Monday, January 19, 2009

“It was like one big family on that wing..."

Neo-Neocon has an interesting post up on the calmness of the passengers of flight 1549:

One cannot help but be impressed not only by the mere logistics of their survival as well as its improbability, but by the near-unanimity of the passengers’ stories of calm and mutual assistance.

One survivor, David Carlos, made the following observation:

“It was like one big family on that wing, everyone’s holding each other, this guy’s got that guy and this lady’s got that guy and no one wants to fall off,” Carlos said. “It was amazing, the human spirit, when it comes down to that everyone just got together, and was able to overcome and stay together, and everyone made it.”

Carlos's statements about the calm and assistance reminded me of what I had recently read in Amanda Ripley's book, The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why.

Ripley has a chapter on panic and notes that panic occurs if, and only if three conditions are present. First, people must feel they are trapped. Second, there is a sense of great helplessness, and the final prerequisite is a sense of profound isolation. Ripley points out that all of these conditions are hard to define or measure. But the point here is, whatever took place on flight 1549, none of these conditions was present. Human behavior on that plane was at its best. Ripley points out that this is common:

The truth is, in almost every disaster I have studied, people treat each other with kindness and respect. Violence and panic are extremely rare. An instant camraderie springs up between strangers--on a sinking ship or a bombed-out subway car. That is the rule, not the exception.

Maybe so, but crowds and people do panic in disasters. So, the million dollar question is "why in this circumstance were people cooperative and calm and in other situations they are not?" And how do you use the information gleaned from this particular crash to provide better psychological preparation for other disasters in the future?



Blogger Cham said...

Why no panic? Reasons way too numerous to mention. I'll start with a few:

1) Every airline provides a safety video at the beginning of the flight. Those videos cover the basics about what to do if the plane lands in water. Even if you don't pay attention you become aware there is a plan of action in the event of emergency.

2) Flight attendants and pilots - These people are a trained to instruct passengers on what to do during an event. If there was any confusion, all a passenger had to do was look to the flight attendant for instruction.

3) 6 exits - There are six ways out of a plane, if one exit doesn't work you can try another. The plane was in water, most likely it wasn't going to burst into flames.

4) Most Americans can swim. We are swimmers, water, even cold water doesn't scare us. In many countries women and many men never learn to swim which is why there is always panic when a crammed ferry goes down.

5) Seat cushions - Everyone gets one, grab it on the way out for a flotation device.

6) Passengers - People who fly on airplane are familiar with travel, often are pretty educated and may have had some basic emergency training in something. The first rule of emergencies is not to panic.

7) The Hudson River - That plane was lucky it didn't hit some sort of boat when it hit the water. It's New York, a very crowded and busy city. Somebody was bound to come along or at the very least dial 911. Heck, the passengers had phones, they could call for help themselves.

3:40 PM, January 19, 2009  
Blogger ZZ said...

Cham, while those are good reasons why there were no deaths, I don't think that's what Helen is asking.

I think the calmness and professionalism of the crew had something to do with it, as well as the relatively soft landing and the fact that they could see the water around them was full of boats. It was probably apparent that the situation, while very serious, was not hopeless.

4:56 PM, January 19, 2009  
Blogger TMink said...

I wonder if we are more prone to panic when we think there is a viable exit. Not only were the crew trained and helping as Cham said, but there was nowhere to go at first.

Where could they panic too? With no obvious exit, are we more likely to freeze? It is an interesting question, in what situations does our amygdala allow us to continue to think even though we are in it deep.


7:19 PM, January 19, 2009  
Blogger Webutante said...

I think, among other things, the Captain conveyed a sense of competence and calm throughout the cabin when he announced the plane was going down. As Bowen theory would say, when the "head" is calm, the rest of the organism is too, for the most part.

7:28 PM, January 19, 2009  
Blogger DADvocate said...

I agree with all the points made so far. I also believe that the size of the crowd and the circumstances played a factor. It was a relatively small, well defined group of people, not a street mob or rowdy stadium full of people. It was man against machine/nature, i.e. the passengers were all on the same team facing a common opponent.

8:09 PM, January 19, 2009  
Blogger Garou said...

I think part of it must be that we are, at least in part, pack animals. When there is a leader of some sort, and that leader conveys a sense of calm assurance, we stay settled down. When a leader does not convey that impression, or is missing, we are more likely to panic. And when there is no leadership, and someone stands and starts yelling "We're all going to die!" then we all panic.

8:17 PM, January 19, 2009  
Blogger Unknown said...

Good thing no liberals on the plane or there would not have been this calmness...where they standing on the left or right wing awaiting help?

9:48 PM, January 19, 2009  
Blogger David Foster said...

An aircraft manufacturer--I think it was Boeing--hired volunteers to test evacuation speed on one of their planes, and apparently a lot of people got hurt in the rush for the exits. This was an airplane (or a mock-up) that never left the ground, that was on dry land, with no source of danger other than self-induced.

10:37 PM, January 19, 2009  
Blogger Mad William Flint said...

We're* pretty damn good at handling emergencies. It was the single most notable aspect of descending WTC-1 on 9/11. There was no BS, people did what needed to be done.

*definition of "We" left as an exercise for the reader.

9:55 AM, January 20, 2009  
Blogger Brett Rogers said...

I wasn't there, so I could be way off base here. And I haven't read Ripley's book. But it seems to me that had I just lived through that, and as the plane floated along, relatively unscathed, my overwhelming feeling would have been one of immense thankfulness. It's hard to be panicked or rude when immersed in gratitude.

The savage tear in the fabric of your universe when someone near you dies and you confront that head-on, in the midst of tragedy such as a plane crash - I think that leads to very primal reactions. Hard to be thankful for your own survival when someone you know dies in such an incident. In fact, rather than gratitude, guilt is not uncommon.

No one died here. After realizing that, it seems that there was a sense of "It's going to be okay" - the first words I was taught to say at a combat lifesaving course to a wounded person, regardless of the severity of their injuries. Reassurance aids everything.

10:15 AM, January 20, 2009  
Blogger ada47 said...

I don't want to conflate my recent experience as an extremely lucky "survivor" of Hurricane Ike with this flight disaster, but I do believe that the behavior of which you speak IS the rule, not the exception. I don't know what it is, and I think your questions, dr. helen, about using the info from this crash, is a good one. But don't just look to this crash. There may be something about acute experiences of disaster that foster community-mindedness. I can imagine that the survivors had the very real sense that their survival was in each others' hands. There was probably very little need for heroic self-sacrifice, just a stark realization that the fate of each was tied to the other, that it cost nothing to help someone else and it will in all likelihood help. And there is a real joy in connecting to other people, even in the worst of circumstances.

Dorthy Day wrote about the 1906 SF earthquake in such terms. Kate Braestrup writes about how every day disasters reveal the "miracles" occurring around us all the time in "Here if You Need Me". And there are a few 9/11 survival stories that fit this mold.

I think this IS the norm.

6:40 PM, January 20, 2009  
Blogger Unknown said...

Per Ripley's contention, it might have also have to do with no one else panicking. If other people panic, then you are indeed:

1. Trapped, as before;

2. Increasingly helpless, since you cannot now work together as you must in order to implement a solution;

3. Increasingly isolated, at least to the extent that the panic spreads. Each new panic zombie becomes one more person you are isolated from, increasing your own probability of checking off all three boxes and joining them.

In this case, those who set the tone saved lives.

8:04 PM, January 21, 2009  
Blogger Eric said...

I was in the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, and was trapped with thousands of other cars on the broken Bay Bridge for many hours. All power was out, traffic lights did not work, and yet people were invariably helpful, patient and cooperative. I didn't make it home that night, but showed up unannounced at a friend's house, and I never saw such spontaneous cooperation before. The whole thing renewed my faith in what people can do when the chips are down.

11:00 PM, January 21, 2009  
Blogger Mad William Flint said...

So why then, I wonder do people categorically sell people short?

12:22 AM, January 22, 2009  
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