Wednesday, March 11, 2009


It’s one of my guilty secrets, I love disasters. Obviously I’m not too keen on experiencing them myself, but I do have a strange fascination with documentaries about emergencies and disasters (not always so keen on film re-creations of actual disasters, somehow they seem too morbid). I guess there are probably two underlying causes for this interest: the obsessive organiser and planner in me wanting to know how best to survive and the scientific-technical investigation process that unravels the course of a disaster and the reasons behind it.

A new series of ‘Air Crash Investigation’ has just started on the National Geographic Channel. So far I’ve seen how pilot error cause a mid-air collision just outside New Delhi, which reassuringly also showed how new radar technology makes the likelihood of that far lower. Yesterday I watched the mid-air break up of a 747 on the Taiwan Straits – a dodgy repair 22 years earlier had turned into a fatal fracture and the tail fell off at 35,000 feet.

Yes, I know, I’m strange... the Horizon programme on how to survive last night was more useful. So these are my tips: never sit more than 5 rows from an emergency exit on a plane (beyond that survival probability sharply drops off), never stay above the 5th floor in a hotel (the maximum height of rescue ladders), if an alarm goes off or there are other signs of an emergency don’t rely on other people to indicate what to do – get the hell out of there.

Apparently much of the loss of life in the Twin Towers was due to people’s inability to realise and deal with what was happened – people continued writing emails, went to the toilet, shut down their computers before trying to find their way to the emergency staircase. It just didn’t sink in, people’s minds were not prepared to deal with the reality of a major emergency.

One firm had a very high survival rate – only 14 Morgan Stanley employees perished out of 3,500 – because they had an obsessive head of health and safety who drilled them constantly what to do. So they did it automatically, they didn’t have to think, they just knew it was better to get out quickly and ask questions later than to hang around to see if it was a ‘drill’ (although in this case the giant bang and explosion should have given it away).

This inability to act and the problem of peer pressure was demonstrated through a film of the ‘Smoking room’ experiment – where participants were expecting to take part in a social science experiment and were led into a room to fill in forms before the experiment began. Smoke starts pouring in from a corner door. When they were in the room alone 75% got up to raise the alarm within 5 minutes, when the room was filled with actors ignoring the situation only 10% did. Apparently self-confidence is also one of the biggest survival plus points.

So go on, next time you’re on a plane count those seat backs to the exit, in a new building know your exit route... but right now I’m off to buy myself a personal smoke hood.

1 comment:

AdventuringJen said...

I do not what oyu mean. I think for me the interest in disasters comes from the desire to fix things. So when things go wrong, I can plan and problem solve and so on.
And I tried to comment on your previous post a few days ago but the computer grumped and I couldn't. Blah.