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The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why
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It lurks in the corner of our imagination, almost beyond our ability to see it: the possibility that a tear in the fabric of life could open up without warning, upending a house, a skyscraper, or a civilization.

Today, nine out of ten Americans live in places at significant risk of earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, terrorism, or other disasters. Tomorrow, some of us will have to make split-second choices to save ourselves and our families. How will we react? What will it feel like? Will we be heroes or victims? Will our upbringing, our gender, our personality¨Canything we¡¯ve ever learned, thought, or dreamed of¨Cultimately matter?
Amanda Ripley, an award-winning journalist for Time magazine who has covered some of the most devastating disasters of our age, set out to discover what lies beyond fear and speculation. In this magnificent work of investigative journalism, Ripley retraces the human response to some of history¡¯s epic disasters, from the explosion of the Mont Blanc munitions ship in 1917¨Cone of the biggest explosions before the invention of the atomic bomb¨Cto a plane crash in England in 1985 that mystified investigators for years, to the journeys of the 15,000 people who found their way out of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Then, to understand the science behind the stories, Ripley turns to leading brain scientists, trauma psychologists, and other disaster experts, formal and informal, from a Holocaust survivor who studies heroism to a master gunfighter who learned to overcome the effects of extreme fear.

Finally, Ripley steps into the dark corners of her own imagination, having her brain examined by military researchers and experiencing through realistic simulations what it might be like to survive a plane crash into the ocean or to escape a raging fire.
Ripley comes back with precious wisdom about the surprising humanity of crowds, the elegance of the brain¡¯s fear circuits, and the stunning inadequacy of many of our evolutionary responses. Most unexpectedly, she discovers the brain¡¯s ability to do much, much better, with just a little help.

The Unthinkable escorts us into the bleakest regions of our nightmares, flicks on a flashlight, and takes a steady look around. Then it leads us home, smarter and stronger than we were before.

Customer Reviews:

  • What If????
    Everyone does it. Bored at work, staring out a window. Or late at night, unable to sleep. The "what if" game.What if the unthinkable thing ever happened, what would you do? Could you handle it? Would you survive?

    THE UNTHINKABLE by Amanda Ripley is based on just this intriguing premise and she takes us into the world of several different heroes and heroines who, yes, they did just that. They survived. But more than that, Ms. Ripley slips into analytical mode to help us understand the reasons behind their sudden bursts of courage, often breaking free of an otherwise ordinarily unremarkable normal life.

    THE UNTHINKABLE was an engrossing read, one that I would recommend for many reasons. Entertainment, of course. Information, always a plus. But more importantly, it gave me a sense of awareness. Of how sudden all things precious can be plucked away from us and while we can never truly plan for that, a sense of awareness is always a valuable thing, not to be taken for granted.

    As any student of history would sadly agree. ...more info
  • Become Aware
    Excellent book, well worth the read. Sure the stories are interesting and if that were the only thing this book had to offer it would still be a great book. What gives it five stars is the way it weaves in practical solutions that you can practice today and they are not done in 1950's or any sort of cheesy 80's style. She puts the story there and has practical solutions without going over the top. Sure you can think you are prepared but why do you think sports professionals practice over and over because in the end you want to the body to react without the mind getting in the way. Get the book and pass it around to those you care about....more info
  • Surviving the Unthinkable: Ripley tells us who and how, and sometimes why
    Fascinating study of the reactions of victims and survivors of disaster--and why people fall into each category. This book may not save your life in a specific disaster (the practical instructions are limited to such basics as taking the stairs from your office on occasion to be aware of the routes), but it will provide an afternoon's worth of thought-provoking reading while you are waiting for the next one to hit.

    Ripley (a Time magazine reporter) knows how to blend fact and personal interest components into a readable account. She identifies a common sequence of reactions of all disaster victims and survivors: Denial, Deliberation, and the Decisive Moment. Within each step of the sequence there are variations in the way people react that contribute to their ability or failure to survive.

    Central to the book are accounts of the World Trade Center attacks (both 9/11 and the earlier 1993 basement bombing) and Hurricane Katrina, the most highly-publicised (and American) disasters of recent times, but she also uses examples from other types of disasters like airplane accidents, fires, shooting rampages, and hostage situations from a broad range of places and times.

    Ripley mixes personal interviews with official post-mortem records of the disasters and controlled studies and experiments that aim to understand and predict how people will react in disaster situations, and suggest how they should. Again, these suggestions are of more theoretical than practical interest, but you will find yourself reading this straight through to the end like the best fictional thriller....more info
  • Fascinating, informative and potentially life-saving
    After reading this book, not only will you listen to safety briefings on aircraft and evacuate the building when your company has a fire-drill, but you'll walk down the stairs from your room the first night in a new hotel, take the stairs once a week at your office and do a skid-pan session each year. Such simple things could save your life and the lives of people around you.

    This book is divided into three main sections covering topics such as how people react to disasters and why some people survive when others don't, describing instincts that we have evolved over millennia that may unfortunately not be the right instincts for a modern world, how being in a group affects survival, what you can do to improve your chances etc. It almost apologetically covers the subjects of panic and heroism, apologetically as this book tries to present facts without sensationalising them.

    All the way through, this book gives examples of disasters where each type of behaviour has been observed, the vast majority recent enough for me to remember seeing the news items at the time. Ms. Ripley also provides good notes and references to related materials - I'll certainly be following a few of them, including reading more about Rick Rescorla who helped save so many lives on 9/11.

    That so many events are so recent helps make this book fascinating reading. Reading it could change your behaviour and could save your life.

    ...more info
  • Not impressed
    I have to go against the flow of the other reviews. I found the survival stories interesting but they made up only a small portion of the book. What made up the majority of the book? It was an explanation of how Evolution and Natural selection has "hard wired" us to behave. Why do people some people freeze? Some panic? Some act polite and calm? Some act heroically? It all has an explanation in Natural selection. It really got old by the end of the book. The chapter on Heroes was the worst. Why do heroes do what they do? It's because they want to make sure that their genes are preserved and everyone knows that heroes get the girls (I am not kidding this is almost verbatim). And oh yeah if they die their genes are still preserved because their relatives are treated with the respect that is due someone who is related to a HERO. So the farmer's wife who takes in and hides a naked Jewish child that the Nazi's are pursuing (this is one of the story's in the book) and puts her own family at risk is only doing it because she wants to preserve her genes. Makes sense right??? The idea of a moral compass, guilt or having a conscience never is discussed by the author and in fact to her seems... well "unthinkable".

    ...more info
  • She keeps talking about evolution.....
    The author keeps getting stuck in evolutionary history and whenever I read the word, my brain shuts off. "Our evolutionary (fill in the blank) takes over and...."

    If I 'evolved' from the ocean or wherever, why is it I don't feel comfortable swimming? Unfortunately, I didn't see that she was a New York Times Columnist until I had purchased the book. That about ruined it for me. It also explained her obsession with evolution.

    By that time, I'd also ordered the book for my daughter because she'd been involved in a plane incident a few days earlier. The only thing I can see that 'helps' is the combat breathing part. Other than that, it's not worth the price. If you have to read it, go to the libary.

    ...more info
  • Slight content, more about interviews than the topic
    After reading the related Time magazine article "How to Survive a Disaster" (May 29/June 9, 2008), I read this book with great anticipation, only to be sorely disappointed. I found too little additional information in the book to warrant recommending reading it instead of, much less in addition to, the article.

    I speculate that many of the glowing reviews here are more reactions to the topic of disasters being so interesting rather than this being a good book about that topic.

    If you are looking for "actionable" information, there is little more than what you will find in run-of-the-mill disaster preparedness pamphlets.

    Neither can I recommend the book for "motivation" or "inspiration": The author's meandering style (repeated digressions, reiterations, irrelevancies,...) drains the narrative force from the events and the interviewees' experiences -- I repeatedly stopped reading in the middle of an account (I normally read several chapters at a time). However, if you read a few pages at a time, this may not register.

    Rather than a book on the topic, it is a more of an account of a series of the interviews on this topic, for example, describing the room in which an interview was conducted decades after the event. Although focusing on a few participants in an event is often used to provide the skeleton on which to build, this book doesn't flesh out the skeleton with the expected related examples, analysis and synthesis. Interesting and relevant topics are mentioned only in passing instead of being explored and tied into the larger narrative. My impression is that the author is much more interested in talking to people about the topic than in the topic itself.

    Even major topics seem to be _unnecessarily_ sparse and fragmentary. For example, if you have read/watched reports on the evacuation of the World Trade Center (on 9/11), you may be perplexed by why basic information that supports/enhances the book's points is not even mentioned. I was repeatedly frustrated by how much space the book took to present so little.

    A friend who is less goal-directed than me said that, although the content was "slight," the book was "generally entertaining" with sections that were "flat." She too was very disappointed by the many unexplored topics and missed opportunities. (She and I participate in a citizens' group promoting the role of residents in our city's disaster plans and prep)

    If you are involved in disaster preparations, the alluded-to topics might help you organize and articulate your experiences and thoughts by triggering memories in a useful way. If you are newly interested, these brief mentions might prime you to better recognize and comprehend these topics in future readings and discussions. Despite this, it is impossible for me to recommend a book for what it skips past.

    Comments on chapters:

    Risk: I have read many good introductions on how people assess risk. With so many examples and templates available, I was surprised that the chapter here was poorly rendered and missing so much.

    Panic: If you--like me--deal with officials who (mistakenly) believe that widespread panic is likely to occur in most disasters, then you may find the chapter on panic useful. Not because it's particularly good, but because panic is so poorly treated in so much of the accessible literature (typically little more than "panic is rare"). I was disappointed that the book presents stampedes/crushes as instances of panic. In many cases, the individuals seem to be acting rationally (irrational action is the core of "panic") based upon their local circumstances, unaware of the global situation and how the cumulative effects of those local actions are harmful.

    Errata: pg 219: A referenced website has moved. The domain for "ReallyReady" no longer exists but its content can be accessed at the FAS site in subdirectory "reallyready" (Can't be specific: Amazon prohibits external URLs in reviews for legitimate security reasons).

    ...more info
  • "I'm A Survivor; I Hope You're A Survivor Too."
    "The Unthinkable" by Amanda Ripley is a fascinating study of human behavior in disasters with an applied psychology bent. As a long time safety professional, largely in the aviation industry, I appreciated her candor and insights into human reactions during time-critical situations. She calls on accidents and incidents from every walk of life, from aircraft accidents and fires, to hostage situations and terrorism.

    The book thematically explores what she chooses to term the "survival arc," an arc consisting of denial, deliberation, and the decisive moment. In my studies of aviation incidents, I can attest to the general applicability of this model to almost every accident or incident, but had never seen it so well analyzed in such numerous differing examples.

    The book opens with the explosion of the "Mont Blanc" in Halifax, and subsequently uses other examples such as the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire (p.108,) one of the best examples I have ever seen of human behavior and the nature of panic in crowds. One of the strengths of the book is Ripley's excellent discussion of panic, paralysis, and heroic responses. Sometimes all three behaviors can be seen in a single accident, and diverse examples of all three are provided.

    Ripley discusses the importance of always making an emergency plan (p.183,) which she emphasized using the example of the Air Florida 737 crash in the Potomac river. Ripley also discusses several barriers to better preparedness, including the huge fear of legal liability (p.211) that is especially rampant in America today.

    The book is geared to the non-specialist and is accessible to anyone with an interest in the subject. I recommend a thorough reading of the notes and selected bibliography sections, as much further excellent reading is revealed and discussed there. While many of the concepts that Ripley discusses are common sense, some are not widely known outside of safety circles, and I recommend this book to both safety specialists and people interested in improving their odds of survival in a sudden catastrophe.

    I think that Ripley has done the world a great service by writing such an accessible, interesting, informative, and well-illustrated book on such a vital topic, and I recommend it highly to everyone....more info
  • Disasters and sociology
    This was the first in-depth report of the human psyche during and following disasters. I appreciated the author's study and found it refreshing as it showed the resilience and altruistic side of human nature in the midst of crisis....more info
  • In Depth Reporting at its Best
    Reading this book could save your life.

    Amanda Ripley analyzes a variety of disasters with a four-pronged approach. She discusses how different people reacted to the event, how evolution has shaped our innate responses, what scientists have learned about survival mechanisms, and how to be a survivor yourself. ...more info
  • Worth the read

    About: How folks behave in disasters. Organized into the three phases of human behavior in a disaster: denial, deliberation and the decisive moment, Ripley examines disasters such as 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the 2004 tsunami, ship wrecks and plane crashes as well as conducts interviews with survivors and experts in order to determine who does what and why when disaster strikes.

    Neat Things I Learned:

    * Alzheimer's disease kills more people than fire

    * You are more likely to die from food poisoning than fire

    * The most common human reaction to a disaster is to do nothing

    * You are two times as likely to kill yourself than to be killed by somebody else

    * 90% of drivers think they are better drivers than the average person

    * If it is sunny in the morning, it is likely that stocks will go up that day

    * Even when told not to, about half of air passengers try to take their carry-on bags with them in an evacuation

    * Sharks kill about 6 people a year. People kill 26 to 73 million sharks a year

    * Teenagers taught to drive by their parents as opposed to a professional have twice as great a chance of getting into a serious accident

    * Empathy and a close relationship with parents appear to be predictors in those who exhibit heroic behavior

    Pros: Interesting, moves along quickly, well-written. There's some quality advice here such as don't rely on news media to tell you what you should worry about; it's the common stuff that doesn't get reported on that you should be concerned with (like car accidents) and practice, practice, practice are the three best ways to know what you should do in a disaster.

    Cons: While there's a notes section and selected bibliography, no in-text citations are provided. Pictures section in the middle seems out of place in a book such as this. "Resilience" Is defined in a note, as opposed to in the text, where I think it would have been a better fit....more info
  • Great book in great condition
    The product and the condition of the book were exactly what I was looking for. I was disappointed in the time it took to receive the book. I am unsure of what the hold up was in delivery....more info
  • The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes
    The book was very informative on what people thought as they moved through their immediate thoughts they had from the denial, to stopping to pick up personal items, and moving to joining a crowd for decision making on what to do. ...more info
  • "The Unthinkable" - A must read!
    "The Unthinkable" logically deconstructs disasters and examines who survives and who doesn't. It provides a fantastic framework for examining risks in your life, and thinking about how best to surive these risks. It is not a doomsday book about stockpiling food in your basement bunker, but instead deals with a way to think about these situations beforehand, so that you will be better mentally prepared.

    The book is well-written, and I had trouble putting it down. My wife is currently reading it, and enjoying it also. After reading this book I believe I will react differently if I am ever faced with a looming disaster scenario. I believe that everyone should read this book, and I am giving to my parents to read next....more info
  • Meet Your Disaster Persona
    Journalist Amanda Ripley takes us to ground zero of some of the worst disasters in recent history in a book that focuses on the response of the human brain.

    The book is generally structured in stages of reaction that are reminiscent of the well-known stages of grieving that psychologists have used to describe the human psyche's reaction to the loss of a loved one.

    In responding to disaster, Ripley organizes the human response into stages of denial, deliberation, and decision/action.

    Calling on interviews with survivors from dozens of disasters ranging from plane crashes to hurricanes to terrorism, Ripley places the reader in the mind of the victim. She examines the physiological effects of fear, and the social interactions of groups placed under stress.

    The data yields some surprising results: The tendency to delay action in the face of danger is one. Another is the surprising lack of panic in many situations where it would be expected.

    Along the way, Ripley's narrative touches on risk assessment (why we don't react with as much fear to the things that are most likely to kill us), heroism, and the role of "milling" and denial behaviors.

    She interviews people who have voluntarily placed themselves in dangerous situations, and she discusses differences in brain chemistry found in special forces soldier.

    All of this is done while presenting a fascinating array of real-life characters in a relentless narrative of some truly horrific situations. Readers may find some of the accounts disturbing. Some of these situations are difficult to confront.

    But Ripley makes the point that we are all better off taking some time to get to know our "disaster persona" now, than to be introduced to them for the first time in the midst of a real emergency.

    This book is not a survival manual. While there are some practical bits of advice in here (did you know that your odds of surviving a plane crash are siginficantly improved by as simple an action as reading the plane's safety information card?), readers looking for a step-by-step disaster plan will have to look elsewhere.

    Instead, this book provides fodder for thought. It challenges the readers to place themselves into the minds of the victims and to ask the hard questions about how they would react. And by asking those questions, readers may become better prepared to be survivors when it counts....more info
  • I could see myself surviving
    At first, I was not sure about the material in this book, and even after the first few pages I felt it would be better to read it only during the full light of day, but as I neared the midpoint I found myself compelled to keep reading even after the sun went down.

    I would encourage you to consider adding this book to your personal reading list and, depending on your leadership role, this may be a good reference for you and your team. The Unthinkable gives a non emotional, nonfiction look at what happens to ordinary people when the circumstances become extraordinary. Her best examples come directly from the headlines; 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the Virginia Tech shooting.

    Many disasters are unpredictable. The information in this book will provide you with one good reason after another how you can prepare for the disaster that may never come - prepare as an individual, as a parent, as a member of the community.

    My take away:
    * Have a plan and test it (more than once).
    * Don't assume that the abilities of police, fire and rescue will be better than that of an average-Joe in a true disaster. When seconds count, remember that Joe may be standing next to you while the fire department could be minutes away.

    As you read The Unthinkable you will want to see yourself in the role Ms. Ripley describes as one who will survive, however there is more than one role played as a disaster unfolds. How you react and the experiences you have had in the past may help shape how you can respond to any disaster you may potentially face in the future. Having an awareness of your physical, emotional, and mental condition and a basis for understanding how those around you may be reacting could define your ultimate role.
    ...more info
  • The Unthinkable made Thinkable
    Amanda Ripley's "The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Srikes and Why," is a tale told that might just keep you alive. The "3-D's" (Denial, Deliberation and Decisive Moment) provide structure for her narrative. These are the stages that human beings typically pass through when some catastrophic event actually occurs. I would have preferred that Decisive Moment be called simply "Decision," but that is a minor point.

    Although it sounds simple and corny, being prepared really does improve one's odds of survival. To have thought about what might happen when a disaster strikes, to have a plan, to have practiced the plan are the way-steps to putting yourself into survivor mode.

    Ripley takes the reader through a wide variety of modern disasters and catastrophic events. The bombing of the World Trade Center, the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center, the Air Florida crash, the London subway attack, earthquakes, fires, the Virginia Tech shootings, Hurricane Katrina to name a few.

    For some, the fickle finger of fate will mean instant death without any opportunity for action or escape. However, for most people there are decisions to be made and actions to be taken which can dramatically improve one's ability to survive death or serious injury. Personality traits factor in, even one's body type plays a role, along with an understanding of human evolutionary history are some of the ingredients in the survival stewpot. But any person can learn, prepare for and practice steps that will improve one's own odds of survival.

    There is a fresh air of optimism to Ripley's narrative, which I really like. It is not fantasy optimism. The practical and simple things that one can learn and the actions one can plan for in a disaster situation are key ingredients in the survival recipe. Except for an unlucky few, most of us still have opportunites and choices when the unthinkable does happen. ...more info
  • Worth Your Time
    After 9/11, but especially after Katrina, I found myself thinking more about disaster readiness. I even enacted a few plans.

    Then, non-disaster life took over.

    As a psychologist I'm fascinated by the human capacity to be eternally optimistic. Optimism has great survival benefit, but a failure to look darkness in the face can have serious consequences.

    THE UNTHINKABLE has re-engaged me. My wife and I've talked about how to get out of our 3rd-story attic bedroom in the even of a fire. I've checked and rechecked the batteries in our fire alarms.

    THE UNTHINKABLE does a great job of mapping typical responses to a disaster. The "do nothing" or "I'll just mill about" response certainly got my attention. Short of experiencing a mock disaster, I suppose the best thing to do is be as mentally prepared as possible. If you're in a disaster and have the presence of mind to get out and see folks doing nothing? YELL at them! Shock them out of their (survival-based) stupor and SHOUT clear, brief instructions. Good advice.

    THE UNTHINKABLE also does a good job of putting the onus for preparedness on our shoulders. Building owners, airlines, governments aren't going to do it for all sorts of not-too-well-thought-through reasons. Part of preparedness is reading books like THE UNTHINKABLE. And if Steven Pinker, the MIT cognitive scientist, is right, the rehearsing possibilities in the mind may help with life itself.

    I'm already checking out the EXITs in hotels and office buildings. I'm mentally prepared not only for thick smoke in a fire, but darkness too. I may even yell at someone to get him/her moving rather than be a "nice," encouraging psychologist.

    Recommended. A good read.

    Enjoy and -- be safer.

    Dr. Kirtland Peterson...more info
  • Becoming a survivor instead of a statistic...
    So you find yourself in the midst of a 9/11-type disaster or a natural disaster like an earthquake. Observing from a distance, it's easy to second-guess the decisions of those whose lives are threatened. You think you'd be far more decisive and intelligent. But would you? Amanda Ripley examines that question in her book The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why. It's an excellent read on the different forces at play in disaster scenarios, and how come your "expected" response may not be anywhere close to what you actually end up doing.

    Introduction: "Life Becomes Like Molten Metal"
    Part 1 - Denial: Delay - Procrastinating in Tower 1; Risk - Gambling in New Orleans
    Part 2 - Deliberation: Fear - The Body and Mind of a Hostage; Resilience - Staying Cool in Jerusalem; Groupthink - Role Playing at the Beverly Hills Supper Club Fire
    Part 3 - The Decisive Moment: Panic - A Stampede on Holy Ground; Paralysis - Playing Dead in French Class; Heroism - A Suicide Attempt on the Potomac River
    Conclusion - Making New Instincts
    Author's Note; Notes; Selected Bibliography; Index

    Ripley uses the stories of individual survivors (and a few who didn't make it) to analyze how our minds react to an unexpected traumatic experience. She frames the responses as three phases of something called a Survival Arc, which make up the flow of the book. The denial phase happens immediately after the event occurs. We rationalize away the most logical explanations and attempt to paint the event in terms of what we consider normal. This is why we ignore fire drills and don't exhibit any urgency in the face of impending danger like fire or hurricanes. After denial (assuming that denial doesn't end up killing you), we move into the deliberation phase. We've accepted that things aren't "normal", but we're still not sure what to do about it. Some become docile and follow anyone who seems to have a plan, regardless of how smart or idiotic it may be. Others step out of their assigned roles and become leaders, herding people to safety although it's not their "job". After deliberation comes the decisive moment, the time when you take action and commit to a course of action. Many believe that panic is the most common reaction. But in reality, many groups tend to stay calm for various reasons. In the "hero" category is the person who puts themselves at risk of death to save others, regardless of how hopeless the odds may seem. What's strange is the reason why people would do this. It's not the "I wanted to be a hero" mindset in many cases. Instead, it's the "I couldn't live with myself if I didn't" feeling. Finally, Ripley wraps up the book with examples of how training and teaching can alter the outcome of a disaster, and get people to react in ways that can save their lives with only a few simple changes in thinking.

    This is an excellent book for the times we live in. We go about our lives, expecting everything to be "normal". But there's absolutely no guarantee that your day in the office won't turn into a life-or-death struggle that you are completely unprepared to handle. Just the simple knowledge of these phases can go a long way towards making you aware of your surroundings, as well as giving you the proper understanding of what's happening to others around you. If you take the time to incorporate Ripley's insights into your mental framework, you'll up your odds significantly in terms of being a survivor instead of a statistic.
    ...more info
  • The Unthinkable
    This book is really unthinkable amazing!!!
    It makes you learning so many things on the subject "human behaviour during catastrophes", which you wouldn't expect.
    It's nearly all stories-interesting examples from whom to collect and understand theory.
    I strongly recommend it to anybody interested on the subject....more info
  • Wow
    Such an in-depth study of the human psyche. Great read. I highly recommend this book....more info
  • Life-changing, maybe life-saving book
    This is a truly fascinating topic. The psychology behind how people respond when disaster finds them, makes for some gripping reading. All through the book I found myself pondering how I would respond in a similar situation. I hope I never have to find out, but if I do, I will strive to use some of the valuable insights from Ms. Ripley's book. ...more info