Introduction: “Life Becomes Like Molten Metal”
PART ONE: DENIAL
1 Delay: Procrastinating in Tower 1
2 Risk: Gambling in New Orleans
PART TWO: DELIBERATION
3 Fear: The Body and Mind of a Hostage
4 Resilience: Staying Cool in Jerusalem
5 Groupthink: Role Playing at the Beverly Hills Supper Club Fire
PART THREE: THE DECISIVE MOMENT
6 Panic: A Stampede on Holy Ground
7 Paralysis: Playing Dead in French Class
8 Heroism: A Suicide Attempt on the Potomac River
Conclusion: Making New Instincts
More Praise for The Unthinkable
“Life Becomes Like Molten Metal”
ON THE MORNING of December 6, 1917, a bright, windless day, a French freighter called the Mont
Blanc began to slowly pull out of the Halifax harbor in Nova Scotia. At the time, Halifax was one of
the busiest ports in the British Empire. There was a war on in Europe, and the harbor groaned with
the churn of ships, men, and weapons. The Mont Blanc was headed for France that day, carrying over
twenty-five hundred tons of explosives, including TNT. While passing through a narrow channel in
the harbor, a larger ship, the Imo from Belgium, accidentally rammed the bow of the Mont Blanc.
The collision itself was not catastrophic. The Imo sailed on, in fact. But the crew of the Mont
Blanc knew that their ship was a floating time bomb. They tried to put out the fire, but not for very
long. Then they scrambled into lifeboats and paddled for shore. For a few heartbreaking moments, the
Mont Blanc drifted in the harbor. It brushed up against the pier, setting it on fire. Children gathered to
watch the spectacle.
Many of the worst disasters in history started quite modestly. One accident led to another, until a
fault line opened up in a civilization. About twenty minutes after the collision, the Mont Blanc
exploded, sending black rain, iron, fire, and wind whipsawing through the city. It was the largest
bomb explosion on record. The blast shattered windows sixty miles away. Glass blinded some one
thousand people. Next, a tidal wave caused by the explosion swamped the shore. Then fire began to
creep across the city. In the harbor, a black column of fire and smoke turned into a hovering white
mushroom cloud. Survivors fell to their knees, convinced that they had seen a German zeppelin in the
At the moment of the explosion, an Anglican priest and scholar named Samuel Henry Prince
happened to be eating breakfast at a restaurant near the port. He ran to help, opening up his church as
a triage station. It was, strangely enough, Prince’s second disaster in five years. He had responded to
another local cataclysm in 1912, when a luxury cruise liner called the Titanic had sunk some five
hundred miles off the coast of Halifax. Back then, Prince had performed burials at sea in the frigid
Prince was the kind of man who marveled at things others preferred not to think about. On the
awful day of the explosion, he was astounded by what he saw. Prince watched men and women
endure crude sidewalk operations without obvious pain. How was one young soldier able to work the
entire day with one of his eyes knocked out? Some people experienced hallucinations. Why did
parents fail to recognize their own children at the hospital—and, especially, at the morgue? Small
details nagged at Prince. On the morning of the explosion, why was the very first relief station set up
by a troupe of actors, of all people?
That night, a blizzard hit Halifax, the epic’s final act. By the time the catastrophe had rippled out
across the land, 1,963 people would be dead. In silent film footage taken after the blast, Halifax looks
like it was hit by a nuclear weapon. Houses, train terminals, and churches lie like pick-up sticks on
the snow-covered ground. Sleighs are piled high with corpses. “Here were to be found in one dread
assembling the combined horrors of war, earthquake, fire, flood, famine and storm—a combination
for the first time in the records of human disaster,” Prince would write. Later, scientists developing
the atomic bomb would study the Halifax explosion to see how such a blast travels across land and
After helping rebuild Halifax, Prince moved to New York City to study sociology. For his PhD
dissertation at Columbia University, he deconstructed the Halifax explosion. “Catastrophe and Social
Change,” published in 1920, was the first systematic analysis of human behavior in a disaster. “Life
becomes like molten metal,” he wrote. “Old customs crumble, and instability rules.”
What makes Prince’s work so engaging is his optimism. Despite his funereal obsessions, he saw
disasters as opportunities—not just, as he put it, “a series of vicissitudes mercifully ending one day in
final cataclysm.” He was a minister, but he was clearly enchanted by industry. The horrific explosion
had, in the end, “blown Halifax into the 20th century,” forcing many changes that were for the better.
His thesis opened with a quote from St. Augustine: “This awful catastrophe is not the end but the
beginning. History does not end so. It is the way its chapters open.”
After Prince’s death, the field of human behavior in disasters would languish. Then with the onset
of the cold war and a new host of anxieties about how the masses might respond to nuclear attacks, it
would come back to life. After the fall of communism, it would stagnate again—until the terrorist
attacks of September 11, 2001. Prince seemed to anticipate the temptation for people to avert their
eyes. “This little volume on Halifax is offered as a beginning,” he wrote. Don’t let it be the end, he
pleaded. “Knowledge will grow scientific only after the most faithful examination of many
catastrophes.” The remainder of the century would prove rich with material.
Most of us have imagined what it might be like to experience a plane crash or a fire or an earthquake.
We have ideas about what we might do or fail to do, how it might feel for our hearts to pound in our
chests, whom we might call in the final moments, and whether we might be suddenly compelled to
seize the hand of the businessman sitting in the window seat. We have fears that we admit to openly
and ones that we never discuss. We carry around this half-completed sentence, filling in different
scenarios depending on the anxiety of the times: I wonder what I would do if…
Think for a moment about the narratives we know by heart. When I say the word disaster, many of
us think of panic, hysterical crowds, and a kind of every-man-for-himself brutality; an orgy of
destruction interrupted only by the civilizing influence of professional rescuers. Yet all evidence from
Prince until today belies this script. Reality is a lot more interesting—and hopeful.
What Prince discovered in Halifax was that our disaster personalities can be quite different from
the ones we expect to meet. But that doesn’t mean they are unknowable. It just means we haven’t been
looking in the right places.
The Things Survivors Wish You Knew
This book came about unexpectedly. In 2004, as a reporter working on Time magazine’s coverage of
the third anniversary of 9/11, I decided to check in with some of the people who had survived the
attacks. I wondered how they were doing. Unlike many of the families of the victims, the survivors
had kept to themselves, for the most part. They felt so lucky—or guilty or scarred—that they hadn’t
wanted to make too much noise. But there were tens of thousands of these survivors out there, people
who had gone to work in a skyscraper one morning and then spent hours fighting to get out of it. I was
curious to hear what had happened to their lives.
I got in touch with the World Trade Center Survivors’ Network, one of the first and largest support
groups, and they invited me to sit in on one of their regular meetings. They met in a fluorescent-lit
office space, high above the racket of Times Square. As I rode up in the elevator one evening, I
prepared myself for an exchange of grief. After 9/11, I had heard so many stories. Every widow,
firefighter, and victim had a unique tragedy to tell, and I can still recite those interviews almost word
for word. The city’s pain seemed to have no bottom.
But this meeting was not what I had expected. These people had an agenda. They had things they
wanted to tell other people before the next terrorist attack, and there was urgency in the room. The
survivors were from all different neighborhoods, professions, and ethnicities, but they said very
similar, surprising things. They had learned so much that morning, and they wondered why no one had
prepared them. One man even proposed starting a lecture circuit to educate people about how it feels
to escape a skyscraper. “We were the first responders,” one woman said. A sign-up sheet was passed
around to start planning speaking engagements at churches and offices.
Watching them, I realized these people had glimpsed a part of the human condition that most of us
never see. We worry about horrible things happening to us, but we don’t know much about what it
actually feels like. I wondered what they had learned.
I started to research the stories of survivors from other disasters. The overlaps were startling.
People in shipwrecks, plane crashes, and floodwaters all seemed to undergo a mysterious
metamorphosis. They performed better than they ever would have expected in some ways and much
worse in others. I wanted to know why. What was happening to our brains to make us do so many
unexpected things? Were we culturally conditioned to risk our lives for strangers in shipwrecks?
Were we evolutionarily programmed to freeze in emergencies? My search for answers led me across
the world, to England for its long history of studying fire behavior, to Israel for its trauma
psychologists and counterterrorism experience, and back to the States to participate in simulated
plane crashes and fires, as well as military research into the brain.
Writing a book about disasters may sound voyeuristic or dark, and there are times when it was. But
the truth is, I was mesmerized by this subject because it gave me hope. You spend enough time
covering tragedies and you start to look for a foothold. I knew there was no way to prevent all
catastrophes from happening. I knew it made sense to prepare for them and work to minimize the
losses. We should install smoke detectors, buy insurance, and pack “go bags.” But none of those
things ever felt very satisfying.
Listening to survivors, I realized we’d been holding dress rehearsals for a play without knowing
any of our lines. Our government had warned us to be prepared, but it hadn’t told us why. In New
Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina, I learned more from regular people on street corners than I learned
covering any homeland security conference. In firehouses and brain research labs, I learned that if we
get to know our disaster personalities before the disaster, we might have a slightly better chance of
surviving. At the very least, we’ll expunge some of the unknowns from our imaginations, and we’ll
uncover secrets about ourselves.
I never expected to use what I had learned anytime soon. I usually show up at disaster sites after
they happen, in time for the regrets and recriminations, but not the shaking or the burning. But I was
wrong, in a way. From a physiological perspective, everyday life is full of tiny disaster drills.
Ironically, after writing a book about disasters, I feel less anxious overall, not more. I am a much
better judge of risk now that I understand my own warped equation for dread. Having studied dozens
of plane crashes, I’m more relaxed when I’m flying. And no matter how many Code-Orange-beafraid-be-very-afraid alerts I see on the evening news, I feel some amount of peace having already
glimpsed the worst-case scenario. The truth, it turns out, is usually better than the nightmare.
The Problem with Rescue Dogs
Conversations about disasters have always been colored by fear and superstition. The word disaster,
from the Latin dis (away) and astrum (stars), can be translated as “ill-starred.” After Hurricane
Katrina in 2005, New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin said that God was clearly “mad at America” for
invading Iraq—and at black people for “not taking care of ourselves.” Inchoate as these plot lines
may be, Nagin’s impulse—to inject meaning into chaos—was understandable. Narrative is the
beginning of recovery.
But narrative can miss important subplots. In books and official reports, the tragedy of Katrina was
blamed on politicians, poverty, and poor engineering, as it should have been. But there was another
conversation that should have happened—not about blame, but about understanding. What did regular
people do before, during, and after the storm? Why? And what could they have done better?
These days, we tend to think of disasters as acts of God and government. Regular people only
feature into the equation as victims, which is a shame. Because regular people are the most important
people at a disaster scene, every time.
In 1992, a series of sewer explosions caused by a gas leak ripped through Guadalajara, Mexico’s
second-largest city. The violence came from below, rupturing neighborhoods block by block. Starting
at 10:30 A.M., at least nine separate explosions ripped open a jagged trench more than a mile long.
About three hundred people died. Some five thousand houses were razed. The Mexican Army was
called in. Rescuers from California raced to help. Search-and-rescue dogs were ordered up.
But first, before anyone else, regular people were on the scene saving one another. They did
incredible things, these regular people. They lifted rubble off survivors with car jacks. They used
garden hoses to force air into voids where people were trapped. In fact, as in most disasters, the vast
majority of rescues were done by ordinary folks. After the first two hours, very few people came out
of the debris alive. The search-and-rescue dogs did not arrive until twenty-six hours after the
It’s only once disaster strikes that ordinary citizens realize how important they are. For example,
did you know that most serious plane accidents are survivable? On this point, the statistics are quite
clear. Of all passengers involved in serious accidents between 1983 and 2000, 56 percent survived.
(“Serious” is defined by the National Transportation Safety Board as accidents involving fire, severe
injury, and substantial aircraft damage.) Moreover, survival often depends on the behavior of the
passenger. These facts have been well known in the aviation industry for a long time. But unless
people have been in a plane crash, most individuals have no idea.
Since 9/11 the U.S. government has sent over $23 billion to states and cities in the name of
homeland security. Almost none of that money has gone toward intelligently enrolling regular people
like you and me in the cause. Why don’t we tell people what to do when the nation is on Orange Alert
against a terrorist attack—instead of just telling them to be afraid? Why does every firefighter in
Casper, Wyoming (pop. 50,632), have an eighteen-hundred-dollar HAZMAT suit—but we don’t each
have a statistically derived ranking of the hazards we actually face, and a smart, creative plan for
dealing with them?
All across the nation we have snapped plates of armor onto our professional lifesavers. In return,
we have very high expectations for these brave men and women. Only after everything goes wrong do
we realize we’re on our own. And the bigger the disaster, the longer we will be on our own. No fire
department can be everywhere at once, no matter how good their gear.
The July 7, 2005, terrorist attacks on London buses and subway trains killed fifty-two people. The
city’s extensive surveillance camera system was widely praised for its help during the ensuing
investigation. Less well known is how unhelpful the technology was to regular people on the trains.
The official report on the response would find one “overarching, fundamental lesson”: emergency
plans had been designed to meet the needs of emergency officials, not regular people. On that day, the
passengers had no way to let the train drivers know that there had been an explosion. They also had
trouble getting out; the train doors were not designed to be opened by passengers. Finally, passengers
couldn’t find first aid kits to treat the wounded. It turned out that supplies were kept in subway
supervisors’ offices, not on the trains.
Luck Is Unreliable
Here’s the central conundrum addressed by this book: we flirt shamelessly with risk today,
constructing city skylines in hurricane alleys and neighborhoods on top of fault lines. Largely because
of where we live, disasters have become more frequent and more expensive. But as we build ever
more impressive buildings and airplanes, we do less and less to build better survivors.
How did we get this way? The more I learned, the more I wondered how much of our survival
behaviors—and misbehaviors—could be explained by evolution. After all, we evolved to escape
predators, not buildings that reach a quarter mile into the sky. Has technology simply outpaced our
But there are two kinds of evolution: the genetic kind and the cultural kind. Both shape our
behavior, and the cultural kind has gotten a lot faster. We now have many ways to create “instincts”:
we can learn to do better or worse. We can pass on traditions about how to deal with modern risks,
just as we pass on language.
So then the question became, why weren’t we doing a better job instilling survival skills through
our culture? Globalization is one of those words that gets hijacked so often it loses its meaning.
That’s partly because the word encompasses so much, including opposing ideas. In the past two
centuries, we have become far less connected to our families and communities. At the same time, we
have become more dependent upon one another and technology. We are isolated in our codependence,
More than 80 percent of Americans now live in or near cities and rely upon a sprawling network of
public and private entities to get food, water, electricity, transportation, and medicine. We make
almost nothing for ourselves. So a disaster that strikes one group of people is more likely than ever to
affect others. But just as we have become more interdependent, we have become more detached—
from our neighborhoods and traditions. This is a break from our evolutionary history. Humans and our
evolutionary ancestors spent most of the past several million years living in small groups of relatives.
We evolved through passing on our genes—and our wisdom—from generation to generation. But
today, the kinds of social ties that used to protect us from threats get neglected. In their place, we have
substituted new technology, which only works some of the time.
In May of 1960, the largest earthquake ever measured occurred off the coast of Chile, killing a
thousand people. Luckily, Hawaii’s automated alert system kicked in, and tsunami sirens went off ten
hours before the island was hit. The technology worked exactly as planned. But it turned out that most
of the people who heard the siren did not evacuate. They weren’t sure what the noise meant. Some
thought it signaled that they should be alert for more information. The technology was there but the
traditions weren’t. A total of sixty-one people died in Hawaii that day.
It’s hard to trace a single cause for why we do what we do under extreme duress. The chapters that
follow allow us to test several hypotheses against real disasters. I’ve tried to resist the urge to
concoct one grand narrative. But even in that complexity, simple truths emerge. The more disaster
survivors I met, the more convinced I became that the solutions to our problems were not necessarily
complicated. They were more social than technological. Some were old-fashioned. But we need to
understand how our brain works in disasters before we can save ourselves.
Before we go any further, it’s probably wise to acknowledge that the vast majority of Westerners
do not die in disasters; they die of diseases that attack from within, not violence that comes from
outside. Alzheimer’s disease kills many more people than fire. Even if you do make a particularly
dramatic exit, it probably won’t be in a disaster. You are more likely to die of food poisoning than
you are of drowning.
It is, however, quite likely that you will be affected by a disaster. In an August 2006 Time magazine
poll of one thousand Americans, about half of those surveyed said they had personally experienced a
disaster or public emergency. In fact, about 91 percent of Americans live in places at a moderate-tohigh risk of earthquakes, volcanoes, tornadoes, wildfires, hurricanes, flooding, high-wind damage, or
terrorism, according to an estimate calculated in 2006 for Time by the Hazards and Vulnerability
Research Institute at the University of South Carolina.
Traditionally, the word disaster refers to any sudden calamity causing great loss of life or property.
You’ll notice that in this book I veer off into misfortunes that don’t technically fit: car accidents and
shootings, for example. But I want to include these everyday tragedies for two reasons. First, because
human behavior is the same, whether we are in a cruise ship or a Honda. We can, strange as it may
sound, learn how we will behave in earthquakes from studying how we behave in a holdup, and vice
versa. Car accidents and shooting rampages are, like airplane crashes, modern calamities that we did
not evolve to survive.
The other reason to define disasters broadly is that small tragedies add up to megadisasters.
Cumulatively, car accidents kill forty thousand people in the United States each year. Everyone
reading this book knows someone who died in a car accident. Guns kill another thirty thousand
Americans every year. For the rippling circles of friends and families that the victims leave behind, a
gunshot feels exactly like a disaster, without the national recognition. So I define the word broadly to
include all kinds of accidents that kill too many people.
One last caveat: disasters are predictable, but surviving them is not. No one can promise you a
plan of escape. If life—and death—were that simple, this book would already have been written. But
that doesn’t mean we should live in willful ignorance, either. As Hunter S. Thompson said, “Call on
God, but row away from the rocks.”
We need to get to know our oldest personality, the one that takes over in a crisis and even makes
fleeting appearances in our daily lives. It is at the core of who we are. “If an engineer wants to know
about what he’s designing, he puts it under great amounts of stress,” says Peter Hancock, who has
been studying human performance for more than twenty years for the U.S. military. “It’s the same with
human beings. If you want to find out how things operate under normal conditions, it’s very interesting
to find out how we operate under stress.” Without too much trouble, we can teach our brains to work
more quickly, maybe even more wisely, under great stress. We have more control over our fates than
we think. But we need to stop underestimating ourselves.
The knowledge is out there. In laboratories and on shooting ranges, there are people who know
what happens to our bodies and minds under extreme duress. Scientists who study the brain’s fear
response can now see which parts of our brains light up under stress. 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. They know that it’s too late to learn those lessons in the midst of a
Then there are the survivors of disasters, the witnesses who channel the voices of the victims. They
were there, sitting next to them, seeing what they saw. And afterward, the survivors spend some
portion of their lives thinking about why they lived when so many did not. They were lucky, all of
them. Luck is unreliable. But almost all of the survivors I have met say there are things they wish they
had known, things they want you to know.
Unfortunately, all of these good people rarely talk to one another. Airplane safety experts don’t
trade stories with neuroscientists. Special Forces instructors don’t spend a lot of time with hurricane
victims. And none of these people have much opportunity to share what they know with regular
people. So their wisdom remains stashed away in a sort of black box of the human experience.
This book goes inside the black box and stays there. The Unthinkable is not a book about disaster
recovery; it’s about what happens in the midst—before the police and firefighters arrive, before
reporters show up in their rain slickers, before a structure is imposed on the loss. This is a book
about the survival arc we all must travel to get from danger to safety.
The Survival Arc
In every kind of disaster, we start in about the same place and travel through three phases. We’ll call
the first phase denial. Except in extremely dire cases, we tend to display a surprisingly creative and
willful brand of denial. This denial can take the form of delay, which can be fatal, as it was for some
on 9/11. But why do we do it, if it is so dangerous? What other functions does denial serve?
How long the delay lasts depends in large part on how we calculate risk. Our risk analysis depends
less upon facts than upon a shadowy sense of dread, as Chapter 2 details through the story of a man
waiting for Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
Once we get through the initial shock of the denial phase, we move into deliberation, the second
phase of the survival arc. We know something is terribly wrong, but we don’t know what to do about
it. How do we decide? The first thing to understand is that nothing is normal. We think and perceive
differently. We become superheroes with learning disabilities. Chapter 3 explores the anatomy of fear
through the story of a diplomat taken hostage at a cocktail party. “There are times when fear is good,”
Aeschylus said. “It must keep its watchful place at the heart’s controls.” But for every gift the body
gives us in a disaster, it takes at least one away—sometimes bladder control, other times vision.
We all share a basic fear response. So why do some people get out of a burning building while
others do not? Chapter 4 investigates resilience, that elixir of survival. Who has it? Does gender
matter? What about personality or race? But almost no one goes through a disaster alone. Chapter 5 is
about groupthink, the effect of the crowd on our deliberation. How well our group functions depends
largely on who is in the group. Whom we live and work with matters.
Finally, we reach the third phase of the survival arc: the decisive moment. We’ve accepted that we
are in danger; we’ve deliberated our options. Now we take action. We’ll start with the exception.
Chapter 6 is about panic, the most misunderstood behavior in the disaster repertoire. What does it
take to spark a panic? And what does it feel like to be caught in one?
Many—if not most—people tend to shut down entirely in a disaster, quite the opposite of
panicking. They go slack and seem to lose all awareness. But their paralysis can be strategic. Chapter
7 will take us into the horrific Virginia Tech shooting rampage, the deadliest in U.S. history, through
the eyes of a fortunate student who did nothing.
Next, we will consider the opposite of nothing. Chapter 8 investigates the hero. What possible
evolutionary explanation could there be for a man who jumps into a frozen river to save strangers?
Finally, we think bigger: how can we turn ourselves into better survivors? We’ll meet
revolutionaries who have trained regular people to survive, according to how our brains actually
work—individuals who have taught entire towns to escape tsunami and major corporations to flee a
The three chronological phases—denial, deliberation, and the decisive moment—make up the
structure of this book. Real life doesn’t usually follow a linear arc, of course. Sometimes the path to
survival is more like a looping roller coaster, doubling up and back upon itself as we struggle to find
true north. So within each section you will notice that we often glimpse the other stages. There is,
unfortunately, no single script in these situations. But it’s rare that anyone survives a disaster without
pushing—or being pushed—through each of these three main stages at least once.
On our tour of the black box, I will take you down a stairwell in the World Trade Center, onto a
sinking ship in the Baltic Sea, and out of a burning airplane that forever changed the way safety
experts thought about passengers. The point of all of this is to answer two simple questions: What
happens to us in the midst of a disaster? And why do some of us do so much better than others? Our
disaster personalities are more complex and ancient than we think. But they are also more malleable.
Procrastinating in Tower 1
ON FEBRUARY 26, 1993, when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center for the first time, Elia
Zedeño was in an express elevator carrying a slice of Sbarro’s pizza. She had taken a new temporary
worker to the food court to show him around, and they were on their way back to their desks. When
the bomb exploded, they heard a loud pop and the elevator stopped and began to descend. Then it
stopped for good, trapping her and five other people. Smoke began to slowly coil in from below. Two
men grappled with the door. A woman dropped to her knees and started praying, making Zedeño
nervous. Then one of the men calmly directed everyone to get low and cover their faces. They all did
as they were told.
Zedeño concentrated on keeping her breathing shallow and slow. But the more she tried to calm
down, the harder her heart seemed to pound. Then they heard a man screaming in the elevator next to
them. “I’m burning up!” he yelled as he banged on the metal box around him. But soon he was quiet.
“I remember thinking, ‘We’re going to be next,’” Zedeño says. She visualized rescue workers finding
them dead inside the elevator later. Just then, she thought she would lunge for the doors and start
banging herself. But before she could, the temp had started doing it for her. He was screaming and
banging. So Zedeño took charge of quieting him down. “Robert, calm down. You’re going to inhale
too much smoke,” she told him. He started to cough and returned to the floor.
It was around then that Zedeño was filled with a wave of peace, inexplicably. “Regardless of the
outcome, I knew everything was going to be OK,” she remembers. “My breath became effortless. My
mind no longer wandered. Suddenly, I wasn’t there anymore. I was just watching. I could see the
people lying in the elevator. The sounds were far away, and I was just hovering. I had no emotions.”
When they’d been in the elevator for about an hour, a firefighter managed to rip open the door and
pull them out. It turned out the car had returned to the lobby level, and that’s where they’d been all
along. Zedeño could not see the face of the firefighter who pulled her out; the smoke was too thick.
She did as he instructed, grabbing onto a rope and following it out through the lobby and out the
doors. She was stunned by the darkness in the lobby and the emptiness outside. She thought that once
she had made it out of her own private catastrophe, everything would be normal, bustling and bright.
She never imagined that a place could look so different.
In the basement below, a Ryder truck full of eleven hundred pounds of explosives had left a crater
five stories deep. Six people had died. It was the largest full-building evacuation in U.S. history, and
nothing had gone the way it was supposed to go. Smoke purled up the stairways. The power failed,
rendering the emergency communications system useless and the stairways dark. People moved
extraordinarily slowly. Ten hours after the explosion, firefighters were still finding people who had
not yet evacuated in their offices.
After the bombing, glow-in-the-dark tape and backup power generators were installed in the Trade
Center. Both helped save lives eight years later. But still no one fully answered the fundamental
question: why did people move so slowly? And what did it mean about all of our assumptions about
skyscrapers—and the Trade Center in particular? The 1993 bombing became a story about terrorism,
as would the attacks on the same buildings eight years later, and rightly so. But they were also stories
of procrastination and denial, the first phase of the human disaster experience.
A few days later, Zedeño was right back at work in a neighboring building. One month later, her
office reopened on the seventy-third floor of Tower 1. She started riding the same elevator to work.
But it was months before she could get the taste of soot out of her mouth. She thought about leaving the
towers, but not with any conviction. “I remember saying, ‘This could happen again.’ And someone
said, ‘Lightning never strikes twice.’”
“Don’t Worry. It’s in Your Head!”
Zedeño has a small stature, round glasses, and Dizzy Gillespie cheeks when she smiles, which
happens often. She came to America with her family from Cuba when she was eleven. Her parents
had spent her entire childhood plotting to get away from Fidel Castro. When they finally got
permission to leave in the early 1970s, they moved to West New York, New Jersey, where their
daughter could see the brand-new Trade Center Towers sunning themselves almost everywhere she
When she was nineteen, Zedeño visited the Trade Center for the first time. She came to apply for a
secretarial job with the Port Authority of New York/New Jersey. She had no idea what the Port
Authority did—or even that it owned the Trade Center—but a girlfriend convinced her to fill out the
application. When she returned for her second interview, her mother came with her. The boss hired
her on the spot, and, on her lunch break, Zedeño ran to the plaza to tell her mother. “What will you
do?” she asked her mother, who had no idea how to get home to New Jersey. “I will sit right here and
wait for you,” her mother announced. They took the train home together that evening.
Eventually, Zedeño got promoted to the finance section. Her office had regular fire drills, which
consisted of gathering in the hallway to gossip. During a blackout in 1990, she and her office mates
walked down the tower’s stairs. That’s how they learned that homeless people had been using the
lower stairwells as bathrooms. “We were laughing and talking,” she remembers. When Zedeño talks,
her voice goes up at the end of her sentences, like a child telling you something outrageous. “The
whole thing was a joke!”
Zedeño is a witness wherever she goes. She remembers life in surround-sound detail. When I ask
her what it was like to leave Cuba as a little girl, she tells me about the day she left in April of 1971.
Her mother was doing her hair when they heard the sound of a motorcycle. “Only one man in town
had a motorcycle, and it didn’t sound like that,” she says. Suddenly, the sound stopped in front of their
house. A soldier walked in the front door without knocking and told them to leave. Zedeño knew this
was good news: they had finally won permission to go to America. Fifteen minutes later, they left
their house forever. They were terrified the whole journey out, but they made it. When they arrived in
Miami, Zedeño ran down the aisles of a supermarket yelling out descriptions of everything she saw.
By September 2001, Zedeño had worked in the towers for over twenty-one years. She was fortyone years old, and she managed five employees on the seventy-third floor of Tower 1. Her group
oversaw the Port Authority’s engineering consultants. On 9/11, Zedeño got to work a little after 8:00
A.M. She settled into her cubicle and listened to her voice-mail messages. In an hour, she would head
up to the cafeteria to get some breakfast, as usual.
The Trade Center did not feel like a cluster of seven buildings; it felt like a city. Every day, fifty
thousand people came to work there, and another two hundred thousand passed through. The plaza
underneath held the largest shopping mall in Lower Manhattan. “You didn’t need to leave for
anything,” Zedeño says. The complex had 103 elevators—and its own zip code (10048). Bomb
threats and small fires were not uncommon. The engine company across the street sometimes got
called to the Trade Center eight times a day. Zedeño got used to seeing firefighters in the elevators.
Days later, she would hear that there had been smoke somewhere in the building. It might have been
two football fields away from her.
At 8:46 A.M., an American Airlines Boeing 767 traveling 490 mph struck the building eleven floors
above her. When the plane hit Zedeño’s building, the effect was not subtle. It obliterated four floors
immediately. From her desk, Zedeño heard a booming explosion and felt the building lurch to the
south, as if it might topple. It had never done that before, not even in 1993. This time, she grabbed her
desk and held on, lifting her feet off the floor. “I actually expected the ceiling to fall and the building
to cave in,” she remembers. At the time, she screamed, “What’s happening?”
Talking about it now, in a deli across from the void where the towers once stood, Zedeño wonders
why she didn’t immediately run for the stairs. She’d been through this before, after all. But what she
really wanted, quite desperately, was for someone to answer back: “Everything is OK! Don’t worry.
It’s in your head!” At the moment of impact, Zedeño had entered a rarefied zone. The rules of normal
life were suspended. Her entire body and mind changed. She would wind her way through a series of
phases along the survival arc. First would be a thicket of disbelief, followed by frantic deliberation,
and, finally, action. We will witness all three here, but more than anything else, Zedeño’s story is one
Zedeño has revisited the moments of her escape from the Trade Center until they are worn and
familiar. She now gives tours of Ground Zero to tourists from around the world. But still there are
riddles she cannot decipher, behavioral glitches that don’t make obvious sense. More than anything
else, she is mystified by how slow she was to accept what was happening all day long.
After the plane hit the building, Zedeño told me, she wanted nothing so much as to stay. Like her, I
was perplexed by this reaction. Shouldn’t a primal, survival instinct have kicked in, propelling her to
the door? I wondered if Zedeño was unusual. So I went to the National Fire Academy to find out
more. The instructors at the school, located on the rolling grounds of a former Catholic college in
rural Maryland, are veteran firefighters who have witnessed just about every conceivable form of
human behavior in fire. I met Jack Rowley, who spent thirty-three years as a firefighter in Columbus,
Ohio. When I told him about Zedeño, he told me that he saw this kind of curious indifference all the
time. In fact, he came to consider one particular kind of fire a regular Saturday night ritual. His station
house would get dispatched to a bar; he would walk into the establishment and see smoke. But he
would also see customers sitting at the bar nursing their beers. “We would say, ‘Looks like there’s a
fire here,’” he says. He’d ask the customers if they felt like evacuating. “They would say, ‘No, we’ll
be just fine.’”
One of the few people who has extensively analyzed behavior at the Trade Center in both 1993 and
2001 is Guylène Proulx at Canada’s National Research Council. And what she saw fit with Zedeño’s
memory exactly. “Actual human behavior in fires is somewhat different from the ‘panic’ scenario.
What is regularly observed is a lethargic response,” she wrote in a 2002 article in the journal Fire
Protection Engineering. “People are often cool during fires, ignoring or delaying their response.”
In a May 19, 2006, column in the Wall Street Journal, Matthew Kaminski wrote about a recent
flight he’d taken from Paris to New York. Three hours out of Paris, halfway into the movie Jarhead,
Kaminski heard a loud thud and felt the plane shudder and swerve. “The captain made no
announcement. No one asked the flight attendants a thing,” he wrote. And yet, wrote Kaminski, a
veteran traveler, “My stomach told me to worry.”
About an hour later, the pilot announced the plane would be making an emergency landing in St.
John’s, Newfoundland. It seems one of the plane’s four engines had blown out. As the plane
approached the landing strip, the passengers could see fire trucks and ambulances on the tarmac
below. The French flight attendant’s English was deteriorating fast. In a high-pitched voice, she
ordered the passengers to “Brace, brace!” And what did about half the passengers do in this moment
of exquisite tension? Did they panic or weep or pray to God? No. They laughed.
The plane, as it turned out, landed safely. And Kaminski was left to marvel at his fellow
passengers’ well-developed sense of irony.
Laughter—or silence—is a classic manifestation of denial, as is delay. Zedeño was not alone. On
average, Trade Center survivors waited six minutes before heading downstairs, according to a 2005
National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) study drawn from interviews with nearly nine
hundred survivors. (The average would likely be higher if those who died had been able to respond
to the survey.) Some waited as long as forty-five minutes. People occupied themselves in all kinds of
interesting ways. Some helped coworkers who were disabled or obese. In Tower 2, many people
followed fatal instructions to stay put. Staying inside was, after all, the standard protocol for
skyscraper fires. But ultimately, the threat should have demanded immediate attention. Eventually,
almost everyone saw smoke, smelled jet fuel, or heard someone giving the order to leave. Even then,
many called relatives and friends. About one thousand individuals took the time to shut down their
computers, according to NIST. “The building started to sway and everything started shaking,” one
person on a floor in the sixties of Tower 1 told NIST. “I knew there was something wrong.” Notice
what comes next: “I ran to my desk and made a couple of phone calls. I dialed about five times trying
to reach my [spouse]. I also called my sisters to find out more information.”
Why do we procrastinate leaving? The denial phase is a humbling one. It takes a while to come to
terms with our miserable luck. Rowley puts it this way: “Fires only happen to other people.” We have
a tendency to believe that everything is OK because, well, it almost always has been before.
Psychologists call this tendency “normalcy bias.” The human brain works by identifying patterns. It
uses information from the past to understand what is happening in the present and to anticipate the
future. This strategy works elegantly in most situations. But we inevitably see patterns where they
don’t exist. In other words, we are slow to recognize exceptions. There is also the peer-pressure
factor. All of us have been in situations that looked ominous, and they almost always turn out to be
innocuous. If we behave otherwise, we risk social embarrassment by overreacting. So we err on the
side of underreacting.
But it would be a mistake to assume that we just waste time during this delay. Given time to think,
people in disasters need information like they need shelter and water. Their brains lack the patterns
they need to make a good decision, so they wisely search for better data. No matter what we are told
by a man in a uniform, no matter how shrill the alarm, we check in with one another. This “milling”
ritual is part of the second phase of deliberation. How and with whom you mill can dramatically
influence your chances of survival. For now, it’s fair to say that milling is a useful process that can
take a painfully long time to complete.
“Get Out of the Building!”
Luckily, one of Zedeño’s colleagues passed through the denial phase immediately. He screamed at
her: “Get out of the building!” His brain worked faster, for reasons we’ll go into later. Zedeño still
wonders what she would have done if he hadn’t told her to leave. As it was, she still found ways to
delay a little longer. First, she reached for her purse. Then she started walking in circles in her
cubicle. “I was looking for something to take with me. It was like I was in a trance.” She picked up a
mystery novel she’d been reading. Then she looked for more things to take. This gathering process is
common in life-or-death situations. Facing a void of unknown, we want to be prepared with as many
supplies as possible. And, as with normalcy bias, we find comfort in our usual habits. (In a survey of
1,444 survivors after the attacks, 40 percent would say they gathered items before leaving.)
Finally, Zedeño headed into the stairwell. She was taking action, the last stage in the process. But
her journey had only just begun. She would cycle through the phases of “disaster think” over and over.
Disbelief and deliberation would continue to stall her descent. “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.”
On average, the estimated 15,410 people who got out of the Trade Center took about a minute to
make it down each floor, the NIST findings show. A minute may not sound like a long time, but it was
shocking to people who design and build tall buildings. It was twice as long as the standard
engineering codes had predicted—and the buildings were less than half full. In a 110-story building, a
minute per floor is just too slow.
Most of the people who died on 9/11 had no choices. They were above the impact zone of the
planes and could not find a way out. Of the thousands who had access to open stairwells and time to
use them, all but about 135 did manage to escape, the NIST report found. But the most important
finding from the Trade Center evacuation is what did not happen. The attacks took place on the same
day as the mayoral election in New York City. Many people had stopped at the polls to vote and were
late to work. Others had taken their children into school for the first day of classes. Meanwhile, the
New York Stock Exchange does not open until 9:30 A.M., so the trading firms were not fully staffed
yet. And the Trade Center’s visiting platform did not open to tourists until 9:30 A.M.
The fires caused by the 9/11 attacks were the deadliest in American history, killing 2,666 people.
Had the buildings been full that morning, the slow evacuation would have translated into more than
five times the casualties. It’s hard to imagine that kind of body count. This was already an
unprecedented tragedy for the United States, after all. But had the attacks happened at a different time,
at least fourteen thousand people would have been killed, according to NIST’s conservative estimates
based on the rate of movement on 9/11. And the exasperating crawl of the evacuation would have
been a topic of endless public debate.
Since the first skyscraper was built in 1885 in Chicago, these monuments to human engineering
have been designed without much consideration for how human beings actually behave. The people
who work in skyscrapers have never been required to undergo regular full-evacuation drills, which
could dramatically improve their escape times. When they do have drills, most people see them as a
waste of time. They overestimate how well their minds will perform in a real crisis. When the alarm
goes off, they know they are being interrupted and inconvenienced, but they don’t necessarily know
how much they might one day appreciate the remedial help.
When she gives tours of Ground Zero, the number one question Zedeño gets asked is, How did
people behave in the stairwell? Were people panicking? No one expects the answer they get.
“Everybody was very calm, very calm,” Zedeño tells them. Only one woman got hysterical—
screaming and hyperventilating in the staircase. Zedeño gives her the benefit of the doubt. “I don’t
know what this woman saw,” she says. The woman was walking with a man who had blood on his
forehead. The man kept repeating, “We were the lucky ones, we were the lucky ones.” Zedeño and the
rest of the crowd moved to the side in the narrow stairway so the two of them could go ahead.
Crowds generally become very quiet and docile in a true disaster. Of course, on 9/11, no one in the
stairways expected the towers to collapse. We’ll never know how they would have behaved had they
known. But even in other, more overtly dire situations, crowds don’t tolerate irrational panic
behavior. Most of the time, people remain consistently orderly—and kind, much kinder than they
would have been on a normal day. One of Zedeño’s coworkers weighed over three hundred pounds
and was in a wheelchair. He worked on the sixty-ninth floor in 1993—and in 2001. Both times, his
coworkers carried him all the way down the stairs.
During the first thirty floors of her descent, Zedeño learned that the explosion she’d heard was a
plane hitting the tower. She promptly made up a story for herself to explain what had happened. Her
brain reached into its database of patterns for a reasonable explanation, in other words. “I said to
myself, ‘Poor pilot. He must have had a heart attack or a stroke.’” She would revise the story again
and again that day, underestimating the gravity of the attacks each time.
At the forty-fourth floor, someone told Zedeño and the people near her to switch stairways. She’s
not sure who said this, but she remembers someone saying there were fires below in that staircase. So
they all filed out into the sky lobby and queued up at another stairway entrance. Zedeño stood facing
the windows of the sky lobby. About seventeen minutes had passed since the first plane hit.
Suddenly, another explosion shook the tower. Zedeño looked up and saw balls of fire and black
smoke. “I don’t remember the sound, for some reason,” she says. Like many people in disasters, her
memory and her senses switched on and off at certain key points. But she does remember somebody
screaming: “Get away from the windows!” Zedeño turned and ran toward the center of the building.
Until now, Zedeño had been mostly calm and quiet. But as she ran from the explosion, she felt a
new sensation. She was filled with a rush of anger. I ask her whom she was angry at, expecting her to
say whoever was causing the explosions. But what she says, very slowly and deliberately, is this:
“How…could…I…have been so stupid to put myself inside this building again after what happened
in 1993? I should have known better.” Zedeño was furious at herself. As she ran, she experienced a
moment of clarity—which can be decidedly unhelpful. “I kept saying to myself, ‘I’m on the fortyfourth floor of a building. Where am I going? I’m still way up high. I can’t go anywhere!’”
Then everything changed again just as quickly. The group stopped running, the anger faded away,
and things returned, instantly, to the previous calm. “Every single one of us turned around and
marched right back to the stairway as if nothing ever had happened,” Zedeño says. She smiles when
she says this. She knows it sounds strange. Disaster victims often oscillate between horrifying
realizations and mechanical submission. As Zedeño describes it, they can be remarkably obedient:
We were like robots. There were no comments as to, “What do you think happened outside?”
Nobody ran to the windows to see what was happening. Nobody pushed anybody. Nobody
tried to get into the stairway before anyone else. Everybody just went right back as a group
and continued to funnel into the stairway in an orderly fashion.
I ask Zedeño what she thought the sound of this second explosion was. At that moment, she says,
she did not think about it at all. “As far as I’m concerned, I’m telling you, it was as if it didn’t happen.
It’s not even that I forgot it. It’s just that it was as if it never happened. Never.” Psychologists call this
“dissociation.” Most often, you hear the word used to describe the way children distance themselves
from physical or sexual abuse. But it happens in life-or-death situations too. It can be a coping
mechanism—a productive and extreme form of denial, in a sense. As Zedeño puts it, “I could not
afford to dwell on it. My job was to just take it one step at a time.”
Soon afterward, though, Zedeño heard someone in the stairwell say that another plane had hit the
towers. That information conflicted with her heart-attack theory. So she promptly made up a new
story for herself. This, too, was a clever coping device. “I said, ‘Those idiots! They were racing!
And they ended up hitting us. I can’t believe people are so stupid.’”
Several floors later, as the slow descent wore on, she heard some more disturbing information. A
man behind her noted that one plane had hit about fifteen minutes after the other. She turned to him as
if he had told her something new and surprising, and she announced to herself as much as to him, “It
was intentional!” He looked back at her. “Yes,” he said. Her carefully constructed narrative could not
absorb this information. So Zedeño did the most pragmatic thing she could do: she ignored it. “I put it
out of my mind as if it hadn’t happened,” she says. Denial can be remarkably agile.
Around the twentieth floor, Zedeño started passing a lot of firefighters coming up the stairs. Again,
the instinct of the crowd was to be generous. “I remember thinking the firemen looked tired. I wished
we had bottles of water to give them,” she says. The evacuees kept moving to the side to give the
firefighters more space, but the firefighters urged them to keep going down, don’t stop, don’t stop.
Zedeño remembers certain sounds from that descent with perfect clarity. There were two men,
probably firefighters, coming up below her. At each floor, they would stop and yell, “Does anyone
need help? Is there anyone here?” She heard their voices floating upward several minutes before she
saw the men. Then they passed her and she heard their voices above her, getting farther and farther
away. She doesn’t know what happened to them. “Their voices stayed with me. I can still hear them
now. Their voices haunted me for a long time.”
Nothing imprints the brain more effectively than fear. Certain details from life-or-death events stay
with us for the rest of our lives, like scars in our consciousness. They can cause debilitating
problems. They can require years of therapy to repair. But, like most disaster behaviors, they can be
helpful, too. They are there to protect us from getting into the same situation again.
A Woman in Red
Finally, about an hour after she had left her cubicle, Zedeño emerged into the light of the Trade Center
lobby. She felt a flush of happiness. She was on the ground at last. She looked around and saw
firefighters and other people moving in slow motion, a common distortion in extreme situations. Then
she looked outside and gasped.
As when she’d emerged from the elevator after the 1993 bombing, she’d expected to see normal
life, bustling on indifferently. Here is how Zedeño describes this powerful presumption that the
trouble was limited to her immediate vicinity, which psychologists call the “illusion of centrality”:
When you’re in trauma, the mind says, this is a very local problem. This is your little world,
and everything outside is fine. It can’t afford to say that everything outside is horrible. The
sound that I heard on the seventy-third floor should have told me, this is bad. The feeling of
the building shaking should have told me, this is bad. The explosion when I was on the fortyfourth floor: bad. The smell of debris in the lower stairways: bad. Yet in every single moment,
I made it my little world here. And nothing else exists.
But on 9/11, when she looked out the windows of the Trade Center lobby, Zedeño could no longer
suspend disbelief. Pay close attention to what happened next, as she walked toward the front doors,
staring at the bodies lying motionless on the plaza. It is the story of how the human mind processes
I’m slowing down because I’m starting to realize I’m not just looking at debris. My mind
says, “It’s the wrong color.” That was the first thing. Then I start saying, “It’s the wrong
shape.” Over and over in my mind: “It’s the wrong shape.” It was like I was trying to keep the
information out. My eyes were not allowing me to understand. I couldn’t afford it. So I was
like, “No, it can’t be.” Then when I finally realized what it meant to see the wrong color, the
wrong shape, that’s when I realized, I’m seeing bodies. That’s when I froze.
“Freezing” is as common as fleeing in the repertoire of human disaster responses. But it’s also a
fascinating, complicated response. It has meant certain death for many thousands of people over the
centuries. Zedeño, however, had a personal savior.
Just then, a woman—a stranger—appeared at Zedeño’s side and linked arms with her. The woman
said: “We’re getting out of here.” Zedeño looked down at the woman’s arm. She still remembers the
woman’s dark skin tone, similar to her own, and the red sleeve of her shirt. And then, Zedeño stopped
being able to see altogether. “Because of the smoke?” I ask her. “No, no, no. There was no smoke
there. I didn’t see anything at all.”
Zedeño went temporarily blind at that moment. When she describes this remarkable occurrence
now, she does it matter-of-factly. She was not frightened when this happened, she says. Just numb.
She relied on hearing—and this woman in red, who began to pull her toward the doors. As they
walked, the woman talked and talked. Zedeño can’t remember a word she said. “It’s funny how I
tuned out everything she said. But she kept talking, she never shut up,” she says, laughing. “It was so
weird! She never shut up.” But when the two of them got outside, Zedeño did hear her say, “Look, we
made it.” In response, Zedeño remembers saying: “Yeah, we’re outside.” But in fact she still couldn’t
see anything. She never saw the woman’s face.
At that moment, Zedeño heard a new sound. It was a rumbling, and it was close by. It was 9: 59
A.M. At the time, she thought, “It’s another airplane.” Three notions passed through her mind in rapid
sequence: “Airplane, war, a building is coming down.” With that, she screamed—either out loud or in
her head, she can’t remember which—“Inside!” Her vision returned, just when she needed it again.
This time, there was no denial. She turned and saw the revolving door of Five World Trade, with
Borders bookstore on her right. And she ran through the door. She never saw the woman in red again.
“The only thing I remember is the sound getting louder behind me, and I felt a strong wind. And
when I felt the wind rushing right through me, I remember thinking, ‘I’m not going to outrun this. It’s
too late. I can’t run fast enough.’” As the other tower—Tower 2—collapsed like a locomotive running
into the ground, the force knocked her off her feet.
Right after the tremendous crack of the collapse, there was total quiet. Zedeño remembers thinking
she must be dead, perhaps because of that silent blankness. As soon as she realized she was still
alive, she realized she couldn’t breathe. The dense gray matter of Tower 2 was lodged in her nose,
mouth, and ears. She dug her hand into her mouth to clear out the debris, but more debris took its
place. “I kept trying to catch my breath, but I couldn’t. Oh my God, it was horrible,” she says.
During this moment, choking on great piles of ash, the anger she felt on the forty-fourth floor came
surging back. This time, it was more than anger; it was rage, and it was directed not at herself but at
I was thinking, “I was outside already! I almost made it! Why couldn’t I get out?” After all
that trouble! I just didn’t understand. And this anger, this overwhelming anger is saying,
“Why can’t you give me a break! I was there in 1993. I’m here now, I was almost out, and I’m
still here! Ah! God almighty!”
The dust started to settle. Zedeño was able to empty out her mouth, and as she leaned against a
wall, she tried to clean her glasses and blow her nose. She couldn’t see through all the dust, but she
heard a voice asking her to move out of the way. It was a firefighter and he was trying to break
through a wall to get them out. She moved and stumbled over some debris, falling on top of someone
else. It turned out to be a police officer. He was screaming that his eyes were burning. And at the
same time, he was telling her, “Don’t worry, don’t worry! We’re gonna get out of here.” Zedeño could
see his hands shaking. But she never saw his face.
By then, her anger had vanished again. She got very quiet. It helped to have the police officer there,
even though he was hurt. Then she heard a voice: “I found a way out. Everybody, hold hands.” And
that’s what they did. They went into Borders and out through the door at the corner of Vesey and
Church Streets. The books were still on the shelves, Zedeño noticed. “The idea of what had happened
slipped away completely. Gone! I had no feeling anymore. It was almost like I was daydreaming.”
Zedeño had traveled a long way. From the seventy-third floor to the ground, she had invented at
least three different explanations for what was happening, all of which she had been forced to
abandon. She had passed in and out of bouts of rage as her brain worked to make sense of it all.
Denial both slowed her down, by distracting her with false hope, and kept her moving, by calming her
The Ten-Thousand-Pound Planters
Before the 1993 bombings, the fire safety plan for the Trade Center was naïve: each tenant company
selected a volunteer to act as a fire marshal. Then the volunteer was allegedly trained to know what
to do in a fire. That meant there was about one volunteer marshal for every fifty employees. As it
turns out, the vast majority of the fire marshals had never left their own floor or the building in any
previous alarm or drill, according to a NIST survey of all the marshals after the 1993 bombing. As a
result, most of the fire marshals were unfamiliar with the stairs, despite the fact that they were the
only ones “trained” to get out. In fact, they were trained only to meet in the corridor and wait for
instructions. But no instructions ever came. The bomb, which was relatively weak compared with a
767 airplane, disabled the power and communications systems in the towers.
Afterward, many of the 1993 fire marshals complained about their lack of training. They hadn’t
known that two-thirds of the stairwells required people to wind through transfer hallways. No one
had told them that it would take firefighters several hours to reach the upper floors. So they waited
and waited, some for four hours before descending. Logically, the study’s authors concluded:
“Training should not be limited to members of the fire safety team. Many fire marshals weren’t even
in their areas when the incident occurred…. All building occupants need some level of training or
education if they are going to react safely to a fire in a high-rise.” It wasn’t enough to rely upon
volunteer fire marshals or even firefighters. People needed to be able to get out on their own.
After 1993, it was obvious that changes needed to be made. The Port Authority spent more than
$100 million on improvements. But notice where the money went: the perimeter of the complex was
ringed with ten-thousand-pound planters to prevent vehicles from getting too close. Some two
hundred cameras went up. Truck drivers were photographed on their way into the truck dock. Dogs
sniffed for explosives. The Port Authority also installed a repeater system to help boost the fire
department’s radios when firefighters had to go up into the buildings.
But the new vision for the World Trade Center did not feature a role for regular people. Alan
Reiss, who was the director of the Port Authority’s World Trade Department, which ran the World
Trade Center, put it this way in his testimony to the September 11th Commission: “Evacuation
protocols did not change after 1993, but training and equipment certainly did.” Safety engineers’
recommendations to widen the stairways were overruled. It would cost too much money in lost real
estate. Fire drills were held twice a year, but the Trade Center’s definition of a fire drill was to ask
everyone to gather in the middle of their floors and pick up an emergency phone to obtain directions.
Employees did not generally go into the stairwells, let alone down them.
Information and responsibility remained the province of the exclusive few—the building’s fire
safety director, the Port Authority police, and other first responders. The role of regular people was
to await orders.
On 9/11, the ten-thousand-pound planters didn’t help, unfortunately. Neither did the repeater: it was
never correctly turned on, and, in the chaos of that morning, firefighters concluded it was broken.
Meanwhile, the relatively cheap addition of glow-in-the-dark strips along the stairs after 1993 made
the evacuation much easier, survivors reported. But many thousands of people did not even know
where the stairs were. Fewer than half the survivors had ever entered the stairwells before, the NIST
report found. Only 45 percent of 445 Trade Center workers interviewed after 9/11 had known the
buildings even had three stairwells, according to the early results of a study conducted at Columbia
University. “I found the lack of preparedness shocking. People were not thinking vertically. They
were thinking horizontally,” says lead investigator Robyn Gershon, a professor at Columbia. “Many
people said they hesitated to get into the stairways because they didn’t know where they would end
Most people had no idea how to navigate the transfer hallways on lower floors. Only half had
known the doors to the roof would be locked, according to Gershon’s findings. The 9/11 Commission
Report concluded that people may have died as a result: “Once the South Tower was hit, civilians on
upper floors wasted time ascending the stairs instead of searching for a clear path down, when
stairwell A was at least initially passable.”
After 1993, the fire-marshal system remained in effect. Zedeño was a marshal on 9/11. In fact, she
was the only member of the fire-safety team on her floor that morning. Everyone else had yet to arrive
to work. Keep in mind that each floor of the Trade Center was about an acre in size. Zedeño was a
“searcher,” meaning she was supposed to search the women’s bathroom before she went into the
stairs. In reality, she didn’t search for anyone anywhere. She didn’t even remember she was a fire
marshal until months after the towers had collapsed.
It turns out that on 9/11, fire marshals did not know much more than regular people. Of those
interviewed in the Columbia study, 94 percent had never exited the buildings as part of a drill. Only
50 percent said they were knowledgeable enough to evacuate on their own.
After she left Tower 1 on 9/11, Zedeño walked north with the police officer with the burning eyes.
Eventually, they were picked up by ambulances. Zedeño was taken to Woodhull Hospital in Brooklyn,
where she was given oxygen and a change of clothes. She then wandered from one train station to the
next, trying to get back home. Around 7:00 P.M., she finally found her way back to New Jersey—and
to her parents, who had watched from their balcony as her tower collapsed over eight hours earlier.
Over a period of three years, Zedeño met with me many times to relive her ordeal in microdetail. It
can’t have been pleasant for her. But she did it because she wanted her experience to be worth
something. “In helping others understand,” she once wrote in an e-mail, “I am reaffirmed as to the
reason I survived.”
Today, Zedeño still works for the Port Authority. Her office is now in Newark, New Jersey, on the
eleventh floor of an eighteen-story building. She also helps run the World Trade Center Survivors’
Network, which has over two thousand members. Two years after 9/11, Zedeño adopted a three-yearold boy from Newark. She named him Elias. Her sister shares custody of him, just in case anything
ever happens to Zedeño again.
Through my long talks with Zedeño, I came to appreciate the duality of denial. I was amazed by
how consuming it could be, even in the presence of smoke and flames. But, as I would come to learn
about most of our disaster responses, denial could also be lifesaving. If Zedeño had been forced to
reckon with reality all at once on 9/11, she might never have been able to make the long, tedious trip
to safety. Denial created blinders for her brain, letting her see only what she needed to see.
But the more I learned about denial, the harder time I had identifying its boundaries. Where did it
start and end? Did denial shape Zedeño’s response the morning of 9/11? Or did it start its work long
before, after she was trapped in an elevator in 1993 and decided it could never happen again? Denial
is the most insidious fear response of all. It lurks in places we never think to look. The more I
learned, the more denial seemed to matter all the time, even long before the disaster, on days that pass
by without incident.
Gambling in New Orleans
ON SEPTEMBER 9, 1965, Hurricane Betsy slammed into Louisiana with winds of up to 125 mph. In
Eastern New Orleans, Meaher Patrick Turner and his family did what they always did: his four
children, wife, and elderly father rode out the storm together in their shotgun house. But this time, the
ferocious category 3 hurricane breached the levees around Lake Pontchartrain, and the streets began
to gurgle with water. As the water rose, first one foot, then another, the children noticed a faint
meowing sound from under the floorboards. A cat had found its way into the crawlspace under the
house. As the hours began to pass, its cries got louder. It would be days before the water receded. It
was clear that the cat would either drown or starve, and they would have to listen to it die.
This would not do. Turner told the kids to get down on their stomachs and put their ears to the
floor. Find the cat’s exact location, he told them. After crawling around on their bellies, the kids
concluded that the cat was under the washing machine. So Turner moved the washing machine into the
kitchen and got his saw. Then he carved a circle out of the wooden floor, just like a character in a
cartoon, and the cat bounded up out of the hole to safety.
Turner was a World War II veteran who had a job of some responsibility at the Federal Housing
Administration. The rest of his life was about his family. He liked having them around, and he
dedicated himself to the rituals that kept them together. Every Sunday, he cooked a big family dinner
of roast beef with mashed potatoes and green beans. On holidays, even the minor holidays, he decked
the house with ornaments. On St. Patrick’s Day, he stationed leprechauns all around the house. On
Valentine’s Day, he hung little cardboard hearts from the bushes. It was known in the neighborhood as
the little holiday house, and people would drive by to see it. Christmas was the grand finale. On
Christmas Eve, Turner hosted a party for all his relatives. Nearly a hundred people would pack the
house. Cousins flew in from San Francisco and Birmingham. Every year, no matter how warm it was,
Turner put on a big, heavy red suit and played Santa Claus. He did this for forty-eight years. “He was
very handsome,” remembers his youngest daughter, Sheila Williams. “He had a full set of white hair.”
But Turner was also stubborn. And the older he got, the more obstinate he became. “My dad was
always right,” Williams says. “He was strictly Catholic. There was no other religion that existed
except Catholicism. And ooh, my gosh, don’t say nothing bad about President [George W.] Bush. He
kept his Christmas card Scotch-taped to the window in the kitchen.”
Sometimes Turner’s certainty masked his fear. He hated hospitals, for instance. “He was an Archie
Bunker, a terrible patient,” Williams says. He had a deep distrust of doctors, convinced they were
using him for his Medicare reimbursements. He didn’t often talk about his experiences in World War
II, but the memories stalked him after dark. Several times a week, he used to wake up at night crying
from nightmares. And he was also afraid of dying, Williams says. “I know he was scared.”
When Hurricane Katrina began its approach toward New Orleans in August of 2005, Turner’s
children, now grown, knew it was serious. By Friday, three days before landfall, they had moved past
denial and toward deliberation. They started calling motels in Mississippi, looking for rooms. Then
Williams called her father, who was then living alone. “And that’s when he started giving us trouble,”
“Let’s wait,” he said. “It’s too early.”
By Saturday, New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin was advising residents to evacuate. “Ladies and
gentlemen, this is not a test. This is the real deal,” he said at a news conference. Even in Nagin’s lazy
drawl there was a sliver of urgency. “Board up your homes, make sure you have enough medicine,
make sure the car has enough gas. Treat this one differently because it is pointed towards New
Williams called her father again. He said he had made up his mind: he was staying. “These storms
always make that turn to Pascagoula,” he told Williams. She argued with him. He laughed. “You are
all very dramatic,” he said.
On Sunday morning, less than twenty-four hours before the hurricane’s landfall, Nagin called for an
unprecedented mandatory evacuation. “We are facing a storm that most of us have long feared. This is
very serious,” he said on TV. “I want to emphasize, the first choice of every citizen should be to leave
Turner went to Mass, just like he did every day. There weren’t many people there. After the
service, when the priest asked him what he was going to do, he said he would stay put. “My family’s
aggravating me, but I’m staying.” Turner was stuck in denial, while everyone else around him moved
on to deliberation and decision. It wasn’t that he thought he was immortal. He thought often about
death, especially as his siblings began to pass away. No, Turner was in denial about Katrina because
something else scared him more.
Williams and her brother decided to ride out the storm in a neighbor’s house, which was well built
and far from any trees. That way, her father wouldn’t have to deal with evacuating the city. She asked
him to come spend the night with them. He would not. He invited her to come to his house, a one-story
structure two blocks from Lake Pontchartrain, but she said no. “Something just came in the pit of my
stomach,” she says. She made one last request of him: “I said, ‘Daddy, I don’t know if you remember
Hurricane Betsy. But they found claw marks in people’s attics. People couldn’t get out. If you’re
going to stay, please put some tools up there in your attic.”
By this point, Turner was starting to get truly annoyed with his children and their entreaties. He’d
already stopped watching the weather on TV. “I don’t think he even knew the name of the storm,”
Williams says. It was around then that he took his phone off the hook.
About 80 percent of New Orleans’s population got out before the storm—a huge success compared
with previous evacuations there and around the country. The vast majority of people navigated
through the denial and deliberation phases and took action. But what happened to the remaining 20
percent? The consensus in most media reports was that people were simply too poor to leave. And
it’s true that the more resources you have, the more choices you have about how to evacuate and
where to go. About 21 percent of New Orleans households were carless when Katrina hit, according
to the Census Bureau.
But poverty does not explain what happened in New Orleans. An analysis of 486 Katrina victims
by Knight Ridder Newspapers found that they were not disproportionately poor—or black. Michael
Lindell, director of the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M University, has studied
scores of evacuations, and he says people’s behavior defies simple explanations. “If you’re looking at
100% of the variance in evacuation behavior, income accounts for no more than 5–10 percentage
points,” he says. “What really accounts for the differences are people’s beliefs.”
Why wouldn’t Patrick Turner leave? Turner had an old Chevrolet and a family full of people with
cars headed out of town. In New Orleans, most people knew much of the city lay below sea level. In
July 2002, the New Orleans Times-Picayune ran a five-part series on the inevitable. “It’s a matter of
when, not if,” wrote reporters John McQuaid and Mark Schleifstein about a hurricane decimating the
city. “It’s happened before and it’ll happen again.” They described a precarious levee system and
flooding that could kill thousands.
In hindsight, it’s always easy to craft a narrative for any disaster: to see all the signs stacking up
like dominoes, if only we’d been paying attention. But that’s not what happened with Hurricane
Katrina. It was that most unusual of fiascoes: almost nothing was a surprise. “This was not a comet
hitting us,” says Stephen Leatherman, director of the International Hurricane Research Center in
Miami. “This is Hurricane Alley.” Leatherman has studied hurricanes for thirty years. In 2002, he
wrote a paper warning that Louisiana had lost many of its natural defenses against storms and New
Orleans was particularly vulnerable. When we spoke just days after landfall, while tens of thousands
of people remained stuck at the Superdome in New Orleans, he sounded sick with vindication. “You
do all these computer models, but [now] you have a human face on it,” he said quietly. “It’s
something. It really hurts.”
We gauge risk literally hundreds of times per day, usually well and often subconsciously. For more
predictable calamities, the first phase of disaster think actually begins with this calculus. We start
assessing risk before the disaster even happens. We are doing it right now. We decide where to live
and what kind of insurance to buy, just like we process all kinds of everyday risks: we wear bike
helmets, or not. We buckle our seat belts, smoke a cigarette, and let our kids stay out until midnight.
To deconstruct how we place these bets, I called Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a man obsessed with
risk. Taleb spent twenty years as a trader in New York and London, earning money off other people’s
blind spots. While other traders indulged in big short-term risks in hopes of big, short-term gains,
Taleb set up his investments so that he could never win big—nor lose big. He was hedged every
which way. “I never have blown up, and I never will,” he likes to say.
One autumn day, Taleb and I met for tea in Washington, D.C. Taleb, who has a balding head and a
gray beard, is an author and a professor now, in addition to holding a large stake in a hedge fund. He
likes to do many things at once, and he speaks so quickly that it is sometimes hard to keep up. That
afternoon, he had come from the Pentagon, where he had briefed officials on his theories about
uncertainty. The Pentagon was a strange place for him to be, since Taleb is a self-described pacifist.
But he’s the kind of pacifist the Pentagon can tolerate—which is to say, the stoic kind. “I am a peace
activist simply out of rationality,” he explains.
Taleb grew up in Lebanon, a country haunted by war’s unintended consequences. He has concluded
that human beings are unable to handle war in the modern age. “We’re not really able to assess how
long wars will take and what the net outcome will be.” The risk is too complex for our abilities. Once
upon a time, we were better at war. “In a primitive environment, if someone is threatening me, I go
kill him,” he says in his clipped, matter-of-fact way. “And I get good results most of the time.” He
calls this environment “Mediocristan,” a place where it is hard to kill many people at once; a place
where cause and effect are more closely connected. Homo sapiens spent hundreds of thousands of
years living in Mediocristan. We rarely needed to understand probability because, most of the time,
life was simpler, and the range of possible events was narrower.
But today, we live in a place Taleb calls “Extremistan,” subject to the “tyranny of the singular, the
accidental, the unseen and the unpredicted.” Technology has allowed us to create weaponry that can
strafe the planet in minutes. Lone individuals can alter the course of history. People kill each other
every day without much physical exertion. And, at the same time, we have become ever more
interdependent. What happens on one continent now has consequences for another. World War I, Taleb
points out, was expected to be a rather small affair. So was Vietnam. In fact, the twentieth century
was, and now the twenty-first century is, characterized by wars of unforeseen results. America’s war
in Iraq was certainly not intended to create more terrorists bent on attacking the United States. But that
is what happened, as a national intelligence estimate completed by U.S. government intelligence
agencies concluded in April 2006.
Risk is often counterintuitive in Extremistan. Our old tricks don’t work. For example, just like
Turner, many of Louisiana’s oldest residents had survived Hurricane Betsy in 1965. They had also
survived Hurricane Camille, a category 5 storm that struck in 1969. Turner rode out both storms
without a problem. So he saw no reason to leave for Katrina. He hunkered down in denial.
As it turned out, the veteran Louisianans were half right: Katrina was indeed less powerful than
Camille. Had the world stood still since then, they would have been just fine. In Mediocristan, they
would have survived.
But since Camille, rapid development had destroyed much of the wetlands that had created a
natural barrier against storm surge. The force field, in other words, was down. Humankind had
literally changed the shape of the earth, and we had done it faster, thanks to technology, than we could
have throughout most of history. This fact was well reported in popular media. But the firsthand
experience of Camille was more powerful than any warning.
As it turned out, the victims of Katrina were not disproportionately poor; they were
disproportionately old. Three-quarters of the dead were over sixty, according to the Knight Ridder
analysis. Half were over seventy-five. They had been middle-aged when Hurricane Camille struck. “I
think Camille killed more people during Katrina than it did in 1969,” says Max Mayfield, director of
the National Hurricane Center. “Experience is not always a good teacher.”
After Katrina, a poll of 680 New Orleans residents asked why they had not evacuated before the
storm. The respondents could give multiple explanations. A slim majority did indeed cite a lack of
transportation. But that was not the biggest reason. The most popular explanation, given by 64
percent, was that they did not think the storm would be as bad as it was. In fact, in retrospect, half of
those who hadn’t evacuated said that they could have found a way to leave if they had really wanted
to, according to the study, conducted for the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and the Washington
Post. Motivation, in other words, mattered more than transportation.
A Baseball Bat and a Crucifix
At 7:00 A.M. on Monday, August 29, Katrina made landfall in Louisiana with winds of up to 140 mph.
At 9:00 A.M., Turner’s children dialed his number again. Sometime before then, as the storm screamed
by his window, he’d put his phone back on the hook.
Turner answered the phone. “It’s real windy,” he told his son. The electricity was out. And he was
worried about the big tree in his backyard. Then he said something he rarely ever said: “I think I
made a mistake.”
His son told him to hang in there. They’d drive out to get him as soon as they could. “My daddy
was in very, very good health. No pacemakers, no surgery, nothing,” says Williams. “We figured as
soon as they’d cleared the roadways, we could get him.” They hung up.
But then the floodwaters came, breaching the levees in half a dozen places and charging through the
streets. Then the five-mile bridge that crosses Lake Pontchartrain broke into pieces, cutting Turner off
from his children. And finally, the phones went out for good.
Turner’s neighborhood, like much of New Orleans, was in a bowl. Water poured in from the lake,
rising to five feet in his one-story house. All of his possessions—the photographs, the Santa suit, all
the reminders of his wife, who had died three years before—everything was sinking. Turner pulled
the stairs down and went up into his attic. He brought up a gallon of water, a bucket, and two candles.
For nine days, the phones stayed down and the roads remained un-crossable. All of Turner’s
children except Williams had lost their homes. They were desperate to get to their father, but they
could not. Finally, the phones came back on and Williams made a frantic call to a radio station. She
pleaded for someone, anyone, to go check on her father. Three hours later, she got a call from rescue
officials. They had found her father in the attic, with a baseball bat and the crucifix he kept by his bed.
He was dead at age eighty-five, apparently killed by a heart attack. Time of death was unknown.
In those early, chaotic days, rescue personnel were under orders to prioritize bodies that were in
the water. Turner was not in the water, so it would be two weeks before they took his body away.
About a month after the storm, Williams went to the house. She found the Santa suit hanging in her
father’s bedroom closet, in its normal place. It had gotten wet, along with everything else, but her
brother decided to hang it outside of the house as a reminder to those who passed that this had been
the little holiday house. “We wanted people to see it,” Williams says. “I don’t know. When people
passed by, maybe people who knew him as Santa Claus or whatever, would remember.”
In the confusion that followed the storm, the authorities lost Turner’s body. For five months, his
family tried to find him. Morgue workers called Williams repeatedly to describe the bodies of dead
men, none of whom were her father. “I kept telling them, ‘He doesn’t have a tattoo!’” Five months
after he died, Turner’s body was found again and handed over to his family.
When we spoke a year and a half after the storm, Williams was having trouble forgiving her father.
“It makes me so mad,” she said. “It didn’t have to happen. I took such good care of him for him to do
something like that.” Since his death her family has not been nearly as close, she says. She wonders if
they will ever reconnect. She agreed to be interviewed for this book because, she said, she wants
other people to know how one decision can make all the difference.
Turner was nobody’s fool; he had accumulated a lot of wisdom in his long life. When Katrina
came, he made a trade-off that is more complicated than it looks. As I came to know Turner through
his daughter, I wanted to know more about his decision. Why had his risk calculus failed him this time
—after working so well for so long? Could we predict these kinds of blind spots in our own risk
equations? And if so, couldn’t we overcome them?
The Science of Risk
How are you most likely to die? Think for a moment: Given your own profile, what do you really
think is most likely to kill you?
The facts depend upon your age, genetics, lifestyle, location, and a thousand other factors, of
course. But overall, here are the leading causes of death in the United States:
1. Heart disease
Now ask yourself whether these most-likely scenarios are also the ones you worry about more than
any other. Are these the risks you actively work hardest to avoid? Do you start each day with twenty
minutes of meditation? Do you work out for at least thirty minutes a day? When you swim in the
ocean, are you more terrified of getting sunburned than you are of getting bit by a shark?
The human brain worries about many, many things before it worries about probability. If we really
were just concerned with preventing the most likely causes of death, we would worry more about
falling down than we would about homicide. The nightly news would feature back-to-back segments
on tragic heart-attack deaths. And we might spend more money on therapists than police (you are
twice as likely to kill yourself than you are to be killed by someone else during your lifetime). It’s as
if we don’t fear death itself so much as dying. We fear the how, not so much the what.
Curiously, we have only recently begun to understand how we process risk. For centuries,
philosophers and especially economists assumed that people were rational creatures—if not
individually than certainly overall. To measure risk, it was thought, humans simply multiplied the
probability of something happening by the consequences of it happening.
It took two psychologists to point out that this was simply not true. In the 1970s and 1980s, Daniel
Kahneman and Amos Tversky published a series of revolutionary papers on human decision making.
They explained that people rely on emotional shortcuts, called “heuristics,” to make choices. The
more uncertainty, the more shortcuts. And the shortcuts, while very useful, lead to a slew of
predictable errors. For example, in one study, they found that a majority of subjects judged a deadly
flood triggered by a California earthquake to be more likely than an equally deadly flood occurring
somewhere else in North America on its own. The notion of a California earthquake resonated more
than the prospect of a flood—and so it was assigned a higher probability by the people in the study.
In fact, the chances of a flood occurring for some other reason is far greater. But that kind of
workaday flood—the kind that kills people every year—does not trigger the same cascading series of
emotional shortcuts. It is less scary for a reason, which isn’t to say that it’s rational.
At first, Kahneman and Tversky were labeled pessimists. At a time when most Americans were
enchanted by technology, they had concluded that people were in fact irrational. They were attacked
for exaggerating the flaws of the human brain. More than one critic pointed to the fact that man had
walked on the moon. How could a species that has evolved to walk on the moon be plagued by
irrationality? But their work forever altered the study of risk. In 2002, six years after Tversky’s death,
Kahneman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics for their work.
Today, most people who study decision making agree that human beings are not rational. “We don’t
go around like risk assessors—doing calculations, multiplying probabilities. That’s been disproved,”
says Paul Slovic, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon and one of the world’s most
respected experts on risk. Instead, people rely on two different systems: the intuitive and the
analytical. The intuitive system is automatic, fast, emotional, and swayed heavily by experiences and
images. The analytical system is the ego to the brain’s id: logical, contemplative, and pragmatic.
One system can override the other, depending on the situation. For example, consider this question:
A coffee and a donut cost $1.10 in total. The coffee costs $1 more than the donut. How much
does the donut cost?
If your first answer was ten cents, that’s your intuitive system talking. If you then caught yourself
and came to the correct answer (five cents), that’s your analytical system policing your intuition.
Notice how deft the intuitive system is! It moved at lightning speed, and if the question were a
mountain lion about to lunge at your throat, it might have saved your life—or at least distracted the
lion for a minute.
But it was also wrong. And this is where we come to the truth-telling moment: we all make
mistakes when we judge risk. Our risk formula, especially when it comes to disasters, almost never
looks this rational:
Risk = Probability × Consequence
No, if we could reduce our risk calculation to a simple formula, it might look more like this:
Risk = Probability × Consequence × Dread/Optimism
Dread. Rarely does a label used by scientists so aptly fit the emotion it describes. Think of dread
as humanity in a word. It represents all of our evolutionary fears, hopes, lessons, prejudices, and
distortions wrapped up in one dark X factor.
After talking about dread with risk experts, I started to imagine it as a sum of many other, powerful
factors. Dread had its own equation. Each factor in the equation could raise or reduce the sensation of
dread, depending on the situation. It seemed important to break dread into its parts in order to
understand its imperfections. So here, with apologies to those experts for reducing their findings to a
formula, is what I think the equation for dread might look like:
Dread = Uncontrollability + Unfamiliarity + Imaginability + Suffering + Scale of Destruction +
Chances are the thing that most terrifies you is high in several of these factors. Dread explains why
we fear plane crashes so much more than we fear heart disease or car crashes. First, planes (unlike
cars) are not under our personal control, so that bumps up the dread factor. Second, planes are very
unfamiliar to human beings; we are not comfortable at twenty thousand feet, perhaps because we have
spent only a tiny fraction of our evolutionary history at such a height. So the dread score goes up
again. At the same time, accidents are easy to imagine, given the salience of plane-crash images in
movies and in the news media. On a plane, there’s also a chance the suffering might be prolonged, at
least compared to a car crash, in which you have little or no warning. Who hasn’t felt a sudden drop
in altitude and imagined what it might portend? Minutes might pass between the anticipation of death
and the end itself. The crash would also likely kill many people, not just one, further compounding the
horror under the dread equation. (The importance of scale helps explain why we are more distressed
by a bus accident that kills fifty people than we are by the one hundred people killed individually in
cars on the same day.) A plane crash can also be brutally unfair if, for example, it is perpetrated by
terrorists who turn a commercial jetliner into a weapon.
Terrorists understand dread. Unpredictable attacks on civilians are an extremely efficient way to
create dread. And dread is a good way to get a population agitated. In fact, the number of Americans
killed by international terrorism in the past fifty years is fewer than the number killed by food
allergies. But terrorism is by nature a mind game.
After 9/11, many thousands of Americans decided to drive instead of fly. Driving felt safer, and,
given the spasm of new security rituals in airports, certainly easier. In the months after 9/11, planes
carried about 17 percent fewer passengers compared with the same period before the attacks.
Meanwhile, the number of miles driven increased about 5 percent, according to government
But something terrible happened in the name of common sense. In the two years after 9/11, an
estimated 2,302 additional people were likely killed because they drove instead of flew, according
to a 2006 study of road accidents in America by three Cornell University professors. The study
compared the total number of road fatalities in the years before 9/11 with the period after. It
controlled for other things that might explain a spike in accidents—like bad weather. And after all of
that, the researchers found 2,302 deaths above and beyond the “normal” tally of car-accident
casualties; that’s 2,302 people who, if not for 9/11, almost certainly would have lived. These were
the lesser-known, secondary victims of 9/11, casualties of the adjustments we make in times of great
uncertainty. “The greatest cost of terrorism may be the public’s response to the attacks rather than the
attacks themselves,” the authors note.
In reality, even after 9/11, driving remained much, much more dangerous than flying. The chance of
dying on a major domestic commercial flight from 1992 through 2001 was roughly 8 in 100 million,
according to a 2003 analysis in American Scientist. Driving the same distance as the average flight
segment is, by comparison, about sixty-five times riskier.
Hierarchy of Fears
Justin Klabin, a partner in a manufacturing firm in New Jersey, is not a coward. He has ridden
motorcycles, played competitive rugby, and fought fires. In 2005, he even tried out for the America’s
Cup bobsled team; that is, he willingly hurtled down an iced, steeply banked course at speeds up to
90 mph in a fiberglass sled controlled almost exclusively by gravity. But after 9/11, Klabin decided
to stop flying on airplanes. He had watched the Twin Towers collapse from across the Hudson River
in New Jersey, and he had responded to Ground Zero with his fire department. That was all he
needed to see. “I’d like to get on a plane,” he says. “It would be a lot easier.” But he is convinced that
plane travel is just not worth the risk. “Flying is so many things combined—claustrophobia, fear of
heights, fear of being out of control,” says Klabin. Given all of those factors, the statistics mean little
to him. “Even if the odds are 1 in 15 million, that’s one person. People like me think there’s no reason
it can’t happen to me.”
In October 2001, when Klabin and his girlfriend went on a planned trip to Florida, they drove
instead of flying. They traveled more than a thousand miles in his pickup truck. On the way back, at
the end of a long day of drivin...
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