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The Unthinkable
Cover of The Unthinkable
The Unthinkable
Who Survives When Disaster Strikes--and Why
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–anything we've ever learned, thought, or dreamed of–ultimately 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–one of the biggest explosions before the invention of the atomic bomb–to 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.
From the Hardcover edition.
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–anything we've ever learned, thought, or dreamed of–ultimately 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–one of the biggest explosions before the invention of the atomic bomb–to 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.
From the Hardcover edition.
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    Chapter 1
    Delay: Procrastinating in Tower 1


    On February 26, 1993, when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center for the first time, Elia Zedeno was in an express elevator carrying a slice of Sbarro's pizza. She had taken a new temporary worker to the food court to show him around, and they were on their way back to their desks. When the bomb exploded, they heard a loud pop and the elevator stopped and began to descend. Then it stopped for good, trapping her and five other people. Smoke began to slowly coil in from below. Two men grappled with the door. A woman dropped to her knees and started praying, making Zedeno nervous. Then one of the men calmly directed everyone to get low and cover their faces. They all did as they were told.

    Zedeno concentrated on keeping her breathing shallow and slow. But the more she tried to calm down, the harder her heart seemed to pound. Then they heard a man screaming in the elevator next to them. "I'm burning up!" he yelled as he banged on the metal box around him. But soon he was quiet. "I remember thinking, 'We're going to be next,'" Zedeno says. She visualized rescue workers finding them dead inside the elevator later. Just then, she thought she would lunge for the doors and start banging herself. But before she could, the temp had started doing it for her. He was screaming and banging. So Zedeno took charge of quieting him down. "Robert, calm down. You're going to inhale too much smoke," she told him. He started to cough and returned to the floor.

    It was around then that Zedeno was filled with a wave of peace, inexplicably. "Regardless of the outcome, I knew everything was going to be OK," she remembers. "My breath became effortless. My mind no longer wandered. Suddenly, I wasn't there anymore. I was just watching. I could see the people lying in the elevator. The sounds were far away, and I was just hovering. I had no emotions."

    When they'd been in the elevator for about an hour, a firefighter managed to rip open the door and pull them out. It turned out the car had returned to the lobby level, and that's where they'd been all along. Zedeno could not see the face of the firefighter who pulled her out; the smoke was too thick. She did as he instructed, grabbing onto a rope and following it out through the lobby and out the doors. She was stunned by the darkness in the lobby and the emptiness outside. She thought that once she had made it out of her own private catastrophe, everything would be normal, bustling and bright. She never imagined that a place could look so different.

    In the basement below, a Ryder truck full of eleven hundred pounds of explosives had left a crater five stories deep. Six people had died. It was the largest full-building evacuation in U.S. history, and nothing had gone the way it was supposed to go. Smoke purled up the stairways. The power failed, rendering the emergency communications system useless and the stairways dark. People moved extraordinarily slowly. Ten hours after the explosion, firefighters were still finding people who had not yet evacuated in their offices.

    After the bombing, glow-in-the-dark tape and backup power generators were installed in the Trade Center. Both helped save lives eight years later. But still no one fully answered the fundamental question: why did people move so slowly? And what did it mean about all of our assumptions about skyscrapers--and the Trade Center in particular? The 1993 bombing became a story about terrorism, as would the attacks on the same buildings eight years later, and rightly so. But they were also stories of procrastination and denial, the first phase of the human disaster experience.

    A few days...
About the Author-
  • A senior writer for Time magazine, Amanda Ripley has been extensively involved in the magazine's "Person of the Year" cover stories and now writes about homeland security and risk in Washington, D.C. Her disaster reporting recently helped Time win two National Magazine Awards. For more information about Amanda and this book, go to www.TheUnthinkable.com.
Reviews-
  • AudioFile Magazine If you encounter a fire, explosion, plane crash, or terrorist attack, your chances of survival might depend on how your brain reacts or what preparations you make. Using major disasters such as 9/11, Haj stampedes, and a club fire in Kentucky as examples, Ripley examines the psychology of individuals and groups confronted with life-or-death situations. Kirsten Potter's narration is straightforward and clear. She emphasizes important words with short pauses and injects a bit of irony here and there. Above all, she catches Ripley's obvious enthusiasm for her subject. The author put herself into simulated disaster situations; Potter does likewise for listeners. J.B.G. (c) AudioFile 2008, Portland, Maine
  • The New York Times

    "A fascinating and useful new book."

  • Bloomberg News "Ripley is a voyeur on a mission...Her conviction: We'd all stand a better chance of surviving a disaster if we understood what happens to our little gray cells when things get ugly....Spiced with surprising factoids, this book might save your life one day."
  • O, The Oprah Magazine "Engrossing and lucid...An absorbing study of the psychology and physiology of panic, heroism, and trauma...Facing the truth about the human capacity for risk and disaster turns out to be a lot less scary than staying in the dark."
  • Rob Hardy, The Commercial Dispatch "This is a book with a purpose, meant to change things."
  • --Gavin de Becker, author of the New York Times bestseller The Gift of Fear "Amanda Ripley takes us on a sometimes stunning, sometimes sobering journey through disaster, using great stories and respected science to show why some prevail and others do not. The Unthinkable isn't merely a book about disaster; it's a book about survival -- maybe yours."
  • Robert M. Sapolsky, John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Professor of Biological Sciences and Professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences at Stanford University "With The Unthinkable, Amanda Ripley succeeds in two different ways. First, she covers, with great clarity and accuracy, the science of how the body and mind respond to crisis. In the process, she prescribes certain actions that will increase the chances of surviving a disaster. But it's the second aspect, the stories, that makes the book so compelling. These tales leave your viscera enflamed because they compel two questions: 'What would it feel like to go through that?' and 'Would I do the right thing and survive?' This is an irresistible book."
  • Nando Parrado, New York Times bestselling author of Miracle in the Andes "The Unthinkable is the most magnificent account of a survivor's mind that I have ever read. It has helped me know and accept some of my reactions during my 72 day ordeal in the Andes. I can now understand how fear motivated me, and how denial also played a part. This book will help those who've never faced disaster to understand their own behavior and be prepared should their luck run out one day."
  • Bruce Henderson, New York Times bestselling author of Down to the Sea and True North "The Unthinkable reveals why, under the same circumstances, some people caught up in a disaster survive and others do not. Why some are hopelessly immobilized by fear and crippled by panic, and others are filled with strength, endurance, reactions and the other intrinsic stuff of which Homeric heroes are made. How can we ensure which we will be? In her well-crafted prose, Amanda Ripley shows us all how to prepare to meet danger and increase our chances of surviving the unthinkable."
  • Gregg Olsen, New York Times bestselling author of The Deep Dark: Disaster and Redemption in America's Richest Silver Mine "When a disaster occurs we invariably learn the "what" of the event -- how many died, how many survived. Amanda Ripley's riveting The Unthinkable provides genuine insight into the "why" behind the numbers. This remarkable book will not only change your life, it could very well save it."
  • --Walter Isaacson, author of the New York Times bestsellers Einstein: His Life and Universe and Benjamin Franklin: A Life, and Vice-Chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority "Ever fantasize about what you would do in a disaster? How would you survive? How would you behave? After interviewing survivors of the World Trade Center attack, Amanda Ripley sifted through amazing tales of survivors from other disasters and mined various sociological, psychological, and neurological studies. Her insights are absolutely fascinating, and they could come in handy one day."
  • --David Ropeik, author of Risk!: A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You "Rich in information about the subconscious ways we face danger. In the event that someday you face a sudden life or death situation, reading this book will increase the odds that the outcome will be life."
  • --Stephen Flynn, Senior Fellow for National Security Studies, Council on Foreign Relations, and author of The Edge of Disaster: Rebuilding a Resilient Nation "Reading The Unthinkable will be life-changing. We live in an age of anxiety that has too many of us rocked back on our heels. Once you've feasted on the rich insights and wisdom of this remarkable book, you'll be standing tall again. While our politicians and media have been keen to exploit and fan our worst fears, Amanda Ripley makes clear that individually and collectively we can meet head-on the hazards that periodically befall us. We need not be afraid!"
  • --Michael Tougias, author of Fatal Forecast: An Icredible True Tale of Disaster and Survival at Sea "The Unthinkable is a fascinating, in-depth look at human behavior under extreme pressure. Its gut-wrenching stories span the full spectrum of action under duress, from panic to heroism. Not only is this book fast-paced and en
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Who Survives When Disaster Strikes--and Why
Amanda Ripley
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