Book Review – The Unthinkable

Today’s book review is The Unthinkable – Who survies when disaster strikes – and why by Amanda Ripley.


When I was in year 5 at school, I shocked my teacher by writing in a book review that I liked a book which involved an earthquake (Ballet shoes for Anna) because “I like books about disasters”. I like to think that it’s not so much ghoulishness, but enjoying reading about resilience, and triumph over adversity.

This book, The Unthinkable, is a comprehensive look at how people behave in disasters. Ripley talks through a person’s three main stages in dealing with a disaster (mostly man made disasters – two of her examples involve gun battles, and her inspiration for this book came from talking to many World Trade Center survivors). She separates the books into three stages of survival arc – delay – the stage when people deny to themselves that something is wrong, deliberation – how our body and most primitive instincts take over and how some people override them, and the decisive moment – where people act – either constructively or (far less commonly) destructively by panicking.

The major emotion in this book is optimism. Every time Ripley has interviewed survivors, she has been fascinated by how much resource individuals can have, and how those who have trained themselves can overcome their body’s tendency to shut down in a crisis (a sensible and powerful evolutionary mechanism shared by most animals).

The other main theme in this book is anger at how little governments trust their citizens. She points out many ways in which people can be better informed, to help themselves train for a crisis. As she points out, in a disaster, at the crucial time, you are on your own. Some stories of survival from the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, for example, come from communities or individuals who recognised that a shaking earth, or retreating sea was a powerful signal of a coming tsunami. That kind of behaviour comes from education and training. But after 9/11 very little of the money was spent in ways that might help individuals if a disaster occurred. The pat response tends to be that people will panic if they are given information about possible disasters. But Ripley shows that in disaster after disaster, people are orderly, cooperative, and when given good information, astonishingly sensible about how they deal with their situation.

I was struck, while reading this book, that in nearly 20 years working in Sydney’s CBD, I have only once been in a fire drill that took me all the way out of the building. And about half that time I’ve worked in buildings where the fire stairs are alarmed, and so can only be used in an emergency. One of the crucial things in the World Trade Centre (and any evacuation) is familiarity with the escape route. The more automatic the appropriate action is, the easier it is for your conscious mind to overwhelm your unconscious mind which is freezing you to the spot. But its rarer and rarer for a building to have fire stair access in my experience. Only available in old unrefurbished buildings like the one I currently work in.

Ripley points out that people are much slower in a real disaster than the planners have expected them to be (In the World Trade Centre on 9/11, it took people a minute, on average, per floor to evacuate, which is twice as long as standard engineering codes predict – with the buildings only half full). But rather than working out why that is, people who design buildings and aeroplanes tend to assume away reality – it shouldn’t really take as long as it does. But people are polite – they will let people on lower floors into the queues, they aren’t necessarily wearing sensible clothes (the stairwells of the World Trade Centre had piles of stiletto shoes all the way down) and they get tired.

And government planners tend to be overly concerned with worrying people. In Britain, a House of Commons committee suggested that aircraft cabin simulators be placed in airport waiting areas, so bored passengers could, if they wanted to, practice using emergency exits, oxygen masks, etc. But the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority threw it out without any proper consideration at all.

The message of this book is ultimately hopeful. If we think through what might happen if disaster struck, and what our options are, wherever we are (a tall building, an aircraft, a ship) , we have a much better chance of making the best of our situation if it does happen. We would make a significant difference to our chances of survival, and how well we would cope, psychologically, afterwards.

Finishing this book just before bed made me wide awake for another two hours; not with horror, or fear, but with adrenaline from reliving ordinary people doing extraordinary things. But I highly recommend it just the same.

  5 comments for “Book Review – The Unthinkable

  1. November 27, 2008 at 10:43 pm

    As a Canadian looking at the Emergency Management programs both nationally, provincially and municipally, I am appalled by the “it will never happen here” attitude of legislators.

    As a consequence emergency managers are inadequately trained and certified; facilities are unprepared; mitigation, response and recovery are ad hoc and nothing is learned from one emergency to be used in the event of another.

    The United States has had both terrorist and climatological disasters to wake it up. Emergency Management is being taken seriously in that country as well as in Britain. The governments are passing legislation requiring preparedness.

    However, there are still many assumptions, as you have pointed out in this blog post, that are overlooked.

  2. November 28, 2008 at 4:56 am

    I’m surprised to hear about your fire stairs being alarmed. That would freak me out. In my city skyscraper, we can use the stairs to walk between floors (using our ID badges to gain entrance from the stairwell.) Often when I walk in the stairwell, I think of the WTC evacuations.

  3. November 28, 2008 at 1:47 pm

    In those buildings (Grosvenor Place and Gateway), it used to intensely annoy me as I often took the lift one floor. But now I’d be freaked out as well, by not being experienced with the stairs.

    My current building has very slow lifts, so I use the stairs all the time – I hate to think what it would be like if they were inaccessible.

  4. November 28, 2008 at 10:31 pm

    When you show people round a building that houses a nuclear reactor some of them are bound to notice safety features. Even so they are rarely conscious of even a small fraction of the various gadgets sniffing for items that should not be there. People do notice that there are full protection suits available.
    Q: If there are ten people here, how do you make do with two suits?
    A: If there is a need for suits, I am supposed to get you lot out through the airlock in a shorter time than it takes to put a suit on. Only people who may need to go on working here need to consider suiting up. Most of the people who work here would also go out quietly, through a contamination check, and if necessary to somewhere where they could be decontaminated.
    Q: What about us and decontamination?
    A: We do check you routinely when you leave this area. Decontamination is laid on if necessary. And more so if we hurry your departure.
    Q: Do these suits mean that this place is unsafe?
    A: No. They are part of safety here. We do have exercises here for people who may need to use them for real. ….. By the way, how many fire extinguishers can you see? They are here, and we have exercises to practise their use, all in the cause of fire safety. So now the subject is opened, do you know where the fire extinguishers are at home or your school, and how long since you practised there for an emergency?
    After quoting that spiel, which I have used, I may as well admit that I have more recently been involved in fire alarms in two university buildings.
    In the first case, I was working on my own in a classroom when someone stuck a head in the door and suggested I pay attention to that bell which had not impinged on my concentration. I then did. In a second case, in another university, the lower floor evacuated and people from the next floor up came out onto their balconies, but no further. More recently I have seen that building fully evacuated. All three cases as far as I know were genuine alarms, but there was no smoke visible in my vicinity.

  5. Andrew
    November 28, 2008 at 11:14 pm

    My building has regular fire evacuations. The ratio is about 50-50 drills and accidents with toasters. The attitude seems to be “we have to do this, so let’s make a decent effort”. Our fire stairs are not alarmed, but they are one-way on our floor so we can’t use them instead of the lifts. Dammit.

    The fire wardens are just people selected from each floor, and they are never management (who don’t have time). So there’s really no choice about disseminating information.

    Becoming one of our fire wardens has made me much more conscious of exits and equipment in other buildings, I’ve noticed.

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