People can panic
August 3, 2005 12:26 PM   Subscribe

"People were tripping over each other, climbing over the seats to get to the exit." Warbaby posted a link on July 7 to an article by Lee Clark that said people don't panic in disasters. Survivors from Tuesday's Toronto plane crash give a different story. Here's one account: Ho said people at first were calm and lining up, but once fire from the back of the plane, "people were tripping over each other, climbing over the seats to get to the exit." He said a flight attendant told him to jump out the front door with no chute, but it was about a 12-fioot drop. He ran to a second door. It had a damaged chute, but he took it. "I jumped and fell onto some people," Ho said. "Some people broke their arms or legs."
posted by stevefromsparks (42 comments total)
No surprise, trapped in a mouse trap surrounded by fuel I'd have an hard time maintaining an orderly behavior if people in front of me was hella slow.
posted by elpapacito at 12:34 PM on August 3, 2005

It was Air France.
posted by Carbolic at 12:37 PM on August 3, 2005

That's the only quote in the story that indicates panic, and even that sounds more like hurried beaviour than panic. Other people were saying things like, "I was glad to see people helping each other," and "the flight attendants were good at calming us down".
posted by orange swan at 12:39 PM on August 3, 2005

There are sort of hard-to-suppress reflex actions caused by flame and smoke. That is not panic.

I wonder whether some people would have actually died had they miraculously been able to suppress their instinctive reactions -- to just stand there and go, "Aggghhhh!!! Will you people move forward? I am being roasted alive!!!"
posted by gorgor_balabala at 12:42 PM on August 3, 2005

Some people definitely lose it, but I don't think it's universal. For both the big blackout and a subsequent fire in my office building, my colleagues and I had to jog down 25 flights of fire stairs to get out. It was the same two people each time who lost their head early, and roughly pushed their way past women, men, old, young, you name it to be among the first to get out; ignored the standard headcount/gathering place rules on getting out; and took no interest in how anyone else got out okay or would get home. But everyone else managed to be good humoured and courteous.
posted by jamesonandwater at 12:44 PM on August 3, 2005

jamesonandwater, were those people treated differently after the disaster?
posted by agregoli at 12:48 PM on August 3, 2005

Gorgor: What is panic if it's not a instinctive, reflexive action? It's not something that is the result of rational thinking. It's something that comes from the portion of the brain called the amygdala or thereabouts.
Orange: How many quotes would you need to be satisfied there was panic?
posted by stevefromsparks at 12:51 PM on August 3, 2005

On the way home from school many years ago, our bus flipped while trying to turn left down a steep hill. I think I must've been out for a half minute of so because by the time I found my feet it seemed like more than a few kids off the crowded bus had made it out.

I spent a second of two looking around for my brother and sister, and I will allow myself to say I was looking for anybody else that might've been hurt as well. Things were moving pretty fast. It was then that I heard the buzzing alarm sound coming from the front of the bus. We were going to blow up! I promptly pushed a kid half my size out of the way as I climbed through the emergency exit in the back.

Rational thought returned a few minutes later. When parents showed up looking for kids that had already been shipped off the hospital, I let them know everything was okay. Been awhile since I thought about that.
posted by manicroom at 12:54 PM on August 3, 2005


We've since come to realize how deeply fearful both of them are. Among other stuff, one guy left the country the week the republican convention came to town, the other sits next to me and notices and comments every time there's a siren down below (and we work in midtown Manhattan, there's sirens every ten minutes). I have no patience for their paranoia, and I stay as afr from then as I can when we're together in train stations or somewhere but they've become more of a running joke than shunned or anything like that.
posted by jamesonandwater at 12:58 PM on August 3, 2005

Some passengers were actually trying to get their luggage out of the overhead bins. If I saw that happening in front of me, after a plane crash, I'm fairly certain that I would start shoving people around in order to get off.

The flames at the back of the plane probably added to the panic. There must have been some initial calm or pseudo-organization since no one was killed or critically injured.
posted by purephase at 1:21 PM on August 3, 2005

stevefromsparks, i guess you'd have had to have been there to know whether it was panic or not. Or perhaps generate more first-hand corroboration for it being that. Otherwise, well, I don't know anyone who can just patiently wait in line as the flames proceed to lick them.
posted by gorgor_balabala at 1:25 PM on August 3, 2005

I really think airplane crashes are a different situation than most emergencies and I'm not sure that a calm, orderly evacuation is a desired result. There really are few situations that are so patently life or death - you literally have seconds to get out of and as far from a burning plane as you can. I to remember an FAA type being interviewed on Sixty Minutes (or something similar) basically recommending the most urgent response short of panic that could be mustered and specifically saying that the last thing you need is some hero urging for calm and order.

To me, that means people retrieving luggage have be pushed aside or run over; people pausing at (and blocking) an emergency exit because it's 12 feet up have to be literally thrown out the door. You can't allow one person lacking the appropriate situational awareness to endanger dozens of people.

And climbing over seats if that's the fastest route to an exit is fair play.
posted by krtzmrk at 1:43 PM on August 3, 2005

In an discussion, PipoA380 commented:
I'm hearing now that in Canada, the crew reminds people the safety rules just before the landing.. is that true?
A followup indicated this is standard procedure in Canada.
posted by ryanrs at 2:02 PM on August 3, 2005

Some people definitely lose it, but I don't think it's universal.
You notice that in larger crowds. Some people are 'me first.' Some remain calm. Some take charge. Etc.
I seem to be at my best in emergencies. I think clearly, my decisions are smooth, dead on and swiss watch integrated.
I suppose that makes up a little for being completely befuddled the rest of the time. My wife takes care of the checkbook of course.
But if you can calm down the people who lose it, you can keep everyone else relatively calm. Watch a riot evolve, it's like a psychic avalanche. A couple people get it going and then it spreads until it rolls with everyone.
posted by Smedleyman at 2:09 PM on August 3, 2005

I'm hearing now that in Canada, the crew reminds people the safety rules just before the landing.. is that true?

A followup indicated this is standard procedure in Canada.

Unless it's a recent development, I don't think that's true. I've never seen the safety rules demonstrated more than once.
posted by teg at 2:21 PM on August 3, 2005

Watch a riot evolve, it's like a psychic avalanche. A couple people get it going and then it spreads until it rolls with everyone.
We're all basically evolved from herd animals so there's that herd mentality programmed into our most basic responses to respond to 'herdthink'. If the herd is calm, so are we. If there's panic among the herd, most everyone will panic.
Thankfully it seems that for the most part in these kinds of situations the herd is calm . . .
posted by mk1gti at 2:26 PM on August 3, 2005

I remember accounts of the fire at the Great White show, where so many people were (understandably) shoving that people further in front fell over and people would try to climb over them and they would get stuck and you just have this pile of people at the exit wedged together while hundreds of people whose flesh is buring are pushing and pushing making it harder for anyone to move.
posted by bobo123 at 2:33 PM on August 3, 2005

Yup, that's panic for ya.
posted by parallax7d at 2:40 PM on August 3, 2005

if it's on fire, and you know that the plane could burst into flames at any time, then you do what you have to to get out alive--how dare people stop and get their shit from the overhead compartment?!? are they insane? i'd climb over seats too if that was happening (and i always sit in the back of the plane).
posted by amberglow at 2:41 PM on August 3, 2005

"In Canada, federal regulations require the cabin crew to remind the passengers of the location of the emergency exits during the descent." (

It's only for flights over a certain duration - four hours, I think. What do you bet it is adopted by the FAA?
posted by anthill at 3:11 PM on August 3, 2005

er, it is safe to say that accounts differ. i've heard on several interviews passengers saying there was not much panicking.
Tripping over eachother? I have trouble with that during a simple non-emergency plane disembarking. i can also see climbing over seats in a non panic crash situation. *shrug*

Is that a dismissive "it was Air France" carbolic? care to elaborate?
posted by edgeways at 3:18 PM on August 3, 2005

Time to update that YYZ video.

The Washington Post did an online discussion with one of the survivors of the plane that crashed in Toronto.
posted by kirkaracha at 3:24 PM on August 3, 2005

The people who wanted their luggage from the overhead compartments should have waited politely until everyone who didn't want to be human bbq were able to get out and then they should have retreived their bags, if they were still alive.

I wonder if someone was injured while waiting for an idiot to get their bags out if the injured party would have a reasonable lawsuit against the idiot?
posted by fenriq at 3:30 PM on August 3, 2005

I think people are a bit too harsh on panic.

In bobo123's scenario, a person who goes nuts and starts pushing people out of the way, physically putting himself ahead of the queue, is more likely to survive than someone who doesn't panic, or only panics when it's too late. Should someone who survives in such a way, feel guilty even when behaving any differently meant death?

I imagine we might feel disgust at their manner of surviving, but that's only because most people are brought up to disavow explicitly selfish behaviour - the implicit moral being that working with others is usually for our mutual benefit and much better for us as individuals, than "me! me! me!".

Thus, in a less serious crisis, not panicing is the best thing to do (everyone gets out efficiently), whilst people who panic tend to work against each other and thus miss out on the most efficient (for the group) means of achieving safety. Our reaction against someone who does panic is therefore a product of our anger that one individual's selfish behaviour is increasing the total danger to the group.

The problem comes when the most efficient survival strategy requires the sacrifice of real people with their own selfish desire to live. In that situation, normal modes of behaviour go out the window and any behaviour that is even perceived as increasing the chance of survival becomes imperative; even if it increases the risk to others. At this point, it really is everyone for themselves. And we get proper panic.

Thinking about it like this, I can imagine some people - whose selfish behaviour enabled their survival in a crisis - being quite traumatised after returning to normal life. Despite the fact their actions took place in an entirely different social paradigm, and were completely rational, even necessary, they must find it difficult to go back to being courteous, well-mannered, generous and hospitable, when all they can think of is the fact that it's all just learned behaviour, intended to increase personal survival rate/success. Even without the social ostracism that might result from successful selfishness, I imagine such a realisation would be a very isolating experience.

Is this true? Is this (in part) a source of "survivor's guilt"...?
posted by pots at 3:32 PM on August 3, 2005

sorry that was so long!
posted by pots at 3:33 PM on August 3, 2005

The problem comes when the most efficient survival strategy requires the sacrifice of real people with their own selfish desire to live. In that situation, normal modes of behaviour go out the window and any behaviour that is even perceived as increasing the chance of survival becomes imperative; even if it increases the risk to others. At this point, it really is everyone for themselves. And we get proper panic.

William Langewiesche's article on the Estonia Disaster.

There's one sentence in that article that I've never been able to forget:

Survival that night was a very tight race, and savagely simple. People who started early and moved fast had some chance of winning. People who started late or hesitated for any reason had no chance at all.
posted by longdaysjourney at 5:15 PM on August 3, 2005

Or three sentences, rather. ^_^;;
posted by longdaysjourney at 5:15 PM on August 3, 2005

maybe, pots. I imagine survivor's guilt would be greatly intensified if you did something like push a mom and kid out of the way to get out, and they never got out. The problem with this crash scenario the other day is that everyone lived, but we don't know if that would have happened if everyone was orderly--would it have taken longer? would some have been overcome with smoke or burnt? ...
posted by amberglow at 6:35 PM on August 3, 2005

longdays, that article...i have chills. it really makes you wonder how you would react.
posted by amberglow at 6:48 PM on August 3, 2005

Anyone who values their own life over others' is a hysterical, amoral (at best) coward. The only good news is, should said coward survive, he is doomed to another 999 deaths.

I hope I read your post wrong, Pots, because it seems to me you came quite close to justifying such behaviour.
posted by raider at 6:54 PM on August 3, 2005

why, raider? the first law of nature=self-preservation. I think almost everyone values their own live over those of others, whether they help others during a crisis or not.
posted by amberglow at 7:12 PM on August 3, 2005

to me my life is worth infiniantly more to me than your life is to me. and if "push comes to shove" your ass is getting pushed. Try calling anyone a coward when you're dead.
posted by CCK at 7:22 PM on August 3, 2005

To the point where you would deliberately - or even likely - cost another person their life?


Granted, I've never been in a plane crash but I suspect neither have you.

posted by raider at 7:50 PM on August 3, 2005

The WaPo interview also downplays the idea of panic:

Q: Could you tell me your experience inside the flight.... were people panicking or were they calm. How were the crew? ....

Lauren Langille: The only time there was a lot of screaming was when the plane was still moving and bouncing. And then when it stopped, everyone jumped out of their seats and it was a much calmer atmosphere but there were some people who were in hysterics. The people around me that were in hysterics ... I hugged them and then told everything was going to be okay and I tried to be really strong about the situation and at that point I decided I was going to be a survivor and I wasn't going to let this take away my life.

For the flight attendants, they were fantastic. They got everyone to safety real quickly and they made sure all the passengers were safe before themselves.

I guess that also underlines Langewiesche's point. Regarding the luggage:

Just wondering, did anyone reach for their carry-ons in the overhead bins, or did they leave everything behind and rush for the doors?

Lauren Langille: Because we were waiting for the door to be opened, people just started grabbing their bags in the overheads. I myself grabbed my bag because I had all my roles of film from my month-long trip to France.

If you're just standing there, I suppose I too would grab anything important to me. I wouldn't be too happy if that were holding me up, but that's not reported.

If someone were being stupid and risking not only their life, but mine, through that stupidity, I hope I would have the presence of mind to shove them out of the way. Or at least yell fucking loud enough to get them to focus. (I'm big, and technically I could intimidate people, if I weren't such a nice cornfed boy.)

The more I think about this (Jrun gave me time), I wonder if what we call "panic" isn't largely people making rational (at least to them) but bad decisions. Or simply getting in the way as they overthink the problem of saving their own life.

Regarding fire, it's said that the smoke and heat -- superheated air, really -- likely propelled many of the 9/11 jumpers out windows, perhaps at a level beyond rational thought.
posted by dhartung at 10:13 PM on August 3, 2005

Way to miss the point guys, a brief reminder for those who actually read the original article.

"However, we have nearly 50 years of evidence on panic, and the conclusion is clear: people rarely panic, at least in the usual sense that word is used. Even when people feel excessive fear or a sense of overwhelming doom they usually avoid ìinjudicious effortsî and chaos. In particular, they are unlikely to cause harm to others as they reach for safety and may even put their own lives at risk to help others."

No where do we see the "injudicious efforts" in the reports above? Some people became impatient and climbed over seats. Seems perfectly reasonable to me, and not in and of itself any evidence of panic. Does anyone deliberately harm others to get out? Not in the report. No accounts of frenzied passengers climbing over each other to escape. From what I can see this report supports the original article.
posted by seanodonnell at 4:52 AM on August 4, 2005

It’s July 21st, early morning. You’re on the train to work. Half asleep. A young man lugging a rucksack shuffles past you on his way to the rear of the carriage.

Minutes pass.

A commotion. You turn. The young man has placed the rucksack on the floor against the rear wall of the carriage and has knelt before it. He crosses himself, mutters, stretches his arms wide. For a moment, he is a seagull on the breeze. He shifts his weight and, still kneeling, pitches slowly forward until his head comes to rest on the rucksack.

He is chanting, whispering, calling to God.

No-one makes a sound. No-one moves toward him. People turn side-on, grimace, half-cover faces. And wait. It seems important that the last thing you do is look deep into someone’s - anyone’s - eyes.

There is a loud pop.

Then nothing.

The train pulls into the station.

The man jumps to his feet, grabs the rucksack and runs for the door. He is gone before anyone can stop him.

A friend was in that carriage that morning. There was no panic – there was no time to panic. There was a moment, a brief knowing ‘oh I’m gone’, the search for eye contact, and then blackness. Panic only comes with hope. Without it, there is resignation, acceptance, calm. Where people differ is the point at which they flip from living to living dead – that is, where the survival instinct breaks down and your rational self accepts that there is nothing that can be done. What looks like panic to one person is to another a last-gasp attempt to hold on as they fade from the first state to the second. Given a lower threshold, they just cross over a few steps ahead of you.

I’ve always found soldiers’ accounts of war fascinating for this reason. James Jones (From Here to Eternity, The Thin Red Line) talks about finally becoming a true soldier, a warrior, when you accept that you’re dead already and just get on with it. It’s meant to be a freeing, liberating moment as you jettison the panic, the sad scramble to stay alive, and accept zero (or at best, minimal) control over your fate.

I’d imagine there would be three rough categories – those who remain calm, rational, proficient because they know (due to their superior skill, luck, faith, self-delusion, whatever) that they won’t die; those that panic because they’re out of their depth - wanting to live but not knowing how, clawing deep as they feel it all fading; and those who have accepted their death and whose group, having passed to the other side, can at times strangely resemble the first.

Having never been tested by war, starvation, disease, one thing our generation is largely missing is the knowledge to which group they belong. Generations past found out the hard way. A well-worn cliché, but I’m a believer that you cannot know who you truly are until you’ve faced down death … in the face of the final truth, everything else is make-believe.

Gawd that was pretentious *shrugs, hits post anyway*
posted by bookie at 6:05 AM on August 4, 2005


That article made my blood run cold.

How am I supposed to believe in a magical man in the sky who loves me and wants the best for me when he would let that happen. It would have had to have been a scene of sheer terror.

I imagine a lot of people lost some faith that day, both on land and in the sea.

(Note: I am not questioning anyone's beliefs or religion, just my own. Please put your angry keyboards down.)
posted by Ynoxas at 9:01 AM on August 4, 2005

The report includes this statement: "I jumped and fell onto some people," Ho said. "Some people broke their arms or legs."
Does that sound judicious to you? Twelve feet is slightly more than a story. I think people could jump one story without injuring themselves.
posted by stevefromsparks at 9:14 AM on August 4, 2005

Onto concrete? On top of other arms and legs and heads? Not likely.
posted by agregoli at 9:23 AM on August 4, 2005

Oh wait, they were on unstable land, probably, not concrete. Still, not so easy to land correctly, especially in a panic.
posted by agregoli at 9:24 AM on August 4, 2005

Metafilter: second guessing terrified survivors, one passenger at a time.

Metafilter: We'll climb over the seats if we have to.

Metafilter: unafraid of creating self-referential taglines
posted by craniac at 5:28 PM on August 4, 2005

Well put, Craniac. Thank you.
posted by raider at 9:18 PM on August 5, 2005

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