A Journey into the Black Box of Survival


What would I do if an earthquake struck? How would I react if I were inside a burning building? These are some of the questions I asked myself as I read Amanda Ripley’s book The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why. I started asking myself similar questions as I read stories like that of Elia Zedeño, who worked in Tower 1 at the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001 and made the journey down 72 floors to her safety. In The Unthinkable, Ripley took me into the minds of disaster survivors and explained the science behind their reactions. This book made me change the way I look at disaster survival and it gave me hope that I could survive a disaster.

I first learned of Ripley’s book through articles I read in the blog The Art of Manliness. In a three-part series entitled, “Are you a Sheep or a Sheepdog?” authors Brett and Kate McKay referenced The Unthinkable, among others books. In these articles, the husband and wife team explore the analogy of people as sheep, sheepdogs or wolves based on their behavior in dangerous situations. This analogy comes from retired Army Lt. Col. and author Dave Grossman. According to Mr. and Mrs. McKay, “Sheepdogs are the guardians and protectors of society – those that are not afraid to stand up for right.” Wolves, on the other hand, are the small percentage of “evil sociopaths who seek to do harm and exploit others.” Society’s sheepdogs protect sheep (the majority of people) from the wolves. Grossman says that the human population exists somewhere in this sheepdog/sheep/wolf spectrum. The “Sheepdog” articles explained why most men are taught to be sheep and how more men could be more like sheepdogs.

One story that illustrates an example of a sheepdog is from Amanda Ripley’s book The Unthinkable. This is the inspiring story of Walter Bailey, the 18-year-old busboy who saved many lives in the 1977 massive fire at the Beverly Hills Supper Club outside Cincinnati. On that night, Bailey was working in the Cabaret Room where more than 1,200 people watched performing acts. This was the last room to learn about the fire in the Zebra Room. When Bailey saw the smoke coming from the Zebra Room’s door, he told his supervisor to clear the room twice. The Beverly Hills did not have smoke detectors, fire alarms, or sprinklers; so there wasn’t a modern system to alert the guests. When his supervisor did not clear the showroom, Bailey sprung into action. He went on stage, interrupted the act, told the audience about the fire and instructed them to exit the building. As the smoke filled the Cabaret Room, some guests were slow to act and some did not act at all. Bailey started pulling guests out of Cabaret Room as other men, mostly employees, were helping out. Bailey tried to recruit help from male guests outside but these men acted like sheep and did not volunteer. In the end, the fire killed 167 people, most of who were in the Cabaret Room. If Bailey and others had not taken quick action, the casualties would have been higher.

So why did Bailey and a few others act while many others did not? Why were some so slow to react? Or worse, why did some not act at all? As an investigative journalist and a senior writer at Time magazine, Amanda Ripley has covered the disasters in recent history. In her book The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why, Ripley seeks to answer two questions: “What happens to us in the midst of a disaster? And why some of us do so much better than others? (xx).” In recent decades, several disasters have occurred in America, both inflicted by humans and by nature. The continuous disaster news coverage and specials are filled with explicit details of tragedy but no useful survival information that would benefit the public. Since the media does not supply the public with helpful disaster advice, we should look elsewhere. Amanda Ripley’s book The Unthinkable is a great beginning to creating that necessary survival imagination that could save our lives.

The Unthinkable is about how people react to disasters before help arrives. Ripley argues that in a disaster situation we cannot simply wait to be saved. Using extensive scientific and non-scientific research, Ripley asserts that the public has the power to shape and reshape our minds to react better during dangerous situations. The Unthinkable is divided into the three chronological parts of the survival arc: denial, deliberation and the decisive moment. The survival arc is the path “we all must travel to get from danger to safety” (xviii). Ripley explains that the path to survival is rarely linear and that “sometimes the path to survival is more like a looping roller coaster, doubling up and back upon itself as we struggle to find true north” (xix). Although no situation is the same, “it’s rare that anyone survives a disaster without pushing-or being pushed-through each of these three main stages at least once” (Ripley, xx).

I found The Unthinkable inspirational because it made me evaluate my own disaster identity. I reflected on some of the reactions I’ve had during emergency situations and how I could have acted better. For example, I remember during a family medical scare, I froze up and didn’t know what to do. Luckily, my brother dove into action and called for help. Ripley explains that this paralysis is a hardwired evolutionary response that is very common. Although “freezing up” was a disadvantage in this situation and it can be deadly in others, Ripley asserts that this paralysis is very complex and misunderstood. Paralysis can have has its survival advantages too; such as in the case of Clay Violand, who survived the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007. When Violand saw the shooter’s semiautomatic gun as he entered his French class, Violand reacted by lying still on the floor as if he were dead. Violand somehow knew that the shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, would return and he did. Before the shooter returned to the classroom, Violand instructed his classmates to also “play dead.” Violand became was the only person in the classroom not to get shot and his paralysis may have saved his life. Although he had never been in a similar situation, Violand was able to act instinctively as if he had. Thus, the paralysis reaction can have some survival benefits.

After reading The Unthinkable, I realized that I used to have a false confidence in my ability to survive dangerous situations. I used to assume that if emergency occurred, I would have the same cognitive responses that I have in my everyday life. Ripley explains that this is not the case. During times of extreme stress, our bodies and minds have reactions that put us in an alternative state of being. We gain some skills like an increased tolerance for physical pain and heightened alertness, but we often lose other skills like our conception of time and our hearing. I know this to be true when I got into a car accident several years ago. As I merged into my right lane, I did not check twice to make sure a car was not close to me. Suddenly, I saw a green car in front of me and I slammed on my brakes. Luckily, it was just a fender-bender and the other driver and I were safe.

Nonetheless, after the moment of impact, I felt very different. As I exited the car, my heart pounded, my hands shook and I felt as if I was not entirely present. I was so focused on what just happened that I could not experience anything else. I was on a busy expressway near a freeway entrance but I don’t remember hearing horns or seeing cars pass by. All my actions revolved around these thoughts: “Is the driver okay? I should get onto the sidewalk. I should call 911. I should exchange information with the other driver.” Thus, my mind was so focused on surviving that all other stimuli seemed unimportant. My reactions mirrored those of survivors in Ripley’s book and they demonstrate that the mind under extreme stress does not function in the same way as in ordinary life. I had rehearsed in my mind what to do after an accident but that didn’t mean that all of my cognitive responses and senses were entirely present when an accident occurred. As a survivor of 9/11 attacks Bill McMahon puts it, “‘One thing you don’t ever want to do is have to think in a disaster'” (Ripley, 208).

One of the most important things I found in reading The Unthinkable is that we can take actions to have more control to how we react during a disaster. As long as we remember that disasters can happen to us, we can find purpose in preparing ourselves. Ripley asserts that we can do better in disasters if we train our minds. In fact, the core lesson of her book is this: “the best way to get the brain to perform under extreme stress is to repeatedly run it through rehearsals beforehand. Or as the military puts it, the ‘Eight P’s’: ‘Proper prior planning and preparation prevents piss-poor performance'” (Ripley, 205-206). (At the end of this entry, you will find helpful links as well as links to the articles I mentioned.)

So how has this book influenced my own actions? Whenever I go to a new place, I look for the exits. I find this is especially important when I go to crowded nightclubs and concerts. Although fires or earthquakes aren’t things I want to think about when I’m trying to have a good time, I now feel at ease when I know the locations of the exits. Currently, I am researching the recommended safety measures for the emergencies that are most likely to occur in my area. I also plan on practicing evacuation drills and reassessing my emergency kit.

I am glad that I read The Unthinkable by Amanda Ripley. The courageous survival stories kept me at the edge of my seat and her extensive research on human behavior kept me informed. As I read her book I felt empowered by the stories and information I read. Amidst the many tragedies illustrated in her book, Ripley maintains a voice of reasonable hope in the human potential for improvement and survival. This book made me evaluate my own disaster personality and it inspired me to become more educated and prepared so I could improve my responses in times of extreme stress. Before I read The Unthinkable, I remember thinking that the title and the book’s cover gave a grim tone. However, upon reading the book I looked at the title and its cover in a different way. Disasters are scary, they are possible, and they can make us feel helpless. However, if we inform and prepare ourselves, we may feel less fearful and more hopeful in our own survival. Hopefully, we can react better and face disaster with more courage.

Links / References
•”Are You a Sheep or Sheepdog?” Parts I, II & III

•Also check out: http://www.artofmanliness.com
•Resource that author Amanda Ripley recommends: http://reallyready.org/

2 Responses to “A Journey into the Black Box of Survival”
  1. Great review. Especially your telling of your own experience after the car accident

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