Review – Horizon: How To Survive A Disaster


Last night’s edition of Horizon – How To Survive A Disaster – was Horizon at its best; scientific data delivered in an interesting and ‘easy’ way and this particular one made us viewers stare in the face the fact that all those things we just assume will never happen to us actually just might. And what’s more, it gave us a few clues on how to survive if and when it does.

From plane crashes, boats sinking and car crashes to which surfaces are more likely to cause you to fall to your death, the broad spectrum of grim ways to die – many of which are quite possibly avoidable – were covered with advice from experts on what to do if any of these things should happen to us….

There was Ed, who every time he goes anywhere carries a smoke hood and if he checks into an hotel, he works out the escape route in case it’s needed. Yes, maybe it seems like he’s just paranoid and probably a lot of people think he’s nuttier than squirrel poo but the fact is, in a hotel fire, that guy will get out and those who aren’t as clued up, may not.

Horizon Ed

Ed is in fact Professor Ed Galea, an expert in disaster survival and his analysis of the evacuation of the World Trade Center on September 11th found that many people took a surprisingly long time to leave their desks.

The average time it took people to react to the emergency was around 5-8 minutes, but he found some waited up to 40 minutes after the planes hit before leaving, or attempting to. They finished e-mails, filed things away, shut down computers and even went to the toilet before evacuating.

Professor Galea believes many of us underestimate the need to act fast when disaster strikes; “People just don’t appreciate that in these situations every second can mean the difference between life and death”.

The programme went into great depth about the psychology of human reaction to disaster and sudden life or death situations and we heard how in the terrible Manchester plane crash of 1985, many people died simply because their terror and cluelessness about what to do immobilised them. More worryingly though, many died simply because they failed to appreciate the enormity of what was happening.

In his analysis of this disaster – in which 55 people died, many of them needlessly – survival psychologist Dr John Leach found that some passengers stopped to take luggage out of the overhead bins rather than escape from the aircraft. And others, as I said, were unable to do anything at all, frozen in their seats until they were engulfed in flames.

Similarly with regard to the sinking of the ferry Estonia, those who survived – and they were few compared to the number of passengers and crew who died – did so because they were calm and had what was described by the experts as “tunnel vision” vis-à-vis their own survival; they didn’t stand around wondering what to do and waiting for others to save them, they simply allowed their brains to go into what the same experts described as “a higher gear” and because they did so, they lived.

“A lot of people assume in an emergency situation that their thinking, their perception, the way their mind works is all going to stay the same. And that’s not the case, it changes” said Professor Andrew Silke of the University of East London.

One of the survivors of the Estonia disaster recalled clearly how, while he was working out an escape route, he witnessed others who had the same options he did to escape, simply standing, as if rooted to the spot. They were among the many hundreds who died.

Here’s a clip of footage from the actual rescue of the sadly few survivors of that terrible event…

We heard too how time perception and reality becomes altered in a life and death situation and one survivor of the Sioux City plane crash talked about how she had little recollection of the events except that they “seemed to go on forever” and the events she did recall were in fact incorrect.

For instance, she did not recall being upside down and in fact argued that she hadn’t been, but as this was the position the plane came to rest in, she clearly was, but she was so convinced of the reliability of her recollections, it took photographic evidence from one of the firefighters who’d been at the scene to convince her she was wrong.

Here’s a clip from footage of that terrible plane crash…

The terrible events of July 7th on the London underground were discussed too and one of the survivors recounted her experience of the event in which all the flesh from one of her legs was simply blown off. She survived by fashioning a tourniquet out of her belt and by not one believing she was going to die. She was clearly a very confident and self-assured lady and that, according to Professor Silke, is a key element in who lives and who dies in such situations.

Professor Andrew Silke

Professor Andrew Silke

“Having the confidence to act is something many survivors have in common” he said, adding, “And anything we can do to prepare, will also help boost our confidence.

“We have cases where you have a weaker, slower, less intelligent person survives while right beside them you have a smarter stronger faster person who doesn’t. And the difference you find is that the person who survived, their self-confidence was higher.”

Horizon crash test dummies

Another fascinating part of the documentary was a look at the evolution of car safety which has been being tested since the sixties. Tests were initially carried out on cadavers which had been “donated to medical research” and thus the experts were able to figure out what car crashes of varying types do to the human body.

However, as useful as that was, dead bodies are of course inanimate objects so the expert leading this research knew that a live human was required to undergo these tests in order to fully understand the true impact of a variety of car crash situations, so he himself – bravely or crazily – became a ‘crash test dummy’. He was subjected to impacts that varied in force and circumstance and the data that he and his team provided has been invaluable in making our cars safer to be in today.

The entire programme really was totally fascinating and the hour that it was on flew by! We’d all like to think that in a crisis, we’d be calm, level headed and know exactly what to do but the evidence of decades of research indicates otherwise, so perhaps Ed and his smoke hood and elaborate safety measures have validity after all…

Lynn is an editor and writer here at Unreality TV and is trained psychotherapist and the author of two books. She's addicted to soaps, period drama and reality TV shows such as X Factor, I'm A Celeb and Big Brother.