Contrary to popular expectations, this is what happens in many disasters. Crowds generally become quiet and docile. Panic is rare. The bigger problem is that people do too little, too slowly. They sometimes shut down completely, falling into a stupor.
On the Estonia, Härstedt climbed up the stairwell, fighting against gravity. Out on the deck, the ship's lights were on, and the moon was shining. The full range of human capacities was on display. Incredibly, one man stood to the side, smoking a cigarette, Härstedt remembers. Most people strained to hold on to the rolling ship and, at the same time, to look for life jackets and lifeboats. British passenger Paul Barney remembers groups of people standing still like statues. "I kept saying to myself, 'Why don't they try to get out of here?'" he later told the Observer.
Later, when interviewed by the police, some survivors said they understood this behavior. At some point, they too had felt an overwhelming urge to stop moving. They only snapped out of the stupor, they said, by thinking of their loved ones, especially their children — a common thread in the stories of survivors of all kinds of disasters.
At 1:50 a.m., just 30 minutes after its first Mayday call, the Estonia vanished, sinking upside down into the sea. Moments before, Härstedt had jumped off the ship. He climbed onto a life raft and held on for five hours, until finally being rescued. All told, only 137 of the 989 people on board survived the disaster. Most of the victims were entombed in the Estonia while they slept. They had no chance to save themselves. Investigators would conclude that the ship sank because the bow door to the car deck had come unlocked and the sea had come gushing into the ship.
Firefighters, police trainers — even stockbrokers — have told me similar stories of seeing people freeze under extreme stress. Animals go into the same state when they are trapped, evolutionary psychologist Gordon Gallup Jr. has found. Playing dead can discourage predators from attacking. In the case of the Estonia and other disasters, the freezing response may have been a natural and horrific mistake. Our brains search, under extreme stress, for an appropriate survival response and sometimes choose the wrong one, like deer that freeze in the headlights of a car.
But the more encouraging point is that the brain is plastic. It can be trained to respond more appropriately. Less fear makes paralysis less likely. A rat with damage to the amygdala, the primitive part of the brain that handles fear, will not freeze at all — even if it encounters a cat. If we can reduce our own fear even a little bit, we might be able to do better.
Fire drills, particularly if they are mandatory and unexpected, can dramatically reduce fear, should the worst come to pass. Just knowing where the stairs are gives your brain an advantage. Likewise, research into plane crashes has found that people who read the safety briefing cards are more likely to survive. These rituals that we consider an utter waste of time actually give our brains blueprints in the unlikely event that we need them.
We can also help each other do better. A loud sound will cause animals to snap out of their stupor. Likewise, many flight attendants are now trained to scream at passengers in burning planes, "Get out! Get out! Go!" People respond well to leadership in a disaster, and then they can do remarkable things.
We All Have Our Role to Play
Even in the most chaotic moments, our social relationships remain largely intact. That cohesion can have positive and negative consequences, but it helps to know what to expect.
On May 28, 1977, one of the deadliest fires in the U.S. broke out at a place called the Beverly Hills Supper Club, a labyrinth of dining rooms, ballrooms, fountains and gardens located on a bluff 5 miles (8 km) south of Cincinnati. Darla McCollister was there. She got married that evening at the gazebo in the garden and then, as her party began to move inside for dinner, a waitress informed her that there was a small fire in the building. It had begun as an electrical fire in the Zebra Room, adjacent to the bride's dressing room. Before the night was out, the flames would tear through the Beverly Hills, led by a roiling advance of smoke. There were nearly 3,000 people packed into the sprawling club on that Saturday night. All told, the fire would kill 167 of them.
The disaster delivered many brutal lessons. Some were obvious — and tragic: the club had no sprinkler or audible fire-alarm systems. But the fire also complicated official expectations for crowd behavior: in the middle of a crisis, the basic tenets of civilization actually hold. People move in groups whenever possible. They tend to look out for one another, and they maintain hierarchies. "People die the same way they live," says disaster sociologist Lee Clarke, "with friends, loved ones and colleagues, in communities."
At the Beverly Hills, servers warned their tables to leave. Hostesses evacuated people that they had seated but bypassed other sections (that weren't "theirs"). Cooks and busboys, perhaps accustomed to physical work, rushed to fight the fire. In general, male employees were slightly more likely to help than female employees, maybe because society expects women to be saved and men to do the saving.
And what of the guests? Most remained guests to the end. Some even continued celebrating, in defiance of the smoke seeping into the rooms. One man ordered a rum and Coke to go. When the first reporter arrived at the fire, he saw guests sipping their cocktails in the driveway, laughing about whether they would get to leave without paying their bills.
As the smoke intensified, Wayne Dammert, a banquet captain at the club, stumbled into a hallway jammed with a hundred guests. The lights flickered off and on, and the smoke started to get heavy. But what he remembers most about that crowded hallway is the silence. "Man, there wasn't a sound in there. Not a scream, nothing," he says. Standing there in the dark, the crowd was waiting to be led.
The Beverly Hills employees had received no emergency training, but they performed magnificently. The exits were few and hard to find, but Dammert directed the crowd out through a service hallway into the kitchen. "My thought was that I'm responsible for these people," he says. "I think most of the employees felt that way." McCollister, still in her wedding dress, ushered her guests outside. "I was pushing people out the door, kind of like cattle, to show them where to go," she recalls. She felt responsible: "This is my party. They were there because of me."