I stood waiting to check in my luggage, an earsplitting blast exploded
behind me; a huge pall of smoke billowed upwards and outwards, turning
the air black. Shrapnel, hot and sharp, pebble-dashed everyone.
There was a
second or two of stunned stillness, then a man shouted ‘Get
down!’ and I crouched behind the check-in desk.
were rooted to the spot and others lost control – one woman ran
round and round in circles screaming, each loop taking her no nearer
to an exit and no closer to safety. Others stampeded through the
glass windows lining the departure lounge, cutting their legs, arms
So, what was
it that made us react so differently to that bomb in a Spanish airport?
As a new book on the science of survival reveals, how we respond
to an emergency depends on how our brains are wired.
In the immediate
aftermath, everyone is initially dumbfounded and inert. People then
immediately divide into three groups, says Ben Sherwood, author
This has been
called the 10-80-10 theory of survival: in a disaster, 10 per cent
of people pull themselves together quickly; the majority, 80 per
cent, remain stunned and bewildered, while 10 per cent simply freak
out. What I saw at the airport was a classic scenario.
10 per cent who pull themselves together who tend to survive. What
differentiates the three groups is the way a specific part of their
brain, the pre-frontal cortex, works in an emergency – the
good news is that we can all learn to think like survivors.
But the mindset
of the other two groups can endanger everyone. In the case of the
U.S. Air Boeing 737 that burst into flames as it collided with another
plane on the runway in 1991, survivors described how two men hindered
the evacuation by fighting (two ‘freakers out’).
A woman next
to one emergency exit froze and was unable to leave her seat, let
alone release the hatch (one of the ‘stunned and bewildered’
80 per cent).
King’s Cross fire, which killed 31 people in 1987, despite
what they were seeing – the crush of people, some in flames – several
commuters refused to be swayed from their routine and walked into
When a British
Airtours plane caught fire at Manchester airport in 1985, killing
55 people, some passengers tried to retrieve luggage.
after disaster, people behave in ways that not only do not assist
their survival, but actually hasten their deaths.
aim is to explain why this happens. Why, when I was hiding, alert
to the possibility of further danger, was the woman in the Spanish
airport running in circles?
to scientists, doctors and geneticists, as well as the world-renowned
survival psychologist Dr John Leach (a veteran of the King’s
Cross disaster), to find out – and discovered it’s all down
to the prefrontal cortex.