‘Bring out yer dead’

I’m a volunteer Ambulance officer, and my son assures me on the verge of canonization. Oh, it’s not what I do, or that I’m God’s gift to that (I’m not. I’m a very minor and inept cog.  I find the fact that I’m responsible for taking decisions (fast and effectively) that if I have screwed up, I could kill or maim the person I’m trying to save incredibly hard to handle.). No: It’s all the miraculous cures when the death’s-door patient sees who will be driving: “I’m feeling much better! I think I’ll take a little walk.”

Heh. I’ll probably have a terrible accident tomorrow, but oddly, besides reversing my ute into a stump hidden in the tall grass, I haven’t hit anything yet. I used to ride a motorbike with only a front brake. It made me quite observant. And when I’m actually conveying patients I give that task my full concentration, and try not to help them too much to suddenly find religion.

Ahem. I seem to have lost my thread again. Anyway, what I was going to write about was something that came out two of us Ambos talking about very stuff of sf and some fantasy: real disaster. Now, let’s be honest many a writer has never experienced much in the way of disasters. Trust me, this is a good thing, even if it does sometimes make their books irritate the hell out of me. I’ve never been through a major disaster (and I’d like to keep it that way. About 60 injured in bunch was my worst. That was pretty terrible. I can only admire the guys who deal with hundreds or thousands) but I’ve been through a lot more than my fair share of lesser ones – on both sides of the equation (the victim and the rescuer) and a couple of times both. I hasten to assure you that I’m not a jinx (much).

The awkward thing is how badly you remember a lot of it. Seriously, the adrenalin kicks in, and you just do stuff. Well, about 10% of people just do stuff, some of it incredible, some incredibly stupid. The other 90% do freeze and/or panic. Okay maybe I exaggerate a trifle. I’m not much good at most things, but fortunately that also includes panic. I’ve done the wrong thing a few times, but without the panic. I’ll probably master it at precisely the wrong time. That still doesn’t mean I am that good at reconstructing disaster and what happens – besides that people panic. It does mean that when I read SHTF disasters, I often find them throwing me out of the book, without precisely knowing why.

Now, it is perfectly possible that it throws me out simply because of my background. That other people, with the same lack of experience as the writer, think that in a crisis most people do something (besides freeze, panic, or run around like chickens just after having their heads cut off). There is a reason why the military and emergency services practice, practice, practice, practice – because seriously, it’s a lousy time to try and think. Some people do, but most can’t. They (or at least some people) can however go through a pre-thought, pre-practiced routine – whether that’s taking cover and returning fire, or applying pressure to a major bleed, or sounding a fire-alarm. Yeah, I know: all that planning usually goes to shit, because it never happens according to plan. But, speaking personally, that few seconds of practiced, drilled-into-you behavior calms me and helps me to think. Sometimes it’ll be wrong reaction, but generally it saves lives.

So I thought it might be worth trying a bit of this ‘crowd-sourcing’ stuff. Maybe if pool experiences and memories, we’ll get the whole picture. Adrenalin does strange things to me, I don’t even know if they’re normal. Yes, heart rate goes up, mouth dries. Those are common. I also lose all emotion (and normally I’m a big softy. Bawl my eyes out at a funeral) – but I can (and have) dealt with the horrible and tragic with a complete clinical detachment. I know hysterical strength is well reported. It’s very real – I’ve carried twice my body-weight, lifted things I can’t normally move. Pain is another odd one. Unexpected injury can be mind-numbingly sore, robbing you of the capacity for action – expected (or at least possible and known to be) when you’re full of adrenalin – hurts like hell… later.

Under that sort of stress – especially searching or waiting, the jokes are tasteless, crude, and absolutely necessary. Oh and really funny.

What you don’t do (or not me, anyway) is agonize about decisions, or experience a second’s worth of angst. (one of my co-authors –Misty — has people angsting mid crisis. Maybe she does.  It’s so unlike me, it drives me spare)

Later is always hard. The hardest part is remembering it all. I find I get scenes, like snapshots, rather than a whole movie. I replay it a lot. I can’t sleep – even a call-out will have me awake for 4-5 hours. Maybe that’s just me. Sex, if it happens is pretty desperate, urgent, and usually entirely without pre-amble.

So: anything you guys can remember?

The other thing I am very aware of is just how in disaster, people actually show a face that you don’t see in day-to-day life. Some of it… seems a great reason to preserve the human race. And some of it shows what useless assholes some people are (the guy who ran up his wife’s back to get into a tree when they were being chased by a Rhino comes to mind. Photographs of the boot-print on her back were used in the divorce case.)

Other people show sacrifice and kindness and courage so far past any expectation as to leave you wondering if anyone knew that quiet guy who drowned, going back into the water for the fourth flood victim, was really something of a demi-god in disguise. (That’s my only ghost story. I was underwater, bleeding like a stuck pig with several 8 inch cuts down my back from being swept over a rock. I was exsanguinating and drowning. I had already passed trying, and was to all intents and purposes in final stage of drowning, and going to die. Then I saw my brother (who was a 1000 miles away at the time) – with muttonchop sideburns (which he never had). He lifted me and shoved me into the wave that washed me up at my father’s feet, who hauled me up the rocks and emptied water out of me. I kept trying to tell him to get help for my brother. There was no-one else in the water. Years later I had the eerie experience of being shown an old picture of the man who had saved me: my Great Uncle. He’d been dead for seventy years or more, drowned after rescuing three Mosotho women in a flooded river. I’ve never been able to explain that one.)

It’s the one place where I have trouble with the basic building block of good character writing – people do not do what you expect, so it is hard to foreshadow. Look, I cheat. I do foreshadow it, even if by putting it in in lesser incidents – so it is not so implausible when it happens. But yes, disaster: when the veneer of human society is stripped off, and you see the raw steel, or the raw crap underneath. And size and strength… don’t seem determinants.

It does make me wonder what will happen if – or rather — when, we have the big disaster. When the power grid goes down, or Yellowstone blows, or that asteroid hits. Odds are those who do have the right background – the military, the outdoor survivalist, the paramedic will have a better chance. But of course every time is different, and just because you kept your head before, doesn’t mean it will be true this time (more likely, but not sure). I always have this lurking fear that I’ll flip out, run away, myself, if it was big and bad enough, or just do the wrong thing. It’s something you just can’t write off. And then there are opposite extreme: the people who will panic, the people who will turn feral to save themselves. The people with no experience and no skills. Most will die. But I believe some will surprise us… and that would be a story to write.


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103 responses to “‘Bring out yer dead’

  1. paladin3001

    No real disaster experience. I have said from time to time, “I will panic later and after.” Been very lucky over all.

  2. morrigan508

    the other thing I’ve experienced, in the really bad ones is that I compartmentalize. one half of my brain is over in the corner gibbering, while the other half is the most by the book operator you’ve ever seen.

    • Yeah, that sounds familiar – the compartmentalizing thing. It’s like some other Dave comes out of the shadows and takes over.

      • The times I’ve been in rather brutal fights – every one of them in self defense, and the last one I sent the guy into the hospital for shoving me down a flight of stairs – I recall as ‘going cold, with another me giving me instructions on how to take my opponent out, and everything is very slow.’

        Adrenaline is interesting.

        In 2009, most of Manila got flooded, and as soon as the water got to our front door I made the decision to start evacuating everyone up the stairs, as well as moving as much of our belongings upstairs as well, and food. I think that was the point I realized I had become the pater de familia in the house. I don’t know where I found the energy to keep going at the pace we did, but it was an interesting ‘get this part done, then move to the next thing.’

        The decision about food, drink and utensils was a good one. We were trapped up there for four days.

      • Javahead

        Never had to fight for my life, fortunately. But those emergency situations that I’ve had I operate the same way – my thoughts become cold and logical, I do what needs to be done, and emotions get pushed aside while I deal with things that need immediate attention. Things like dealing with a bloody screaming kid become a logistical problem, not something you dare let yourself feel.

        Then, afterward, I sit down and deal with the emotional backlash.

        This may be a hereditary thing – my maternal grandmother, my mother (former ER nurse) and one of my daughters all share(d) the same ability.

        While my wife – more rational than I in most circumstances – tends to fall apart in this sort of situation, especially if it involves dealing visible injuries. She can deal with the aftermath quite well, but she can’t turn her empathy off when people are hurting.

  3. “It does make me wonder what will happen if – or rather — when, we have the big disaster.”

    You know, people talk a lot of sh1t, but when something really -bad- happens they all seem to come out of the woodwork and start trying to fix it. Floods, ice storms, car accidents, fires, 99% of people seem to rise to the occasion.

    Aberrant a-holes appear to be very much in the minority, even though they get all the press.

    Possibly my experience is warped by living in Canada, this place is very much about doing the expected thing. Here you’re expected to take hold and pull when somebody’s wagon is stuck.

    • Draven

      naah, a good % of the people here (SoCal) retreat to their enclaves and hope it is someone else’s problem.

    • Had that feeling, if not experience, in Winter travelling through North Dakota. The idea that one would not let someone “wait for the next car” because, brother, you are “the next car.”

      • That is a thing in Minnesota. People -do- stop to see about cars on the side of the road. If you’ve got your hood up, people will most likely stop and give you a ride.

        I had the same experience in Arizona, got a ride to town from the middle of nowhere with the bee man. Guy had a whole truck full of bees. They was the odd one in the cab too. Made for an interesting ride.

        • Well, I would be unable to do that (the next bee sting, or with luck maybe the one after, will be the last for me).

          But, yes, we do normally stop out here. Which has on occasion been quite tragic on some roads, where the cartel gangs set up “honey traps.”

        • Luke

          When I stopped to help a lady having car problems in California (about 20 years ago, now) she ran away.
          She literally grabbed her kid and went running into the mesquite.
          I kind of felt bad for her. I have no idea what was going through her head, but it sure wasn’t healthy.
          I heeded her request to “just go away”, as it was clear she wasn’t going to stop running until I did. Felt a bit guilty about leaving her there. Moreso because I could most likely have easily have fixed her car. I had my tools, sealant, extra hoses and clamps, antifreeze, and ten gallons of water. It just looked like a coolant leak.

        • Javahead

          Back when I was riding motorcycles in remote areas (Arizona, back-country highways in Nevada) I found if I pulled off beside the road for any reason, if another biker came by they *would* stop to see if you were OK – and it didn’t matter if they were on a Honda touring bike or a guy in colors on a chopped Harley.

          A bit startling the first time it happened in Arizona – the state has (had?) an open carry law and having a burly bearded tattoo’d guy in outlaw colors with a revolver strapped on his hip stop and come over was rather unexpected.

          It’s been a while since I rode, and longer since I was riding in remote areas like that, so I don’t know if that kind of helpfulness still exists. But I hope it does.

      • Yeah. It’s not quite the same thing though. That’s societal for that culture, that area. I mean more like when the nutter screams Alluh akbar and you happen to be standing behind him. Are you the guy (many people) who are too stunned and shocked to do something? The guy who runs away? The guy who follows the guy who attacks him? The guy who reacts and punches him? The guy who hits him with a chair?

        • These days?

          Canadians have been instructed to Leave It To The Professionals in no uncertain terms. Some guy gets violent at the mall and you smack him, there is an -excellent- chance you will lose all your worldly possessions and go to jail. Several very high profile court cases in the last ten years have left good men broken in the Mills of The Law for doing the right thing.

          If some d1ckhead yells Allah Akbar, I’ll be walking calmly away. It will be hard for me, but I will do it. Because it is Not My Job.

          Accidents, I’m ready and willing to do whatever at an accident scene. Good Samaritan laws -protect- citizens who help accident victims. So far, anyway.

    • While I’m ready to believe it is more common there than in the US for people to react and start fixing things, it’s probably not as common as you think. If it were, most of the time, except in cases where there is an uncommonly organized person coordinating things, there would be far too many people to get things done effectively.

      I know, it sounds weird, but really, if everyone got into it, they would just get in each others’ way.

      • Um. Wayne, to some of us giving orders comes naturally in these circumstances. Heh.It’s interesting to watch.

        • True, but if you’ve got 200 people trying to move around, even in such a large place as a subdivision, there has to be someone who can grab their attention and get them working in concert, rather than each trying to do his own thing, you’re going to have traffic jams.

          I could get 5-10 people organized, to some extent (I’m not really all that organized, myself, but I could at least get people doing something relatively productive), but someone who can organize a couple hundred is a rare thing.

    • I think that the number and quality of good people far exceeds the volume (word chosen with intent) of assholes. And yes social expectations do come into this.) But there is a big difference between taking hold of the rope, and the guy who had the initiative to get the rope to the wagon when it went into the quicksand.

  4. My day job is delivering cognitive behavioural therapy, so you can think of me as a practical psychologist, and what you describe going through is all too normal. If you want to run stuff past me then drop me an email: ashley with the squiggley symbol ashley-pollard with a period com.

  5. The few times I’ve been on the periphery of Bad Stuff, I was like Morrigan and Paladin. I pushed everything else to the side and dealt with what was going on, mostly trying to keep fifty or so college students from turning into a panicking herd as a tornado went past (missed us both times, thanks be to [DEITY]). I’ve been told I was cool and very reassuring, but what i remember was playing out the next scenes in my head: OK if we do get hit and the building is damaged, how do we get out. Where will it be safe to go? Who looks strong enough to carry the injured? Do we have anyone with first aid training?

    One up side to my “little personality problem” (as we call it at Redquarters) is that I game out every possible disaster in my mind well in advance. What if the house burns down? What if a tornado hits? What if there’s a grass-fire at work? What if someone attacks work? What if I’m the first non-involved vehicle at the scene of a wreck? When stuff does happen, I’ve already gamed out what I’m likely to do and see, so it is less shock to my system. The bad news is the other 99.5% of the time, I’m on the edge of a constant adrenaline dump. I don’t recommend it as a life-skills and coping system.

    • TxRed ‘is that I game out every possible disaster in my mind well in advance’ – me too! And I ‘game’ (with due cause I might add) what if that response goes wrong, what if I hit something I haven’t thought of, what do I do if the plan does not survive impact with battle… It actually plays big role in my writing.

      • Interesting note to the ‘gaming out’ or ‘wargaming’ out parts of thinking and discussing – essentially, talking like this, or imagining scenarios for the disaster, the sudden terror attack…

        The other side, the Chorfy SJzealots? They think of it – when we do it – as planning out war against them, or such.

        We look at it as ‘how do we survive’ planning.

  6. Hunting Guy

    “Under that sort of stress – especially searching or waiting, the jokes are tasteless, crude, and absolutely necessary. Oh and really funny.”

    I spent most of my 20 year military career in nuclear weapons with some minor sidesteps into combat. Your comment about jokes are spot on and the jokes are necessary. You have to break the tension somehow.

    • When I was helping carry the stretcher that held my father down the steps, he grinned and cracked a joke about one time he was carrying a stretcher and the “unconscious” man said “Don’t you drop me.” My father said he and the other guy wanted to let go of the stretcher so bad..

    • Me: *panel of doctors standing around my bed, trying to diagnose what the hell was wrong me with me. I notice that I had essentially a Dr. House team: A young Indian guy, the blonde, blue-eyed head (female) another young doctor (male, caucasian) and two Asian doctors (both female). The Indian fellow suggested lupus. (And yes I was stressed like mad.)

      I opened my mouth to say “It’s never lupus!” thought the better of it, and closed my mouth, very deliberately, then bit my lips to keep my mouth shut. One of the Asian doctors saw me, lifted up her clipboard to her face, and her eyes crinkled with amusement. SHE KNEW!

      The thing I had was so rare only one doctor had ever seen it before too, and it was only discovered because one of the doctors had mentioned it to a colleague during lunch break. (Veinous insufficiency due to pregnancy.)

  7. In the (fortunately very rare) cases where I’ve had my life in some kind of danger I get extremely calm, ride through the situation and then get the shakes. I suspect the same would apply if I had to try and pick up the pieces after some larger disaster but I don’t know, the only even slightly major accident I’ve come across the only thing I needed to do was call the Ambulance because there were already a number of perfectly qualified first aider people helping out.

    • I’ve been calm, too – which is OK. Level-headed wins the day.
      I’ve been through a couple of earthquakes – the first in So Cal in 1971. Teenager, living in my parents’ house. The experience has ruined me ever after for disaster movies. No, from that – people don’t run aimlessly screaming. They get quiet, huddle under the nearest place of shelter, perhaps call out to friends, family and others.
      First overseas was to Japan – a seismically active area. Really, we all got so accustomed to quakes that most of us got rather blase about it. Heavy truck going past (noisy) or (silent, relatively) just another tremor?
      At FEN our usual practice was to run like hell, when the rolls of teletype paper began falling off the shelves. We were in a flimsy, wholly powered-up building about 100 feet away from the base water tower, which was about 124 feet tall – and full of ,,, water. No one wanted to be in that building, with a tank full of water crashing down on us. There was one quake where our Marine NCO was just beating me to the door by a short head. And just by the door – he seemed to recall manners, stopped short — and shoved me out the door ahead of him.
      Possibly, he wanted me to go in front …
      There was another serious tremor, on another occasion – which happened when I was dining with friends in the NCO club – Mongolian BBQ night. And the whole damn room began to shake, just as we were being served. Panic city – and one of the friends with me later filed a letter of commendation with my commander, swearing that I had stopped a panic by shouting at other diners not to run, to be calm. Really, I was worried about my ice tea and supper.
      Final thing – sudden wind gust at an event for my daughter’s HS class. Blew over a pavilion, sent it scudding through the event venue. I ran toward it! And — why did I do that? Never been certain of that. Against sober inclination, I think I am one of those who rushes towards the fire.

  8. sabrinachase

    An excellent resource for this sort of thing is “Deep Survival: Who lives, who dies, and why”. It analyzes several incidents where people survived and made instant decisions, kept moving when horribly injured, all kinds of life-threatening situations where others died. It is fascinating how it isn’t always the ones you think will survive. Shackleton’s expedition, too. The ability to “go cold” is shutting down the amygdala in the brain, the center of emotional reasoning–which screws up rapid decisionmaking. It also seems to be connected to what many people describe as a different voice, either in their heads or as an auditory hallucination, that tells them what to do. It can be recognized as a dead friend, even. LOTS of survivors tell stories like this. I’ll just say I experienced something like that too, and it creeped me the hell out.

    I have been in a sudden, life-threatening situation. Like Morrigan508, I went cold and hard and acted fast. Fortunately I guessed right and nobody died, but I *made decisions I knew could result in death*. Ditto the flashbacks (I got a mild case of PTSD, which didn’t have a name then and I had to figure out how to fix it myself). You learn things about yourself in those situations that you can’t learn any other way, or predict any other way.

    To me if you are able to angst in the middle of a disaster, you aren’t scared enough 😀 Maybe if it is a slow-rolling disaster, over hours or days, but not the Oh Hell kind.

    • BobtheRegisterredFool

      Larry Gonzales. I really like that book.

    • To me if you are able to angst in the middle of a disaster, you aren’t scared enough

      Far too many people simply don’t understand, at least deep down in their gut, when they are in a truly serious disaster. You can tell in their words. People will talk about the stupidest minutiae in dangerous situations. Maybe their brain is trying to avoid admitting that it’s that dangerous, but whatever it is, it keeps them from internalizing the danger, and so they can angst like it was high school or something.

    • Interesting about shutting down the amygdala. I also “go cold” (almost instantly) in emergencies, making decisions fast and hard, but I didn’t know the brain chemistry behind it. Thanks for the book tip. I’m going to get a copy.

  9. $HOUSEMATE did the volunteer EMT/Paramedic thing for many years and related a list of saying and quips you’ve likely heard. I recall, “The drunk will always prefer the trip to hospital…” and “If he refuses the ambulance ride, he know your driver.” Along with, “If patient’s {Boy,Girl}friend says they can find a vein… they can.”

  10. BobtheRegisterredFool

    I’ve never had any real troubles or disasters. When it is something like food burning because my attention wanders a bit too badly, I don’t dither the way I normally do often enough. Sometimes I angst afterwards.

    Have always wondered how I would handle myself in a real mess.

  11. tprice

    I’ve never personally had to deal with any major disasters but from what I’ve read, at least in the USA, groups that regularly deal with disasters like the Red Cross usually leave a number of low level holes in their planned maning charts. You see about 10% of Americans just HAVE to help, so you might as well plan for places to plug them in. If you don’t plan on it they get in the way trying to be “helpful”

    Also, for the Humor you get in emergency situations take a look at the long running thread “Things I learned from my Patients” https://forums.studentdoctor.net/threads/things-i-learn-from-my-patients.257985/ which is also good for learning how stupid humanity really can be 🙂

  12. Holly

    My experience has been minor, 1- person disasters, the sort where you call 911 at five am then go start shoveling snow because it dumped a foot over night and your dad’s having a heart attack and you have fifteen minutes before the ambulance to get the snow cleared so the EMTs can get through.
    Or don’t call 911, because the teen is old enough to keep pressure on the cut and it’s fifteen minutes to town anyway, so you can be at the ER in the same amount of time it takes the ambulance to get to the house. (Twisty road, ambulance maybe can go a whole five miles over the posted speed limit.)

    • Holly

      The one time I took a fall that could have killed me-lost my grip on a rope but my boot lace hook snagged, was hanging head down about ten feet up, must have been, because my buddies couldn’t quite reach my hands, I don’t remember being scared, particularly. They caught me when the loop gave out, so I didn’t land on my head. No harm done, except to the boot.
      I stay cool. I’ve had to since I was a kid, so I do. I have a plan for everything I can think of, so I don’t have to think when something goes wrong.
      The big disaster I’m anticipating grimly is the Cascadia Subduction Zone.

  13. Huh. Looks like WP ate my earlier comment. Short version: I’m really, really good at planning for emergencies so I’ve not panicked or frozen yet. Unfortunately, that means I’m really, really good at worrying about stuff that doesn’t need that much attention in normal life.

    • Haven’t been in a big disaster, but in minor ones, I don’t seem to freeze. If there’s something obvious to be done, I will do it, but if it requires thinking, I can be blocked somewhat by the situation, and it takes a bit to push through that.

  14. If I had written and published a disaster novel some years ago, it would likely have been a wall slammer, because until fairly recently reacting in a disaster seemed the norm. Since then have heard from those who’ve seen otherwise. Perhaps those authors have never been in a disaster, or perhaps they were like Dickens and coincidences. He’s taken to task for all his coincidences, but his life was full of coincidences, so perhaps he thought that’s how things worked for everyone.

    Here’s something everyone can try, particularly those who’ve observed people react in disasters: When you’re in a crowd where there are double doors and one door is open, see how many walk through the open door and how many open the second one. Then see if it roughly corresponds to those who freeze in disasters and those who don’t.

    • That’s clever! I, freak that I am, always open the other door.

      • Randy Wilde

        Not sure if I’m more or less of a freak… I open the second door IF it’s the one I would normally go through following the flow of traffic.

    • There are many reactions you will see in a disaster, but the two primary ones are: Lay down and die, Stand up and live.
      By ‘Lay down and die’ I mean in most circumstances the majority of people will just wait for death and not try to survive. Seen it, do not understand it. In crowds with a larger percentage of people who have survived adversity or been trained to deal with it (like Mil Vets) that number goes down, but never hits zero.
      The ‘Stand up and live’ crowd are usually the minority. They’re the people who will do whatever it takes to survive, and will usually rally those around them to do the same (I’m in this group). As a side note, the PTSD people seem to come from the ‘rallied survivors’ not from the Stand up and live crowd and the people from the Lay down and die crowd who don’t die (at least in my limited experience).
      Then you always have a small group of people who I can only describe as either insane, or demented. Maybe they’re sociopaths. You always hear the stories about it, and well, I’ve witnessed it.

      • Don’t forget reaction 3: When in for, or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout!

      • Hmm. I’d have to disagree with you on the PTSD thing. I’ve been the only concious person there taking decisions, so unless you count God as rallying… PTSD was still a blip on the horizon in those days, but in hindsight, that was what I dealt with. Seemed to get through it, mostly sane (for certain, relative values of it).

  15. “That other people, with the same lack of experience as the writer, think that in a crisis most people do something…”

    I do, but I am aware that in a crowd of 100 people, I will be the -only- one moving with a purpose. I conclude from this that I’m some kind of freak.

    I have attended a few accident scenes, and every time I’m the first guy in the crowd to pull the keys out of the ignition and check the victim for damage. Every single damn time, everybody else is standing around like a bunch of stunned sheep. They become helpful -later-, after they have time to pull their heads out of their asses I guess. Seems to take them five or ten minutes from a cold start.

    For my own part, I’ve noticed during fits of rage (egad!) that manual dexterity vanishes. Trained reflexes remain, but both my judgement and my ability to dig something up off the floor of the back seat is gone. The red tunnel doesn’t help either. Important safety tip, don’t lose your temper. That’s bad, it makes you stupid. I’m told extreme fear does the same thing, but being a freak, so far I’ve never felt that.

    Unless I’m angry, in an emergency I don’t feel much of anything. I feel it -later-, that’s when the shakes and the nausea kick in. But I’m a freak.

    So if you want to be able to do something like escape drowning in a car, you better PRACTICE. You have to not only know where the window-breaker is, you have to practice getting it and using it. With your eyes shut, and drunk too.

    Therefore, when writing a gun fight or a crash or something, most of the bystanders are standing around like traffic cones, lacking even the sense to duck. A few might be running away, they will cause a stampede. The only ones doing anything useful will be either well trained pros or the odd random freak. Or robots. ~:D

    • TRX

      A high-school friend of mine got caught in traffic and saw a burning motor home up ahead. Being Don, he left his car and went up to help. He dragged four people out of the burning vehicle, of which three survived. He got scorched pretty bad, and was headed back in to see if there were any others when the police arrived and stopped him. (there was another child in there, but likely too late by then.)

      If he had actually been able to walk, he would probably have saved them all. He made it up to the fire on his crutches, but he had to crawl to be able to drag anyone out.

      His explanation:
      “Nobody else was helping, so I had to.”

    • I once saw a single-car hit-median-and-flip accident about 200 feet in front of me. Pulled to a nicely slowed stop, put on the emergency blinkers, and looked in the rear-view mirror to make sure I wasn’t going to get rear-ended. (First rule of helping in an emergency: don’t become the next victim.) Now, I had kids in the car, so when I noticed everybody else who stopped getting out of their cars to help, I pulled out my cell phone and called 911. Ambulance was there within a few minutes, long enough for me to observe the very professional manner of the other folk (*not* pulling the person out, but talking with them until emergency services got there, that sort of thing) and to call my mom and my work to say that I would be late—though I wasn’t, since the police determined I didn’t need to stay and opened up a hole for me to get back into traffic.

      Observation: people were helping, and they were doing it the smart way, not the panicked way.

      • Thinking about calling 911 for someone else’s accident, here’s an oddity: Every time I have called emergency services (including before 911 came to my area, but after I had a cellphone), someone else had already called it in, even if I called within less than 30 seconds of the accident. Except for one time, and that’s when *I* was the one in the accident.

        Some guy had been smooching with his girlfriend in the front seat of his pickup, and rearended me. There were several cars around, and, given my record with calling in accidents, I just got out and talked with the other driver, thinking the cops would show up soon. Nope. I finally called it in, and found out that no one had called it in yet.

        Another time, it was very cold, and an Interstate Highway overpass had gotten wet and frozen, and there were several accidents on it. We pulled over and went to one car where the woman inside looked like she was going into shock. Her car wasn’t running, so we talked her into coming over to our car and waiting in the warm, with a blanket.

  16. It’s the people who are grabbing souvenirs and trophies while there are dead and wounded all around, and who then run off with them laughing and smiling gleefully that piss me off.

    • I have never seen that. Again, maybe because Canada. Or, maybe because I was there? Dunno.

      • Seen it, it’s usually just one or two people. Depends on the size of the disaster. I saw a guy actually FIGHT an officer with a gun to steal evidence from a plane crash.
        While people were lying around on the ground wounded, dead, and dying. His partner told him to just let the guy go, they had more important problems to deal with (I think most of us wanted to see the guy shot dead) so he ran off laughing happily about his trophy.
        But look at car accidents, it is not uncommon (especially in the older days where the accidents were a lot more gory) for someone to pick up a piece of the wreckage and keep it.

        • That’s ugly. Good thing I wasn’t there.

          • I think I should clarify that the officer had the gun, and this guy was so hyped to steal stuff that he was willing to fight a guy with a gun in order to steal stuff. Not sure if that was clear.

        • When the great airship U.S.S. Shenandoah went down over eastern Ohio in the mid-1920’s, the crash sites were picked nearly clean by souvenir hunters within days.

          • Yes, but you didn’t have people lying there screaming and bleeding and dying while that was going on. I’ve seen people do this stuff while the victims hadn’t even been helped yet.

            • Huh. When at one wreck, the officer stopped someone from going to the victim’s car (one vehicle accident), I thought it was to prevent tampering with evidence. She told him it was to get the victim’s medication. Officer told her to get it and not go back to the vehicle. It never occurred to me he thought it could have been a looting attempt.

        • Like that jerk in Portland when the guys got their throats cut, making off with one of the dying men’s bag.

  17. There can sometimes be a backstory in the reaction to crisis. How to get it into the writing…

    For instance, I suffered an extremely bad burn to my leg when I was a relatively small child (as in, the scar is still quite evident some 50+ years later). So, in even a very minor crisis where the correct action is to stomp on even the smallest fire that has started, I cannot bring myself to do so. Yet, I have dealt with much larger fire issues with no problems, so long as I didn’t have to get my feet into it (used to be on crews building fire breaks and setting back fires – brush fires before I am asked, not forest, that takes proper and extensive training).

    Getting that into a story, though, to explain why a normally competent Character #1 goes dashing around looking for a water hose or a shovel, while not so competent Character #2 simply starts jumping up and down and puts out the fire, hmm…

    Which reminds me, sigh, need to make sure we’ve got the sand buckets filled around the casa, and have rechecked the hoses – idiots are already shooting off the fireworks here in Tucson, where it has been a trifle dryer and hotter than usual the last week or so ,::

    • take care 🙂 Prepare well.

      • IIRC, you are familial with similar climates. Similar idiots, too, I’m sure – just different ways to be idiotic.

        I’m just grateful they can’t get hold of “professional grade” stuff. Those could blow flaming wreckage of their house over a wide area. I have a fire resistant roof, not fire proof. (The walls are solid block, but not much good if it hits other places.)

      • RCPete

        I worked wildland/rural fire a couple of years, and it’s pretty much the same; some folks will help out (some of them have the nomex gear; one of Oregon’s exports is firefighters), while a few do stupid shit. A fair number stand around or try to help; said help diminished by the alcohol content of the helper. Some guys started a fire and thought they could fix it with their bulldozer. We got lucky, but they made a mess that could have gotten nasty.

        Most of my emergencies tend to be single/first person. I sliced a finger trying to open a package with the wrong knife, and rather than call 911, I grabbed a towel and drove to my preferred hospital (5 minutes further than the default, and *much* better). The hand surgeon wasn’t thrilled; lidocaine STINGS! Pretty much the same when I started getting a severe allergic reaction. I guessed how much time I had, and did the driving. Epinephrin and prednisone makes for a loooong night. I don’t want to think about if I guessed wrong…

        I was playing cards at a friend’s shop when the Loma Prieta quake went off. Started to beat it for the door, but was told to stop; considering it was a brick building, it was 50-50 as to the preferred approach. Our favorite breakfast joint was 10 miles away, and was totaled. (The ruins of the shop next door got to be the iconic photo for that area’s disaster…) Generally, people did OK in our mildly afflicted area. A bunch of nutters figured that the main street would be a great drag strip with the police elsewhere, but that was about the extent of the arschloch problem

  18. I used to do mass casualty exercises while I was in the Air Force. All the combat trauma first aid, etc. It’s good practice, but as the original poster says, you can never know how someone is going to react when they’re plopped down in the real thing for the first time.

    For me, life or death situations I go cold and emotionless. Bedside manner sucks. The safe environment check, beating, breathing, bleeding, treat for shock checklists get run through. It’s at the end, when I can turn it back on, that the shakes start and the OMG-what-did-I-just-do take over.

    Like the time that I thought the protestors were aiming a rifle out the second story window at me as I drove off the base in Belgium. I didn’t stop, or even get down to a safe speed, until at least 5 miles down the road where I could be sure I wasn’t being followed and could phone back to the base. But I had to take it real slow the rest of the way back to our temporary quarters and I still shook for quite a while.

    Protestors had a worse night than I did when the gendarmes raided them. No idea who thought it would be funny to point a broom stick (allegedly) at the GIs’ coming off the base.

  19. 0ldgriz

    I am not a people person. I freeze in social situations. If a lot of people are around I tend to wait for someone to make the first move. But when accidents happen just to me or a small group. I just start doing what I think is necessary. Sometimes I’m wrong but at least I’m moving. As for pain when hurt, if something needs doing I’ll continue until it’s done. The pain is there but not really important. Pain totally sucks when there is nothing to distract you from it.

  20. The only crisis/disaster that comes to mind involved a close family member in ICU. From what I can recall, I wasn’t frozen but was fairly detached.

    Approximately a week later when Family Member asked “remember that?”, and I pointed out that I barely remembered the event in question. Snippets, yeah; the event as a whole, nope.

  21. John Prigent

    The only emergency I’ve experienced was an office kitchen fire. No alarm sounded, but I happened to walk along a corridor and see a load of people standing there with heavy smoke coming out of the door. saying things like ‘oh, the kitchen’s on fire’ but not doing anything about it. The cook was one of them, he’d just abandoned the room and stood there looking helpless and saying ‘the stove switch started burning’. So I, the only one who moved at all, grabbed an extinguisher – the type for electric fires because I knew the stove was electric – and dealt with it before anything else caught light. No, I wasn’t a hero, I was just the only one who didn’t freeze at an unexpected event. So why do 9 out of 10 simply freeze? Do we see a similar thing happening when folk stand videoing an attack on someone, or a smash-and-grab raid in progress, or a major car crash, instead of piling in to help?

    • “So why do 9 out of 10 simply freeze?”

      More like 99 out of 100. You are rarer than you think.

      I don’t know, but it annoys the shit out of me ever time I see it.

      • TRX

        Maybe they listened to the safety lectures at school. The ones I had, at least, told us to never attempt to solve any problem on our own; be good little kids and call for an adult or the fire department, or the police. (this being before “911”)

        You train people to be passive bystanders, passive bystanders is what you get.

        • Yeah, maybe training for passivity is a thing.

          But I got all that training too. Making me even freakier? ~:D

        • Getting help isn’t necessarily passive. I stressed that at high voltage demonstrations. If someone comes into contact with a power line and remains in contact, do not attempt to remove them! Go get help now! That’s because it can chain through would-be rescuers and kill them, too. And even 120v can and has killed.

          For young kids, it’s “Go get a grown-up.” For adults, it’s risk assessment. Can you aid the victim without getting yourself killed as surely as putting a gun to your head? Even us. One safety meeting they showed video taken from a squad car as the policeman tried to drag an injured man to safety. The man was in a cloud of, IIRC, anhydrous ammonia. The policeman went into the cloud, but didn’t make it out again..

          • RCPete

            We had one like that just after we finished moving to Oregon. I switched to studded snow tires on November 1, and we went to Bend for supplies the next day. Major snowstorm made the driving, er, interesting. Doable, just a graphic illistration of what studded snows can and cannot do.

            However, a but south of our home, a woman crashed into a power pole on one of the mountain highways. She brought down the line, got out of her car OK, then went back for her purse. Not sure how long it took to recover her body, but power was out 5 hours. (A really good rural FD was nearby, but the power company would have been slammed, and it wasn’t a matter of life and death by then.)

            • I’d been at work maybe a year when a guy on a tractor broke a pole and had it land right on the top of his tractor in front of him. He had the presence of mind to say there until our crews got there and de-energized the line.

              Something most people don’t realize about distribution line voltage is that it’s so high that even standing close to it can electrocute you. The human body usually has a lower resistance than earth, so it flows up one leg and down the other. It may be possible to jump as far as possible with feet together, and hop away like that as far as possible, but this is a desperation move, such as when the vehicle is on fire. I’m not optimistic on being able to do that from a car and not falling.

    • Back when I worked at the airport (I fueled the flights for SWA), I saw a Ramp Supervisor pull a belt loader up to the plane, and the alternator decided to short out and catch fire.
      The Ramp Supe literally ran in circles in a panic. About 10-15 foot in circumference. I just walked over to the truck, grabbed an extinguisher and held it out at eye level to him.
      Snapped him out of his panic . . . he grabbed it and doused the flames.
      After he admitted he blanked on where any extinguishers were. I listed the two on my truck, the ones on their equipment, and the large wheeled cart one at the terminal end of each jetway.
      “How do you know where all of them are?”
      I drove around 5000 gallons of Jet A. I kinda needed to know that stuff.

      • Some decades ago, at a small substation, Brand X was operating the high-side fuses on a 46 KV line. Our guys were assisting. Lineman A was in a bucket near the fuses. Lineman B was still in the truck, waiting to go to work. Helper C was looking on.

        As sometimes happens, there was a fault on one of the big transformers. Brand X’s lineman takes off to get out from under it. Lineman A drops to the bottom of the bucket, waiting for the fuse to let go. Lineman B rolls up his window in case there’s some light fragments. Helper C, well . . .

        Anyway, the fuse lets go with a BOOM! as they sometimes do. Brand X lineman drops the high-side fuses on the remaining two transformers. Lineman A stands up. Lineman B steps out of the truck. And Helper C isn’t there.

        They call him, and find him way on the other side of the field. He walks up as they pick at him. “When I saw him (Brand X’s lineman) run, I figured he knew what he was doing, and I ran, too.”

    • yep. Most people it seems will follow a lead, some really fast.Take the lead – not many. Good on you.

  22. I’m also a first responder. I have decent reflexes, but I plan ahead. Most of my passengers don’t comment on my driving- whether they are frozen with fear, or don’t want to break my concentration, I am not certain. *grin* Most of my work has been extremely minor: bandaids and gauze, not neck braces and intubate. For the most part. The things that have stood out to me don’t touch on that.

    In remembering those kinds of things, I tend to remember what people told me about it afterwards- or if there was a recording, I try and focus on that. The event in question is always jumbled, and things tend to be out of order in my mind. The stuff before looks perfectly normal- a game of catch, a boring freeway, a quiet night for a walk, etc. The after is usually just wanting to sleep for a week straight. *chuckle* The girl I caught before she went completely off the bridge was just a trained response- I was a cook at the time, and letting food hit the floor was a big no-no (docked my paycheck and might have gotten me fired at the time). People are not food, but the catching something response doesn’t even require my brain to get in the way.

    When my friend and I stumbled upon two thieves breaking into cars one day, what I remember is the look on the one guy’s face when the trunk of the car he was fiddling with popped open and busted his nose. Like a toddler who dropped his ice cream, all hurt and disappointed and upset at the universe. He dropped his crowbar. The two ran off at that point, but it later came out that both of them had stolen handguns, and had previously used them. It was the unexpected thing that caused them to flee. Fortunately, no one got shot that day- them or us. My friend remarked later about how calm I was. I wasn’t, not really, I just wasn’t feeling anything at the time.

    Trained responses help. Mental preparedness helps. But over and above these two things is the more intangible stuff between the ears. At least, I think so. Maybe someone goes into the fire again and again because that is the way he was raised, or what he true believes is the right thing to do (perhaps the only thing to do). Some families, I notice, hold this as an imperative. Their sons and daughters go into the military, the police, firemen, EMT’s. Nigh every generation.

    Is courage under fire genetic? Is it trainable? Is it the culture implanted in them from the womb and thereafter? I tend to think it is more the latter. In tense situations most people react- and some act. Those who react tend to follow those who act- for good or ill.

  23. removed as duplicate at poster’s request

  24. In 1993 I (forensic pathologist, now retired from the Army)was the team leader of a group from the (US) Armed Forces Medical Examiner’s Office (which, during times of no combat, did this kind of assistance to civilian coroners/medical examiners) to assist with the aftermath of the USAir Flight 427 (Pittsburgh, PA) crash that killed everyone on board – 127 people. High speed air crashes (this one was estimated at 350 knots) do NOT produce intact bodies. (The accurate, if somewhat cynical, description of really high performance military crashes is “five pounds of meat in the bottom of a fifty-foot deep smoking hole.”

    This one gave NO intact bodies, just 1800 trash bags of “stuff” picked up from the crash including fingers, partial jaws, other skeletal parts, assorted identificatory documents, trees and brush, dirt, and aircraft parts. Most of the Pittsburgh coroner’s office staff left after about the third day, saying they couldn’t handle any more. The rest of the recovery operation, besides us, who staffed the Air National Guard hangar used as a temporary morgue, consisted of local volunteers: medical, reserve military, Pennsylvania and Ohio funeral directors and dental associations, USAir staff, Salvation Army, Red Cross, and FBI local and national (mass disaster squad.) We DID manage to send home SOMETHING identifiable to 127 families; the smallest such “identifiable remains” I’ve seen, in a different case, was ONE molar tooth.

    The last group is important for interesting social interactions caused by their dramatic FBI-logo “raid” jackets. Several of us heard a cute young nurse announce that she was going to have one of those jackets with a few hearing that success WOULD be achieved if it took all-night sexual services. A day or so later, she walked in wearing one. I confirm that the jokes are bizarre, but hilarious, and probably totally misconstrued by non-participants. Evening alcohol flowed freely.

    • ‘Evening alcohol flowed freely.’ – correction fluid. Allows some relief. Like the jokes. People think you’re being insensitive. That is not the case.
      And well done. That could not have been easy.

    • RCPete

      A friend and her fiance were visiting San Francisco and I met up with them for dinner. As conversation drifted to “what do you do for work”, he volunteered that he did IT for American Airlines, and his current project was to identify human body parts from the DC-10 crash at O’hare Airport (1979, 273 people died, including 2 on the ground).

      Somehow, the dinner got a bit more somber. Never heard if they actually got married. Never ate there again, either.

  25. If disaster doesn’t involve other people, or if there’s nothing that can be done against danger, I have to say that I find the situation hilarious and almost fun. It’s the only time I really have a happy adrenaline reaction, except maybe during public performance. The time I broke my arm, I think it possibly took a bit longer to convince people that I was hurt because I was being a bit humorous about it. But the ambulance people seemed to get the idea.

    If the situation involves other people, I get very much into barking orders, banging on doors, and making people move. Apparently my spirit animal is some kind of Scottie dog or collie. Heh. I am pretty good at getting people out during minor fires, telling people what to do during tornado approaches, that sort of thing.

    The time I slept through all the banging on the doors and opened the door in the morning to find a SWAT team outside in the hallway, I didn’t really do anything in particular but stand quite still and say hello, and I’m comfortable with that as having been the correct decision.

    The serious times when I did not manage to figure out the correct thing to do and made wrong decisions, or didn’t go far enough to get it done… well, I felt a sort of strong foreboding fear, but I can’t say I really angsted. Angsted pretty good after it was all done, though.

    On occasions when the situation was already handled, I have gotten a lot more dither-y, and I have to sit on myself to force myself to stay out of the way.

    I remember all these situations clearly, although apparently my brain did not record any embarrassing moments to make me second-guess myself, as often happens in daily life. So yeah, I would say that I am much less introverted and self-conscious in emergencies.

  26. The last time I was walking next to a propane tank on a forklift when it decided it no longer wanted to be an intact vessel (the mechanic had filled it at -30 F and brought in into a heated warehouse), I lost a few moments, then realized I was running my ass off toward the other end of the warehouse. Then I realized what remained of the still-venting tank was under a unit heater with a naked flame, changed course, and started hitting the giant roll-up doors to suck all that warm propane-laden air out into the freezing outside. (Didn’t stop running, mind you.) I ended up outside in the really crunchy snow in my long-sleeved shirt and jeans, and shaking so hard from the adrenaline it was a really, really difficult task to call my boss and the airport fire department. (Didn’t even realize until later I was now completely deaf in my left ear. That, too, created difficulties.)

    The few times I’ve scared myself in the plane, I have reacted exactly as I was trained, though at the worst level of the sloppiest training I let myself get away with. Which is why I don’t let myself get away with sloppy training anymore. And then I shook. A lot. But as an old pilot with a lot of hours in interesting places told me, “It’s all right to shake when it’s over, as long as you do what’s needed right away.”

    He also told me “We always knew you’d marry a combat vet! You’re too high strung!” Given how right he was on that, I trust him on the shaking.

  27. V. Smith


    Glad you’ve brought up this subject. I’ve been working on a series concerning a disaster and its aftermath. Outside of Hurricane Hugo, I don’t have much experience with this subject, so I’ve done a lot of research to uncover what I’ll need to know. Here are two of the books that immediately come to mind because they’re right here on my shelf: “The Disaster Diaries (How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Apocalypse)” by Sam Sheridan; and “The Unthinkable (Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – And Why)” by Amanda Ripley. Actually, I’ve read several books on the subject, and here are a few of the common themes that appear again and again:

    1. Yes, some people will panic; and yes, some people will take advantage of the situation to loot, etc. But it’s not disaster as presented to us by Hollywood. Given a chance, most people will work together. It’s usually something spontaneous. There’s no one who says “Here’s what we’re going to do,” even though there might be one or two people who spark the whole thing. Usually no one assigns tasks. Everyone pitches in.

    2. Believe it or not, the people who often cause the most problems and danger are “the authorities.” Don’t take my word for it; do a little research.

    3. On the other hand, when people freeze or dither in a dangerous situation, if someone leads the way, they can get people moving. Later, people often will not remember what happened or their memories will be “warped.”

    4. In an ongoing disaster, something that won’t be solved in a few days or possibly even in a few years, the one thing people need to keep going is hope.

    5. You are right about practice. In a truly life threatening situation, the person who knows what they’re doing will save the day.

    6. This is my own thought, but probably not particularly original. I’ve begun to realize that the more sophisticated our technology becomes, the more vulnerable we are.

    Thanks for an interesting article. You aren’t the only author I know of who’s worked as an EMT and it’s put you in the position to learn a lot about the human condition.

  28. Lirio100

    Time dilation. Was a live fire exercise when a volunteer got hurt–panicked and pulled off her face piece at the fire. Everything seemed to slow down and take forever.

    Disassociation. I was on an incident where a victim got caught in a step elevator. Simply did not think about what happened, just did. I still can’t forget that one and it’s been a LONG time.

  29. lfox328

    Thank you for this – I’m revising my novel, and I’d reached a point in it where the main character has to keep calm in a crisis. Oh, and a young character also has to step up to the plate.
    I’m going to have to go back to an earlier time in the book, and put in some background that will make it clear WHY the two don’t freeze when the SHTF.

  30. I don’t think this group is quite a representative sample based on the comments, there are a lot of veterans and first responders here. :p I’m a veteran too, and I think it might be helpful (for book purposes) to further divide this into immediate crisis and sustained crisis. During an immediate crisis, in my case a tire blowout at 80 miles an hour on a busy highway, I felt eerily calm; I remember telling my brother to hold on when I felt my truck start to spin, I remember mentally ticking a box that I was wearing my seat belt, and I remember turning the steering wheel into the spin because that was the first thing my brain reached for. Studies on military members have demonstrated that if you have a planned course of action for an emergency (in my case, somewhere I’d heard that you’re supposed to turn into a spin) then you’re much less likely to freeze, because your brain just has to retrieve the mental file labeled, “WHAT TO DO IN A SPIN OUT.” If your brain has to assimilate that you’re spinning out and then reach for multiple possible solutions from multiple files elsewhere in your brain, then you’re going to waste precious time creating that new file on the spot. Cops, military, and first responders are more likely to game out those kind of emergency scenarios because they’re trained to do that, which is why they’re more likely to react faster and better; they’ve already created all those mental files.

    A sustained crisis takes a different mentality and presents a whole new level of stupid. During an attack or a fire or a natural disaster people basically have three options: freeze, fight, or flee. In the immediate aftermath they’re either productive or not productive. It’s when the crisis goes on for days that you start seeing really weird, counter-intuitive stuff. People who you wouldn’t think would break, break; people fixate on weird things, they wildly overcompensate, or they’re so paralyzed that they almost literally lie down and die. I think that’s where your character work comes in. It makes me think of Scarlett’s Pa in Gone with the Wind, who could stand everything except the loss of his wife, and went insane when she died, or Jews in occupied Poland obsessing over what things they should take with them when the Nazis came for them. Basically, the world has gone so insane, they can’t assimilate it. They can’t cope with it. People do some weird stuff when that happens, and I don’t think military training makes such a difference then. It helps you with basic survival, but not especially with what to do when the world turns upside down with no prospect of being righted.

    Jordan Peterson has some awesome lectures on this related to PTSD. He’s a clinical psychologist and says that people with PTSD have basically run into this problem: either they’ve seen something or done something so radically at odds with their perception of the world and themselves that they can’t incorporate it into their paradigm. Of course, depending on the naivete and relative sophistication of your character, their perception of the world may vary. Putting them back together again involves helping them realize that yes the world can be that bad (or even they themselves can be that bad) and making them strong enough to endure that knowledge.

  31. Presbypoet

    October 1989 in the Bay Area was the World Series earthquake. I was driving. My first thought: the warranty had expired. I slowed and stopped, as did everyone else. Because geology is one of my hobbies, I realized this was a major quake. When you feel shaking in a car with shocks, it is a big one. So I started counting to figure how big the event was.

    When the shaking stopped, because I had already moved to the “I know what this is…” I immediately started the car. Driving along the street, It was like a time stop movie. Everyone just stood outside their homes, staring, frozen. I was the only thing moving, except for the ball of fire from an exploding transformer. I knew what had happened, I had to get home.

    A related experience, was when I broke my wrist. Used my left hand to break a fall, and broke both major bones in my forearm. I looked down as I got up and realized my left hand now hung at a right angle to my arm. The strange thing: it didn’t hurt at all. Holding left hand with right, I headed into a place, and told them to call 911. Then I sat down, and fainted. Something had pushed endorphins to hide the pain. I knew It was serious because it didn’t hurt.

    California needs to be much better prepared for the coming earthquake storm. We have had a quieter than average last 110 years. When all the overpasses on 680 fall during a San Jose to Walnut Creek earthquake on the Calaveras fault, it will be a little hard to get supplies to all those computer nerds who have to do without their cell phones. Are you prepared for 6 weeks before help arrives?

  32. Thinking back on it, just about every disaster I’ve been involved in was fire-related. The long one—the wildfire at summer camp—is a detailed story that I really need to set down in comic book format. That one, we had been trained for, and the two quick takeaways from that were 1. That was only an hour? and 2. I was nineteen, in a situation where swearing was NOT okay, and was very proud of the fact that I did not swear even when startled. I had a steady stream of muttered “shit, shit, shit,” all the way up to the fire.

    The shorter story is the time I was working at a Borders and was asked to find a particular book. I looked it up, went to the shelf (as was the practice), and the light was odd. I looked up and saw a nice plasma glow where a fluorescent bulb had formerly been. I verified that the book was not on the shelf, went back to the front desk, informed the customer that the book wasn’t there, then calmly called for a manager. Manager came, found out the situation, pulled out the fire extinguisher from right behind where I’d been standing, had someone get a ladder, and went up and blasted the sucker. HUGE cloud of stuff, so we opened the door to the icy weather, and it started falling away, and the glow started up again.

    And thus began the most laughably slow evacuation in the history of fire issues. We informed everybody that we they had to leave, since we couldn’t just turn off *one* light, but they could come to the registers and either buy their books or put them on hold. I went and got my coat and purse, on the theory that we were going to have to leave too, and sure enough, when the fire department came, they shuffled us all outside while they checked to see that there was no fire in the ceiling panels. Eventually they sent us home.

    I did improv in high school and college, and I think that’s probably the best training overall. You spend a lot of time learning how to instantly adapt to what’s there and not be distracted by the way things “should” be. When September 11th happened, I had to go to work, and most of my coworkers were still in shock and denial when I’d already moved on to the implications. (Mainly “nobody but the folk who did this will take credit for it”—remember when terrorists used to take credit for things they hadn’t done—and “we’re going to war with somebody.”)