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Identifying Who Survives Disasters — And Why

Book Tour is a Web feature and podcast. Each week, we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.

Amanda Ripley's new book, The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes — And Why, is the thinking person's manual for getting out alive.

In moments of total disaster — plane crashes or terrorist attacks — something happens in our brains that affects the way we think. We behave differently, often irrationally. Consider the World Trade Center workers who, on Sept. 11, dithered at their desks, calling relatives, turning off computers and pondering which mementos to rescue from their desks even as the doomed jets burned above their heads.

In The Unthinkable, Ripley cites a National Institute of Standards and Technology study that showed that those who made it out of the WTC waited an average of six minutes after the plane hit their building before heading for the exit and walking slowly — not running — down the stairs.

Ripley searches for patterns in human behavior by interviewing hundreds of people who lived through catastrophes. Quick-witted survivors are surprisingly anomalous. One fellow who made it through a horrific aircraft disaster in 1977 happened to be sitting on the runway reading an in-flight safety instruction card when another plane crashed into his. He grabbed his wife, leapt through a hole in the fuselage, and turned to see his fellow passengers remaining docilely in their seats, immobile. Most of them died within minutes as fire swept through the wreckage.

The author concludes that all of us undergo a three-stage process when we find ourselves in mortal peril: denial, deliberation and the "decisive moment," during which the survivor buckles down and acts. The trick, she says, may be to understand our instincts, which, in a crisis, may betray us. Some people run toward infernos, not away, and even in the face of obvious impending disaster, some people just won't move. Ripley muses that this may be an old ingrained biological response — a version of "playing dead."

Ripley is a senior writer for Time magazine who covers risk and homeland security. This reading of The Unthinkable took place in July 2008 at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.