“I’ll never forget the sound. The sound of metal crunching,” says George Larson, a passenger on Indian Airlines Flight 440 from Chennai (Madras) to New Delhi in 1973. It was 22:30 – pitch black outside. A storm was raging, and the plane was flying low.
The rear end slammed into the ground first. Larson was thrown from his seat. Meanwhile, the plane kept moving. Electric cables sparked and fellow passengers screamed as the fuselage began to split in half.
The next thing Larson knew he was awake, lying on his back on some wreckage. He tried to move his legs, but he was stuck. Soon there was an explosion as the heat ignited fuel tanks by the wings.
As debris rained down all around him, Larson realised he’d have to save himself. With one last breath – “it seared my lungs, the air was so hot” – he pushed off the wreckage and rolled down onto the ground. Then he clawed his way to safety. Of 65 passengers and crew on board, Larson was one of just 17 survivors.
Larson was actually extraordinarily lucky. A few minutes earlier, he had done something ill-advised. He was sitting on the back row, chatting to the flight attendant next to him. Though the seat belt signs were on, he undid his. “No rhyme, no reason, I just did,” he says. The majority of people who unbuckle before a plane crash don’t survive.
However, after the crash, Larson also had the quick thinking and grit to claw himself to safety before the fire spread.
Surprisingly, plenty of other people in deadly scenarios don’t act fast enough to save their own lives. From arguing over small change while a ship sinks into stormy water, to standing idly on the beach as a tsunami approaches, psychologists have known for years that people make self-destructive decisions under pressure. Though news reports tend to focus on miraculous survival, if people escape with their lives it’s often despite their actions – not because of them.
“Survival training isn’t so much about training people what to do – you’re mostly training them not to do certain things that they would normally think to do,” says John Leach, a psychologist at the University of Portsmouth who survived the King’s Cross fire disaster in 1987. He estimates that in a crisis, 80-90% of people respond inappropriately.
Footage of the Japanese earthquake in 2011 showed people risking their lives while rushing to save bottles of alcohol from smashing in a supermarket. And when a plane caught fire at an airport in Denver earlier this year, evacuating passengers lingered by the plane to watch the flames and take selfies.
Intelligence doesn’t come into it – the brain fog that descends in emergency situations is reassuringly even-handed. Back in 2001, a lecturer at the University of Cambridge was kayaking in the rough seas off the Isle of Wight when he capsized.
Though he had a mobile phone on board, he clung helplessly to the upside-down boat for more than 20 minutes before he remembered. When he finally retrieved it, first he called his sister in Cambridge – then his father who was more than 5,000km (3,436 miles) away in Dubai. He was eventually rescued when his clear-headed relatives alerted the Coast Guard.
So, if faced with a life-threatening scenario, what behaviours should you do your best to avoid?