Completely Gratuitous

Check Out My New Page on YouTube!

Just Search SMALOHAWORK and enjoy!


February 20th, 2009

NY Times Article People are being paid to put temporary tattoos on their body that advertise companies!  New Zealand Air in particular is paying $777 or a free round-trip ticket if you shave your head and put their slogan on.  I’m not making this up – read the article.  This is too far if you ask me.  The line is here —  and advertisers have just stepped way over it.  And I thought those LED billboards were out of control.  What’s next?  Pamphlets stuck in you door, on your windshield, in with you mail?  Oh wait, that’s already been done too.


February 18th, 2008

People are up in arms about the cartoon on Page Six of today’s NY Post, calling it racist and insensitive.  ny-post

What do you think?

Post Defends Its Comic


February 8th, 2009

Blah-blah-blah-blah… 3.6 Million unemployed since the start of the recession.  Wait a minute.  Did I hear that right?  George!  What have you allowed to happen?


January 30th, 2009

Article is Courtesy of THE CHRONICLE: The Chronicle

Couple pay $233,258 for cloned dog **

A COUPLE in Florida has received the first cloned puppy in the US after paying a San Francisco company working with South Korean scientists $US155,000 to perform the complicated feat of bio-engineering.

Nina and Edgar Otto picked up their cloned yellow labrador puppy on Monday, according to a press release from BioArts International. The puppy, Lancelot Encore, was cloned from the DNA of the Ottos’ late dog Lancelot, who died of cancer in January 2008.

The couple were one of six winners of an international dog-cloning auction last year. They paid to have scientists at the Sooam Biotech Research Foundationin South Korea create the cloned puppy from DNA samples taken from the donor dog by the Ottos five years ago.

“We can’t believe this day is finally here,” said Nina Otto, “We are so happy to have little Lancey in our family. His predecessor was a very special dog. We are thrilled beyond words!”

Lancelot Encore, who was born on November 18 last year, is believed to be the first cloned puppy in the US. The other five auction winners are slated to get their puppies in the coming six months.

The couple appeared with the lively puppy on NBC television Wednesday morning. Nina Otto said she had financed the project by selling her jewelry.



January 16th

For those of you who love Law and Order, this interesting trial is for you.  Amanda Knox Murder Trial Begins In Italy ITALY STUDENT SLAIN


November 19th, 2008

Los Angeles’ Museum of Contempory Art is In Trouble!  MOCA faces serious financial problems


November 18th, 2008

Two very interesting articles in the news today.  The wife of billionaire, T. Boone Pickens saved the lives of 30,000 horses and burros that the Bureau of Land Management was going to euthanize due to lack of funds for feeding them.  A Dramatic Rescue

The second bit of news that struck me was this piece about the poorest of the poor in Rio de Janeiro who lined up to get free plastic surgery.  Only in Rio would looking good be so important.  Free Beauty Treatments in Rio


November 13th, 2008

What do you all think of the Anti-Gay Blacklist?  In case you don’t know what this is, it’s a list of people who gave money to support Prop 9…and in case you don’t know what that is, it’s a law that was just passed that takes away the right for same sex partners to marry in California.

In my opinion?  We all have the right to donate money to, support, and speak out on whatever floats our boats.  Which means we also have the right to check public records to see who supports what.  At that point it becomes a personal choice whether we want to take action, like blacklisting someone, because he or she has a different opinion/world view than we do – or whether we don’t.  Perhaps then the website should be renamed ‘The Donator List?’  That way readers could make a choice without influence and donators could express their opinions without fear vigilantism.  But that’s just one opinion.

Happily, I checked the list and don’t know a soul on it.


More SNL funniness regarding next week’s election:

The Last Debate

Oh my goodness.  From Saturday Night Light on 10/4/08…enjoy the debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin all over again!

VP Debate

Sarah Palin does it again…

And the recap…

SNL Sarah Palin Skit


January 21, 2009 – The following articles have been included at the request/suggestion of one of my readers.  Perhaps they’ll come in handy one day and you can thank her!

The Three Articles are :
Q&A: How to Survive a Plane Crash
How to Get Out Alive
How to Survive A Disaster

Q&A: How to Survive a Plane Crash
By Gilbert Cruz

A former executive producer at ABC’s Good Morning America and a senior broadcast producer at NBC Nightly News, Ben Sherwood has written a new book, The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science That Could Save Your Life, that discusses, among other things, what you can do to survive a plane crash. Sherwood talked to TIME shortly after a US Airways flight made a crash landing in the Hudson River. (See pictures of the Hudson River plane crash.)

It seems that all the people got off this flight safely. That’s sort of shocking, isn’t it?

I write in The Survivors Clubabout the “myth of hopelessness.” People think that all plane crashes are fatal. That’s because of TWA 800 and Egypt Air and ValuJet and Pan Am 103and all these other flight names and numbers that are emblazoned in our mind because everybody died. But in fact, if you look at the last two major incidents involving passenger jets in the United States, in Denver and now this one — I’m assuming from the CNN reporting that they think everyone is safe — but in both of the major incidents, the plane that went off the runway in Denver and this incident, you’ve got very, very high survival rates: 100% in Denver — with some injuries, obviously — and what looks like 100% here. People generally believe that no one survives a plane crash. But according to government data, 95.7% of the passengers involved in airplane crashes categorized as accidents actually survive. Then, if you look at the most serious plane crashes, that’s a smaller number; the survival rate in the most serious kinds of accidents is 76.6%. So the point there is, when the NTSB [National Transportation Safety Board] analyzed all the airplane accidents between 1983 and 2000, 53,000 people were involved in those accidents, and 51,000 survived. That’s an incredibly high survival rate.

Are you surprised that all the passengers seem to have gotten off the plane so quickly?

The other myth that you see in this is the myth of panic. People assume, in an airplane crash, that there’s pandemonium and people panic. But in fact, according to research done after earthquakes and natural disasters and airplane crashes, panic behavior rarely happens. In fact, as passengers are describing right now, people were scared, but they got very quiet, silent; they awaited instructions; a few people took command, got everybody in line and got everybody off the plane. So there are people crying and people that are afraid and people giving voice to their concerns, but if you’re trying to get off a plane that’s in the water and you know you’re sinking, and you’re pushing to the exits and using your loud voice — that’s not panic. That’s completely purposeful, understandable behavior. (Read “How to Get Out Alive.”)

You write in your book about attending an FAA workshop on surviving plane crashes. What were some of the most important tips that you can recall from that session?

I learned several things. There’s the five-row rule. When a professor in England, Ed Galea, analyzed the seating charts of more than 100 plane crashes and interviewed 1,900 survivors and 155 cabin-crew members, he discovered that survivors usually move an average of five rows before they can get off a burning aircraft. That’s the cutoff. In his view — and he’s done a lot of statistical analysis — the people who are most likely to survive a plane crash are people who are sitting right next to the exit row or one row away. Not a particular exit row but any exit row. That’s the person most likely to survive. Beyond a five-row cutoff from the exit, your chances, in his view, are greatly reduced. So the first thing I think about when I get on a plane or when I’m making my flight plans is, “Where am I sitting?” (Read “How to Survive A Disaster.”)

I also pay careful attention to the safety card and the safety briefing, because every plane is different. That information is part of developing a plan, and because I know that plane crashes are survivable, I want to know what the exits are, what the equipment is. I want to know what’s under my seat. I actually reach under the seat with my hands and touch to make sure that my life jacket is actually there. So the safety briefings are very important. The FAA has done research on safety briefings, and they find that the least informed people, those that don’t pay attention to the safety briefings, are frequent fliers. They think they know all about flying and all about planes, so they get on a flight and pick up their Wall Street Journaland start e-mailing on their BlackBerrys.

I do not take my shoes off. I leave them on in the event that I need to run through a burning plane. I wear lace-up shoes. In the event of an impact, people’s shoes have been known to fly off them, particularly flip-flops and other “convenient” shoes. Typically, people have a couple of pops at the bar, put on earphones; they put on blindfolds, they take off their shoes, and they go to sleep. But research has shown that the first three minutes of a plane flight and the last eight — this is called the rule of plus three/minus eight — are when about 80% of airplane accidents take place. In that time, you should not be blindfolded; you should not be drunk or have earphones on. You should really be paying attention, because you actually can survive a plane crash.

How to Get Out Alive
By Amanda Ripley

When the plane hit Elia Zedeno’s building on 9/11, the effect was not subtle. From the 73rd floor of Tower 1, she heard a booming explosion and felt the building actually lurch to the south, as if it might topple. It had never done that before, even in 1993 when a bomb exploded in the basement, trapping her in an elevator. This time, Zedeño grabbed her desk and held on, lifting her feet off the floor. Then she shouted, “What’s happening?” You might expect that her next instinct was to flee. But she had the opposite reaction. “What I really wanted was for someone to scream back, ‘Everything is O.K.! Don’t worry. It’s in your head.'”

She didn’t know it at the time, but all around her, others were filled with the same reflexive incredulity. And the reaction was not unique to 9/11. Whether they’re in shipwrecks, hurricanes, plane crashes or burning buildings, people in peril experience remarkably similar stages. And the first one–even in the face of clear and urgent danger–is almost always a period of intense disbelief.

Luckily, at least one of Zedeño’s colleagues responded differently. “The answer I got was another co-worker screaming, ‘Get out of the building!'” she remembers now. Almost four years later, she still thinks about that command. “My question is, What would I have done if the person had said nothing?”

Most of the people who died on 9/11 had no choice. They were above the impact zone of the planes and could not find a way out. But investigators are only now beginning to understand the actions and psychology of the thousands who had a chance to escape. The people who made it out of the World Trade Center, for example, waited an average of 6 min. before heading downstairs, according to a new National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) study drawn from interviews with nearly 900 survivors. But the range was enormous. Why did certain people leave immediately while others lingered for as long as half an hour? Some were helping co-workers. Others were disabled. And in Tower 2, many were following fatally flawed directions to stay put. But eventually everyone saw smoke, smelled jet fuel or heard someone giving the order to leave. Many called relatives. About 1,000 took the time to shut down their computers, according to NIST.

In other skyscraper fires, staying inside might have been exactly the right thing to do. In the case of the Twin Towers, at least 135 people who theoretically had access to open stairwells–and enough time to use them–never made it out, the report found.Since the early days of the atom bomb, scientists have been trying to understand how to move masses of people out of danger. Engineers have fashioned glowing exit signs, sprinklers and less flammable materials. Elaborate computer models can simulate the emptying of Miami or the Sears Tower, showing thousands of colored dots streaming for safety like a giant Ms. Pac-Man colony. But the most vexing problem endures. And it is not signage or architecture or traffic flow. It’s us. Large groups of people facing death act in surprising ways. Most of us become incredibly docile. We are kinder to one another than normal. We panic only under certain rare conditions. Usually, we form groups and move slowly, as if sleepwalking in a nightmare.

Zedeño still did not immediately flee on 9/11, even after her colleague screamed at her. First she reached for her purse, and then she started walking in circles. “I was looking for something to take with me. I remember I took my book. Then I kept looking around for other stuff to take. It was like I was in a trance,” she says, smiling at her behavior. When she finally left, her progress remained slow. The estimated 15,410 who got out, the NIST findings show, took about a minute to make it down each floor–twice as long as the standard engineering codes predicted. It took Zedeño more than an hour to descend. “I never found myself in a hurry,” she says. “It’s weird because the sound, the way the building shook, should have kept me going fast. But it was almost as if I put the sound away in my mind.”

Had the planes hit later in the day, when the buildings typically held more than 32,000 additional people, a full evacuation at that pace would have taken more than four hours, according to the NIST study. More than 14,000 probably would have perished, Zedeño among them.

In a crisis, our instincts can be our undoing. William Morgan, who directs the exercise-psychology lab at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, has studied mysterious scuba accidents in which divers drowned with plenty of air in their tanks. It turns out that certain people experience an intense feeling of suffocation when their mouths are covered. They respond to that overwhelming sensation by relying on their instinct, which is to rip out whatever is in their mouths. For scuba divers, unfortunately, it is their oxygen source. On land, that would be a perfect solution.

Why do our instincts sometimes backfire so dramatically? Research on how the mind processes information suggests that part of the problem is a lack of data. Even when we’re calm, our brains require 8 to 10 sec. to handle each novel piece of complex information. The more stress, the slower the process. Bombarded with new information, our brains shift into low gear just when we need to move fast. We diligently hunt for a shortcut to solve the problem more quickly. If there aren’t any familiar behaviors available for the given situation, the mind seizes upon the first fix in its library of habits–if you can’t breathe, remove the object in your mouth.

That neurological process might explain, in part, the urge to stay put in crises. “Most people go their entire lives without a disaster,” says Michael Lindell, a professor at the Hazard Reduction & Recovery Center at Texas A&M University. “So, the most reasonable reaction when something bad happens is to say, This can’t possibly be happening to me.” Lindell sees the same tendency, which disaster researchers call normalcy bias, when entire populations are asked to evacuate.

When people are told to leave in anticipation of a hurricane or flood, most of them check with four or more sources–family, newscasters and officials, among others–before deciding what to do, according to a 2001 study by sociologist Thomas Drabek. That process of checking in, known to experts as milling, is common in disasters. On 9/11 at least 70% of survivors spoke with other people before trying to leave, the NIST study shows. (In that regard, if you work or live with a lot of women, your chances of survival may increase, since women are quicker to evacuate than men are.)

People caught up in disasters tend to fall into three categories. About 10% to 15% remain calm and act quickly and efficiently. Another 15% or less completely freak out–weeping, screaming or otherwise hindering the evacuation. That kind of hysteria is usually isolated and quickly snuffed out by the crowd. The vast majority of people do very little. They are “stunned and bewildered,” as British psychologist John Leach put it in a 2004 article published in Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine.

So what determines which category you fall into? You might expect decisive people to be assertive and flaky people to come undone. But when nothing is normal, the rules of everyday life do not apply. No one knows more about human behavior in disasters than researchers in the aviation industry. Because they have to comply with so many regulations, they run thousands of people through experiments and interview scores of crash survivors. Of course, a burning plane is not the same as a flaming skyscraper or a sinking ship. But some behaviors in all three environments turn out to be remarkably similar.

On March 27, 1977, a Pan Am 747 awaiting takeoff at the Tenerife airport in the Canary Islands off Spain was sliced open without warning by a Dutch KLM jet that had come hurtling out of the fog at 160 m.p.h. The collision left twisted metal, along with comic books and toothbrushes, strewn along a half-mile stretch of tarmac. Everyone on the KLM jet was killed instantly. But it looked as if many of the Pan Am passengers had survived and would have lived if they had got up and walked off the fiery plane.

Floy Heck, then 70, was sitting on the Pan Am jet between her husband and her friends, en route from their California retirement residence to a Mediterranean cruise. After the KLM jet sheared off the top of their plane, Heck could not speak or move. “My mind was almost blank. I didn’t even hear what was going on,” she told an Orange County Register reporter years later. But her husband Paul Heck, 65, reacted immediately. He ordered his wife to get off the plane. She followed him through the smoke “like a zombie,” she said. Just before they jumped out of a hole in the left side of the craft, she looked back at her friend Lorraine Larson, who was just sitting there, looking straight ahead, her mouth slightly open, hands folded in her lap. Like dozens of others, she would die not from the collision but from the fire that came afterward.

We tend to assume that plane crashes–and most other catastrophes–are binary: you live or you die, and you have very little choice in the matter. But in all serious U.S. plane accidents from 1983 to 2000, just over half the passengers lived, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. And some survived because of their individual traits or behavior–human factors, as crash investigators put it. After the Tenerife catastrophe, aviation experts focused on those factors–and people like the Hecks–and decided that they were just as important as the design of the plane itself.

Unlike tall buildings, planes are meant to be emptied fast. Passengers are supposed to be able to get out within 90 sec., even if only half the exits are available and bags are strewn in the aisles. As it turns out, the people on the Pan Am 747 had at least 60 sec. to flee before fire engulfed the plane. But of the 396 people on board, 326 were killed. Including the KLM victims, 583 people ultimately died–making the Tenerife crash the deadliest accident in civil aviation history.

What happened? Aren’t disasters supposed to turn us into animals, driven by instinct and surging with adrenaline?

In the 1970s, psychologist Daniel Johnson was working on safety research for McDonnell Douglas. The more disasters he studied, the more he realized that the classic fight-or-flight behavior paradigm was incomplete. Again and again, in shipwrecks as well as plane accidents, he saw examples of people doing nothing at all. He was even able to re-create the effect in his lab. He found that about 45% of people in his experiment shut down (that is, stopped moving or speaking for 30 sec. or often longer) when asked under pressure to perform unfamiliar but basic tasks. “They quit functioning. They just sat there,” Johnson remembers. It seemed horribly maladaptive. How could so many people be hard-wired to do nothing in a crisis?

But it turns out that that freezing behavior may be quite adaptive in certain scenarios. An animal that goes into involuntary paralysis may have a better chance of surviving a predatory attack. Many predators will not eat prey that is not struggling; that way, they are less likely to eat something sick or rotten that would end up killing them. Psychologist Gordon Gallup Jr. has found similar behavior among human rape victims. “They report being vividly aware of what was happening but unable to respond,” he says.

In a fire or on a sinking ship, however, such a strategy can be fatal. So is it possible to override this instinct–or prevent it from kicking in altogether?

In the hours just before the Tenerife crash, Paul Heck did something highly unusual. While waiting for takeoff, he studied the 747’s safety diagram. He looked for the closest exit, and he pointed it out to his wife. He had been in a theater fire as a boy, and ever since, he always checked for the exits in an unfamiliar environment. When the planes collided, Heck’s brain had the data it needed. He could work on automatic, whereas other people’s brains plodded through the storm of new information. “Humans behave much more appropriately when they know what to expect–as do rats,” says Cynthia Corbett, a human-factors specialist with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

To better understand how the mind responds to a novel situation like a plane crash, I visited the FAA’s training academy in Oklahoma City, Okla. In a field behind one of their labs, they had hoisted a jet section on risers. I boarded the mock-up plane along with 30 flight-attendant supervisors. Inside, it looked just like a normal plane, and the flight attendants made jokes, pretending to be passengers. “Could I get a cocktail over here, please? I paid a lot of money for this seat!”

But once some (nontoxic) smoke started pouring into the cabin, everyone got quiet. As most people do, I underestimated how quickly the smoke would fill the space, from ceiling to floor, like a black curtain unfurling in front of us. In 20 sec., all we could see were the pin lights along the floor. As we stood to evacuate, there was a loud thump. In a crowd of experienced flight attendants, still someone had hit his or her head on an overhead bin. In a new situation, with a minor amount of stress, our brains were performing clumsily. As we filed toward the exit slide, crouched low, holding on to the person in front of us, several of the flight attendants had to be comforted by their colleagues.

Remember: those were trained professionals who had jumped down a slide at some point to become certified. I could imagine how much worse things might go in a real emergency with regular passengers and screaming children. As we emerged into the light, the mood brightened. The flight attendants cheered as their colleagues slid, one by one, to the ground.

Mac McLean has been studying plane evacuations for 16 years at the FAA’s Civil Aerospace Medical Institute. He starts all his presentations with a slide that reads IT’S THE PEOPLE. He is convinced that if passengers had a mental plan for getting out of a plane, they would move much more quickly in a crisis. But, like others who study disaster behavior, he is perpetually frustrated that not more is done to encourage self-reliance. “The airlines and the flight attendants underestimate the fact that passengers can be good survivors. They think passengers are goats,” he says. Better, more detailed safety briefings could save lives, McLean believes, but airline representatives have repeatedly told him they don’t want to scare passengers.

And so most passengers are indeed goats. Should the worst occur, says McLean, “people don’t have a clue. They want you to come by and say, O.K., hon, it’s time to go. Plane’s on fire.”

If we know that training–or even mental rehearsal–vastly improves people’s responses to disasters, it is surprising how little of it we do. Even in the World Trade Center, which had complicated escape routes and had been attacked once before, preparation levels were abysmal, we now know. Fewer than half the survivors had ever entered the stairwells before, according to the NIST report. Thousands of people hadn’t known they had to wind through confusing transfer hallways to get down.

Early findings from another study, sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control, found that only 45% of 445 Trade Center workers interviewed had known the buildings had three stairwells. Only half had known the doors to the roof would be locked. “I found the lack of preparedness shocking,” says lead investigator Robyn Gershon, an associate professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University who shared the findings with TIME.

Until last year, it was illegal to require anyone in a New York City high rise to evacuate in a drill. That is absurd, of course. Under regulations being debated, building managers will probably have to run full or partial evacuation drills every two years so most people in those buildings will have entered their stairwells at least once. Some people may even descend to the bottom, and they will never forget how long it takes. The disabled will figure out how much assistance they need. The obese will see that they slow down the whole evacuation as they struggle for breath.

Manuel Chea, then a systems administrator on the 49th floor of Tower 1, did everything right on 9/11. As soon as the building stopped swaying, he jumped up from his cubicle and ran to the closest stairwell. It was an automatic reaction. As he left, he noticed that some of his colleagues were collecting things to take with them. “I was probably the fastest one to leave,” he says. An hour later, he was outside.

When I asked him why he had moved so swiftly, he had several theories. The previous year, his house in Queens, N.Y., had burned to the ground. He had escaped, blinded by smoke. Oh, yes, he had also been in a serious earthquake as a child in Peru and in several smaller ones in Los Angeles years later. He was, you could say, a disaster expert. And there’s nothing like a string of bad luck to prepare you for the unthinkable.

How to Survive A Disaster
By Amanda Ripley

When a plane crashes or the earth shakes, we tend to view the survivors as the lucky ones. Had they been in the next seat or the apartment across the street, they would have perished. We marvel at the whimsy of the devastation.

The recent earthquake in China and the cyclone in Burma, not to mention the battery of tornadoes and wildfires ripping through the U.S. this season, remind us that disasters are part of the human condition. We are more or less vulnerable to them, depending where we live.

But survival is not just a product of luck. We can do far more than we think to improve our odds of preventing and surviving even the most horrendous of catastrophes. It’s a matter of preparation–bolting down your water heater before an earthquake or actually reading the in-flight safety card before takeoff–but also of mental conditioning. Each of us has what I call a “disaster personality,” a state of being that takes over in a crisis. It is at the core of who we are. The fact is, we can refine that personality and teach our brains to work more quickly, maybe even more wisely.

Humans are programmed with basic survival skills. When frightened, we get a shot of performance-enhancing hormones, and the blood pumps to our limbs to help us outrun whatever enemy we face. But in modern times, we’re hardly aware of such natural skills, and most of us do little to understand or develop them.

We could, for example, become far better at judging threats before catastrophe strikes. We have technological advantages that our ancestors lacked, and we know where disasters are likely to occur. And yet we flirt shamelessly with risk. We construct city skylines in hurricane alleys and neighborhoods on top of fault lines–as if nature will be cowed by our audacity and leave us be. And we rely on a sprawling network of faraway suppliers for necessities like warmth and food. If the power cuts off, many of us still don’t know where the stairs are in our skyscrapers, and we would have trouble surviving for a week without Wal-Mart. Hurricane season starts June 1, and forecasters predict a worse-than-average summer. But for many of us, preparation means little more than crossing our fingers and hoping to live.

Yet the knowledge is out there. Risk experts understand how we could overcome our blind spots and more intelligently hedge our bets. In laboratories and on shooting ranges, there are people who study what happens to bodies and minds under extreme duress. Military researchers conduct elaborate experiments to try to predict who will melt down in a crisis and who will thrive. Police, soldiers, race-car drivers and helicopter pilots train to anticipate the strange behaviors they will encounter at the worst of times. Regular people can learn from that knowledge, since, after all, we will be the first on the scene of any disaster.

Of course, no one can promise a plan of escape. But that doesn’t mean we should live in willful ignorance. As Hunter S. Thompson said, “Call on God, but row away from the rocks.”

Over the years, I have interviewed survivors of unimaginable tragedies. Most say that during their ordeals, almost nothing felt, sounded or looked the way they would have expected. Reality was in some ways better, in other ways worse. They say there are things they wish they had known, things they want you to know. Here, then, are three of their stories, accompanied by some of the hard wisdom of loss and luck:

Panic Can Be Your Friend

When disaster strikes, a troubling human response can inflate the death toll: people freeze up. They shut down, becoming suddenly limp and still. That’s what happened to some people on Sept. 28, 1994, when the M.V. Estonia went down in the Baltic Sea, the worst sea disaster in modern European history.

The huge automobile ferry had left its home port in Tallinn, Estonia, on a routine 15-hour trip to Stockholm. Although the weather had been stormy all night, the crew did not expect serious problems. A band was playing in the Baltic Bar, and the 10-deck vessel churned through the inky waters as it had for 14 years.

Kent Härstedt, now a member of Sweden’s Parliament, was then a 29-year-old passenger. That night he was hanging out in one of the ship’s bars, with about 50 other passengers. “There was karaoke music,” he recalls. “Everybody was laughing and singing.” But just after 1 a.m., the Estonia suddenly listed starboard 30°, hurling passengers, vending machines and flowerpots across its passageways. In the bar, almost everyone fell violently against the side of the boat. Härstedt managed to grab on to the iron bar railing and hold on, hanging above everyone else.

“In just one second, everything went from a loud, happy, wonderful moment to total silence. Every brain, I guess, was working like a computer trying to realize what had happened,” he says. Then came the screaming and crying. People had been badly hurt in the fall, and the tilt of the ship made it extremely difficult to move.

Härstedt began to strategize, tapping into some of the survival skills he had learned in the military. “I started to react very differently from normal. I started to say, ‘O.K., there is option one, option two. Decide. Act.’ I didn’t say, ‘Oh, the boat is sinking.’ I didn’t even think about the wider perspective.” Like many survivors, Härstedt experienced the illusion of centrality, a coping mechanism in which the brain fixates on the individual experience. “I just saw my very small world.”

But as Härstedt made his way into the corridor, he noticed something strange about some of the other passengers. They weren’t doing what he was doing. “Some people didn’t seem to realize what had happened. They were just sitting there,” he says. Not just one or two people, but entire groups seemed to be immobilized. They were conscious, but they were not reacting.

Contrary to popular expectations, this is what happens in many disasters. Crowds generally become quiet and docile. Panic is rare. The bigger problem is that people do too little, too slowly. They sometimes shut down completely, falling into a stupor.

On the Estonia, Härstedt climbed up the stairwell, fighting against gravity. Out on the deck, the ship’s lights were on, and the moon was shining. The full range of human capacities was on display. Incredibly, one man stood to the side, smoking a cigarette, Härstedt remembers. Most people strained to hold on to the rolling ship and, at the same time, to look for life jackets and lifeboats. British passenger Paul Barney remembers groups of people standing still like statues. “I kept saying to myself, ‘Why don’t they try to get out of here?'” he later told the Observer.

Later, when interviewed by the police, some survivors said they understood this behavior. At some point, they too had felt an overwhelming urge to stop moving. They only snapped out of the stupor, they said, by thinking of their loved ones, especially their children–a common thread in the stories of survivors of all kinds of disasters.

At 1:50 a.m., just 30 minutes after its first Mayday call, the Estonia vanished, sinking upside down into the sea. Moments before, Härstedt had jumped off the ship. He climbed onto a life raft and held on for five hours, until finally being rescued. All told, only 137 of the 989 people on board survived the disaster. Most of the victims were entombed in the Estonia while they slept. They had no chance to save themselves. Investigators would conclude that the ship sank because the bow door to the car deck had come unlocked and the sea had come gushing into the ship.

Firefighters, police trainers–even stockbrokers–have told me similar stories of seeing people freeze under extreme stress. Animals go into the same state when they are trapped, evolutionary psychologist Gordon Gallup Jr. has found. Playing dead can discourage predators from attacking. In the case of the Estonia and other disasters, the freezing response may have been a natural and horrific mistake. Our brains search, under extreme stress, for an appropriate survival response and sometimes choose the wrong one, like deer that freeze in the headlights of a car.

But the more encouraging point is that the brain is plastic. It can be trained to respond more appropriately. Less fear makes paralysis less likely. A rat with damage to the amygdala, the primitive part of the brain that handles fear, will not freeze at all–even if it encounters a cat. If we can reduce our own fear even a little bit, we might be able to do better.

Fire drills, particularly if they are mandatory and unexpected, can dramatically reduce fear, should the worst come to pass. Just knowing where the stairs are gives your brain an advantage. Likewise, research into plane crashes has found that people who read the safety briefing cards are more likely to survive. These rituals that we consider an utter waste of time actually give our brains blueprints in the unlikely event that we need them.

We can also help each other do better. A loud sound will cause animals to snap out of their stupor. Likewise, many flight attendants are now trained to scream at passengers in burning planes, “Get out! Get out! Go!” People respond well to leadership in a disaster, and then they can do remarkable things.

We All Have Our Role to Play

Even in the most chaotic moments, our social relationships remain largely intact. That cohesion can have positive and negative consequences, but it helps to know what to expect.

On May 28, 1977, one of the deadliest fires in the U.S. broke out at a place called the Beverly Hills Supper Club, a labyrinth of dining rooms, ballrooms, fountains and gardens located on a bluff 5 miles (8 km) south of Cincinnati. Darla McCollister was there. She got married that evening at the gazebo in the garden and then, as her party began to move inside for dinner, a waitress informed her that there was a small fire in the building. It had begun as an electrical fire in the Zebra Room, adjacent to the bride’s dressing room. Before the night was out, the flames would tear through the Beverly Hills, led by a roiling advance of smoke. There were nearly 3,000 people packed into the sprawling club on that Saturday night. All told, the fire would kill 167 of them.

The disaster delivered many brutal lessons. Some were obvious–and tragic: the club had no sprinkler or audible fire-alarm systems. But the fire also complicated official expectations for crowd behavior: in the middle of a crisis, the basic tenets of civilization actually hold. People move in groups whenever possible. They tend to look out for one another, and they maintain hierarchies. “People die the same way they live,” says disaster sociologist Lee Clarke, “with friends, loved ones and colleagues, in communities.”

At the Beverly Hills, servers warned their tables to leave. Hostesses evacuated people that they had seated but bypassed other sections (that weren’t “theirs”). Cooks and busboys, perhaps accustomed to physical work, rushed to fight the fire. In general, male employees were slightly more likely to help than female employees, maybe because society expects women to be saved and men to do the saving.

And what of the guests? Most remained guests to the end. Some even continued celebrating, in defiance of the smoke seeping into the rooms. One man ordered a rum and Coke to go. When the first reporter arrived at the fire, he saw guests sipping their cocktails in the driveway, laughing about whether they would get to leave without paying their bills.

As the smoke intensified, Wayne Dammert, a banquet captain at the club, stumbled into a hallway jammed with a hundred guests. The lights flickered off and on, and the smoke started to get heavy. But what he remembers most about that crowded hallway is the silence. “Man, there wasn’t a sound in there. Not a scream, nothing,” he says. Standing there in the dark, the crowd was waiting to be led.

The Beverly Hills employees had received no emergency training, but they performed magnificently. The exits were few and hard to find, but Dammert directed the crowd out through a service hallway into the kitchen. “My thought was that I’m responsible for these people,” he says. “I think most of the employees felt that way.” McCollister, still in her wedding dress, ushered her guests outside. “I was pushing people out the door, kind of like cattle, to show them where to go,” she recalls. She felt responsible: “This is my party. They were there because of me.”

Norris Johnson and William Feinberg, then sociology professors at the University of Cincinnati, managed to get access to the police interviews with hundreds of survivors–a rare and valuable database. “We were just overwhelmed with what was there,” says Feinberg, now retired. People were remarkably loyal to their identities. An estimated 60% of the employees tried to help in some way–either by directing guests to safety or fighting the fire. By comparison, only 17% of the guests helped. But even among the guests, identity shaped behavior. The doctors who had been dining at the club acted as doctors, administering cpr and dressing wounds like battlefield medics. Nurses did the same thing. There was even one hospital administrator there who–naturally–began to organize the doctors and nurses.

The sociologists expected to see evidence of selfish behavior. But they did not. “People kept talking about the orderliness of it all,” says Feinberg. “People used what they had learned in grade-school fire drills. ‘Stay in line. Don’t push. We’ll all get out.’ People were queuing up! It was just absolutely incredible.”

All of us, but especially people in charge–of a city, a theater, a business–should recognize that people can be trusted to do their best at the worst of times. They will do even better if they are encouraged to play a significant role in their own survival before anything goes wrong. In New York City, despite the pleas of safety engineers, meaningful fire drills are still not mandatory in skyscrapers. Among other concerns, the city’s Real Estate Board was worried that mandatory drills could lead to injuries that could lead to lawsuits. A lawsuit, then, is more frightening than a catastrophe, which is a shame. Because if a real disaster should come to pass, people will rise to the expectations set by their CEO or headwaiter, and they will follow their leader almost anywhere.

How One Person Made a Difference

In every disaster, buried under the rubble is evidence that we can do better. Much of that work is physical–building stronger buildings in safer places, for example. But the work is also psychological. The more control people feel they have over their predicament, the better their performance. When people believe that survival is negotiable, they can be wonderfully creative. All it takes is the audacity to imagine that our behavior matters.

When the planes struck the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001, Rick Rescorla embodied that spirit of survival. The head of security for Morgan Stanley Dean Witter at the World Trade Center, Rescorla believed that regular people were capable of great achievements, with a bit of leadership. He got Morgan Stanley employees to take responsibility for their survival–which happened almost nowhere else that day in the Trade Center.

Rescorla learned many of the tricks of survival in the military. He was one of those thick-necked soldier types who spend the second halves of their lives patrolling the perimeters of marble lobbies the way they once patrolled a battlefield. Born in England, he joined the U.S. military because he wanted to fight the communists in Vietnam. When he got there, he earned a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart in battles memorialized in the 1992 book by Lieut. General Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway, We Were Soldiers Once … and Young.

He eventually moved to New Jersey and settled into the life of a security executive, but Rescorla still acted, in some ways, like a man at war. His unit, Morgan Stanley, occupied 22 floors of Tower 2 and several floors in a nearby building. After the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, Rescorla worried about a terrorist attack on the Trade Center. In 1990, he and an old war buddy wrote a report to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the Trade Center site, insisting on the need for more security in the parking garage. Their recommendations, which would have been expensive, were ignored, according to James B. Stewart’s biography of Rescorla, Heart of a Soldier. (The Port Authority did not respond to my requests for comment.)

Three years later, Ramzi Yousef drove a truck full of explosives into the underground parking garage of the World Trade Center, just as Rescorla had predicted. Afterward, Rescorla had the credibility he needed. Combined with his muscular personality, it was enough to change the culture of Morgan Stanley.

Rescorla implicitly understood that he could turn office workers into survivors. He respected the ability of regular people to do better. He understood the danger of lethargy, the importance of aggressively pushing through the initial stupor and getting to action. He had watched employees wind down the staircase in 1993, and he knew it took too long.

Rescorla felt it was foolish to rely on first responders to save his employees. His company was the largest tenant in the Trade Center, a village nestled in the clouds. Morgan Stanley’s employees would need to take care of one another. He ordered them not to listen to any instructions from the Port Authority in a real emergency. In his eyes, it had lost all legitimacy after it failed to respond to his 1990 warnings. And so Rescorla started running the entire company through his own frequent, surprise fire drills. He trained employees to meet in the hallway between the stairwells and go down the stairs, two by two, to the 44th floor.

The radicalism of Rescorla’s drills cannot be overstated. Remember, Morgan Stanley is an investment bank. Millionaire, high-performance bankers on the 73rd floor did not appreciate the interruption. Each drill, which pulled brokers off their phones and away from their computers, cost the company money. But Rescorla did it anyway. His military training had taught him a simple rule of human nature: the best way to get the brain to perform under extreme stress is to repeatedly run it through rehearsals beforehand.

After the first few drills, Rescorla chastised employees for moving too slowly in the stairwell. He started timing them with a stopwatch, and they got faster. He also lectured employees about some of the basics of fire emergencies: Because roof rescues are rare and extremely dangerous, people should always go down.

On the morning of 9/11, Rescorla heard an explosion and saw Tower 1 burning from his office window. A Port Authority official came over the P.A. system and urged people to stay at their desks. But Rescorla grabbed his bullhorn, walkie-talkie and cell phone and began systematically ordering Morgan Stanley employees to get out. They performed beautifully.

They already knew what to do, even the 250 visitors taking a stockbroker training class. They had already been shown the nearest stairway. “Knowing where to go was the most important thing. Because your brain–at least mine–just shut down. When that happens, you need to know what to do next,” says Bill McMahon, a Morgan Stanley executive. “One thing you don’t ever want to do is to have to think in a disaster.”

On 9/11, some of the dead might well have survived if they had received Rescorla’s warnings to always go down rather than up. But in the absence of other information, some people remembered that victims had been evacuated from the roof in 1993. So they used the last minutes of their lives to climb to the top of the towers–only to find the doors locked.

As Rescorla stood directing people down the stairwell on the 44th floor, the second plane hit–this time striking about 38 floors above his head. The building lunged violently, and some people were thrown to the floor. “Stop,” Rescorla ordered through the bullhorn. “Be still. Be silent. Be calm.” In response, “No one spoke or moved,” Stewart writes. “It was as if Rescorla had cast a spell.”

Rescorla had once led soldiers through the night in the Vietcong-controlled Central Highlands of Vietnam. He knew the brain responded poorly to fear–but he also knew it could be distracted. Back then, he had calmed his men by singing Cornish songs from his youth. Now, in the crowded stairwell, Rescorla sang into the bullhorn. “Men of Cornwall stand ye steady. It cannot be ever said ye for the battle were not ready. Stand and never yield!”

Between songs, Rescorla called his wife. “Stop crying,” he said. “I have to get these people out safely. If something should happen to me, I want you to know I’ve never been happier. You made my life.” Moments later, he had successfully evacuated the vast majority of Morgan Stanley employees. Then he turned around. He was last seen on the 10th floor, heading upward, shortly before the tower collapsed. His remains have never been found.

Rescorla taught Morgan Stanley employees to save themselves. It’s a lesson that has become, somehow, rare and precious. When the tower collapsed, only 13 Morgan Stanley colleagues–including Rescorla and four of his security officers–were inside. The other 2,687 were safe.

To learn more about survival skills in a disaster, go to

Ripley, a senior writer at TIME, covers homeland security and risk. This article is adapted from The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes–and Why. © 2008 by Amanda Ripley. To be published by Crown Publishers, a division of Random House Inc. On sale June 10, 2008.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s