Escaping from a plane crash or shipwreck, says author Ben Sherwood,
requires skill as well as luck. What can we learn about survival from those who made it out alive?
On Sept. 28, 1994, Paul Barney was making an overnight trip from Estonia to Sweden by car ferry. To save around $40, the 35-year-old British landscape architect had decided against taking a cabin below deck and instead planned to camp out in one of the open spaces of the sprawling 15,000-ton ship. Around 11 p.m., as the ship, christened the Estonia, pushed into a storm, he settled down with his sleeping bag in a perfect spot inside the cafe on Deck 5, at the vessel’s stern. He awoke around 1 a.m. to a sudden bang.
The ship was listing dramatically to its right. Tables and chairs began to slide. At first, Barney wondered if the vessel had run aground. Then he realized that the ferry wasn’t swaying and that the tilt of the deck was steadily increasing. “So I thought, We’ve got to do something about that,” he says.
Barney was always pretty good at what he calls “orienting” himself. He decided the best place to get more solid footing and figure out an escape plan was the doorway between the cafe and the promenade deck. As the ship tipped even more, he maneuvered around the door frame to stay standing. From this precarious perch, he attempted to redraw a mental map of the ship, but his brain struggled to keep up with so much confusing information. With dishes and glasses crashing everywhere, he knew one thing for sure: The boat wasn’t suddenly going to right itself. There wasn’t any lifesaving equipment around, and the captain and crew weren’t providing any emergency instructions. “I realized that this was quite a desperate situation,” Barney says, “and I was quite likely to die.”
Barney expected to see passengers scrambling for their lives. He imagined scenes of bedlam, with people clawing for life preservers and fighting for the lifeboats. Instead, he encountered something truly strange: Many fellow passengers seemed unable to do anything at all. “People were just not moving,” he says. “They were frozen to the spot, almost waiting to be told what to do.” As the lights flicked on and off, they looked like marble statues, pale and immovable.
“Why don’t they do something?” he asked an Estonian man who was sharing the door frame with him as the ship listed ever more steeply.
“Just don’t think about it,” the man replied.
That man didn’t make it to a lifeboat, but Barney did. After pulling some warm clothes from his backpack and taking off his boots—(he didn’t want to end up wearing them in the water), he clambered upward on a latticework of ceiling pipes and vents and found himself standing alone atop the massive hull of the side-turned Estonia. A half-moon cast some light on his surreal surroundings. Despite gale-force winds and waves crashing from every direction, he was able to creep 500 feet across the porthole-pocked surface of the ship to join a group of passengers who were launching an inflatable life raft.
Of the 16 who boarded the raft, 10 died of hypothermia that night. Of the 989 people who had been aboard the Estonia, nearly two-thirds didn’t even make it off the ship.
Why do some people survive a life-threatening situation and others die unnecessarily?
In any emergency, people essentially divide into three categories. John Leach, one of the world’s leading experts in survival psychology, has developed what might be called the Theory of 10-80-10 to explain the phenomenon. First, around 10 percent of us will handle a crisis in a relatively calm and rational state of mind. Another 10 percent—the ones you definitely want to avoid in an emergency—lose control of themselves. They freak out and can’t pull themselves together. The vast majority of us, though, fall into the broad middle band. Around 80 percent of us, Leach says, will “quite simply be stunned and bewildered.” We’ll find that our “reasoning is significantly impaired and that thinking is difficult.” In short, most of us will turn into statues in the first moments of a crisis.
That’s okay—the response is not necessarily fatal and it doesn’t last forever. The key is to recover quickly from this brainlock, shake off the shock and figure out what to do. And I do mean quickly. If you’re ever trapped in a burning plane, for instance, you typically have only 90 seconds before the cabin temperature will soar to 2,000 degrees and a flashover fire will consume everything.
David Koch remembers the familiar screech of the airliner’s wheels touching down in Los Angeles and, a few seconds later, “a sudden sickening crunch.” A spray of sparks and a ball of fire lit up the window beside his seat on the 737 that he and 82 other passengers had boarded back in Columbus, Ohio. He was sure they had struck another plane.
The cabin echoed with screams as a flight attendant shouted: “Stay down! Stay down!” Koch quickly unbuckled his seat belt and got ready to run for the exit, but the plane kept skidding. Around 20 seconds later—what seemed like forever—it finally slammed to a stop, and another explosion shook the plane. Koch was thrown forward into a first-row seat and then against the bulkhead.
Fear swept the plane as the cabin lights went out. Koch, who had been riding in first class, watched passengers run down the aisles toward the rear of the plane. Thick, choking smoke filled the cabin. The intercom shut off. The flight attendants offered no more evacuation instructions. The passengers were on their own.
Koch immediately got on his hands and knees and started crawling toward the back of the plane, searching for an exit. But after moving a few rows, he encountered “a fighting, frenzied mob jamming the aisle.” The congestion, he says, “suddenly made me realize that escape was probably impossible because I was last in line to get out of the rear exit. I concluded that I was probably going to die. At that point, I stood up and, choking heavily on the smoke, walked back toward the first-class section.
In the midst of the chaos, Koch’s thoughts were clear and calm. “For a
few long moments, I stood there, immobilized, not knowing what else to do,” he says. Then Koch experienced an amazing sensation. He says he felt his mind separate from his body and rise up toward a white light. He remembers looking back at his body dying on the airplane while his mind successfully escaped. Suddenly, his mind snapped back to his body and he realized that there had to be a way out. If smoke was pouring into the front of the plane, there had to be an opening in the fuselage.
He stumbled forward. Every breath of black smoke was tremendously painful, and he was feeling faint. Then he saw a crack in the fuselage. He pried his fingers into it and, realizing it was the galley door, pulled hard. He shoved his head outside and gulped down a few breaths of air. “A tremendous sense of strength came over me,” he says.
Below him he could see fire burning under the plane. Oh, what the hell, he thought, jumping past the flames onto the asphalt 10 feet below. He landed hard, and crawled away from the plane. When he looked back, “the sight was a nightmare.” He watched passengers struggling and squeezing to get through the exits.
The date was Feb. 1, 1991. Koch’s plane, USAir 1493, had indeed collided with a second aircraft, a twin-propeller commuter plane that an air traffic controller had mistakenly directed to the runway that the larger plane was coming in on. Everyone on the smaller plane was killed. Twenty-two people on the USAir jet were killed, including 18 who couldn’t get off the plane.
Safety investigators found a number of disturbing facts about the evacuation. A woman seated in 10F, the emergency row, admitted that she froze and was unable to leave her seat or open the window exit next to her. A male passenger climbed over the seat, opened the hatch, and pushed the woman out onto the wing. A few moments later, two male passengers “had an altercation” about who would evacuate first. The fight lasted several seconds. Those two events “significantly hampered the evacuation,” investigators concluded.
When the fires on the plane were put out, the charred bodies of the first-class flight attendant and 10 passengers were discovered lined up in the aisle less than eight feet from the exit in Row 10. This was the pileup that David Koch had encountered. If he had not turned around, he surely would have been the 12th person to perish in that aisle.
What lessons can be drawn from the experiences of Paul Barney, David Koch, and other survivors like them? Christian Hart, a psychology professor and veteran skydiver who has analyzed skydiving accidents, may have an answer.
Hart has interviewed numerous skydivers who failed, for one reason or another, to pull their chutes and yet were saved just seconds before impact by automatic activation devices. He has also reviewed many reports that skydivers have filed about these harrowing incidents.
His conclusion is that two kinds of personalities emerge under extreme pressure. The first keeps trying to solve problems no matter what happens. They refuse to quit and sometimes die trying to save themselves. The second type gives up quickly. They resign themselves and surrender.
Hart believes that parachuting offers three survival lessons for the rest of us who don’t jump out of airplanes. First, in the event of an emergency, try to relax. Some skydiving instructors have a special signal when they’re free-falling with anxious students: They pat the top of their heads. It’s a sign to stay clam. The simple act of remembering to loosen up can break you out of brainlock. Second, remember where you are. It may seem obvious, but “situational awareness” can mean the difference between life and death, whether you’re hurtling toward earth at terminal velocity or driving 75 miles an hour on the interstate. Third, never give up. Many parachuting deaths could have been prevented, Hart says, if skydivers had kept working on their problems. Human and mechanical errors are fixable, but you never find out if you give up.
From the book The Survivors Club by Ben Sherwood, executive director of TheSurvivorsClub.org. ©2008 by Ben Sherwood. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing, New York, N.Y. All rights reserved.