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Book review: The Unthinkable

Aftermath of the Halifax explosion
Aftermath of the Halifax explosion
Unknown, Library and Parliament Archives of Canada

The Unthinkable: Who survives when disaster strikes – and why by Amanda Ripley is a fascinating, practical, accessible summary of some of the latest information about human responses to crisis and disaster.

Ripley is a journalist, a senior writer at TIME Magazine, and she distills vital lessons from government reports and clinical research.

Surveys and other studies of those who survived the terrorist attacks on 9/11/01, for example, revealed that the average survivor from the World Trade Centers was in denial about the severity of the incident for 6 minutes.

That’s a problem if you’re caught in a mass shooting incident, like one in a school. The average school shooting lasts for 8 minutes.

If gunfire erupts, you don’t have 6 minutes to spend deluding yourself. You either run for the door or barricade and prepare to defend yourself, or you die.

Also in the World Trade Centers, 40% of survivors reported walking around their cubicles or offices, seeking items to take along. These often weren’t urgent items – one person reported grabbing a mystery novel.

70% of survivors reported stopping to talk with someone before leaving.

Ripley explores the tendency to gather objects, group up, or freeze in the face of danger.

These all make sense from an evolutionary standpoint, are all reactions that helped us to survive the natural predators of our collective past, but these reactions are liabilities in the face of modern threats.

Ripley finds solutions and strategies amid those reports and studies. Her book is good but perhaps the best part, for any serious student of disaster survival, is her list of end-notes, which runs for 18 pages.

Loud noises break paralysis. The Unthinkable should be a loud noise to any reader who wants to survive when things go horribly wrong.

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