majority – more than 800 people – were injured indirectly as a result of fear aroused by the alert signals.
This included seven deaths caused by putting on a gas mask and then forgetting to open the filter. Two hundred and thirty people had injected the nerve gas antidote, though they hadn’t been exposed. Forty injuries (mostly sprains and fractures) had occurred while the victim was rushing to the sealed room.
What was going on?
Our brains are disconcertingly slow – while disasters are rapid. Aeroplane manufacturers are required to show that the plane can be evacuated in 90 seconds, since the risk of the cabin being consumed by fire sharply increases after this time. Meanwhile, most of us are still fumbling with our seatbelts.
“The brain has a very limited capacity for processing new information,” says Sarita Robinson, a psychologist at the University of Central Lancashire, in England.
In a disaster, the speed at which we think goes from bad to worse. “When we experience acutely stressful situations, the body releases many hormones, such as cortisol, adrenaline, norepinephrine and dopamine,” says Robinson. This cocktail of hormones impairs the functioning of the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for such higher functions as working memory. Just when we need our wits the most, we become forgetful and prone to making bad decisions.