How to survive a disaster!

So, I write. In order to do that I need to have a vivid imagination. Here’s where my vivid imagination is taking me today.


Can you survive them? How?

You can survive a disaster!

There are numerous cases of people that survived even ”non-survivable” air crashes, fires and ferry disasters. Sometimes this was due to luck. Sometimes it was due to preparedness and an unwillingness to accept defeat.

Adopting an attitude that you will survive, preparing yourself mentally that a disaster may happen, and making a plan ahead might just tip the scales in your favor!

I am not a survival expert. In fact, the closest I’ve been to an emergency was a sibling’s bed catching fire (I won’t go into details but we had a garden hose and I pride myself for spraying the mattress down outside the house).

The information below comes from watching too many hours of Air Crash Investigation, and some episodes of PBS Nova and BBC Horizon. Especially BBC Horizon has an episode named ”How to Survive a Disaster.”

General rules for surviving a disaster

Adopt an attitude that you can and will survive

An important factor in survival is your mental attitude. Both before and during the emergency. Tell yourself right here and now that if a disaster strikes, you can and will survive.

Work on improving your self-esteem. It may actually help save your life in an emergency…

However, if you’re overconfident by nature, get humble and get info! (I.e. read on…)

It can happen to you!

Prepare yourself mentally that a disaster may happen to you. In the worst case scenario, you will be prepared unnecessarily. While if you assume it won’t happen to you, you won’t be prepared when it does.

An important part of being mentally prepared is to read all available safety information. Do it before the emergency!

Make a plan before the disaster strikes!

You may fancy yourself a great planner and improviser. In an emergency you might be required to do this planning and improvising in pitch darkness, having just awakened or regained consciousness, in a panic, unable to hear or communicate, surrounded by panicked, drunk and/or stupid people.

Even if you can handle all these problems, you may not have time to come up with a plan once disaster strikes.

You’re way better off making a plan beforehand.

Make the plan unique to your current situation. I.e. make it up at the hotel, in the airplane, on the boat. (More about the details of the plan further down).

Execute your plan immediately!

Execute the plan immediately once you’re in an emergency.

Evacuate first, then figure out how bad the situation really is.

You should rather want to stand on the sidewalk in your PJ’s while there is some smoke coming from the kitchen than lie dead face down in your lunch because you had just bought it and thought you had time to finish it before the situation got too bad…

Treat ambiguous situations as emergencies.

For instance, the fire alarm goes off and you don’t see smoke, or you see smoke but there’s no fire alarm. If you suspect there could be an emergency, set the plan in motion!

Do not take hints from people around you. Experiments have shown that people are willing to sit silently in a room filling with smoke if there are other people in the room calmly remaining. Now, if everybody in the room is looking at everybody else to be the first to evacuate…

Say goodbye to your possessions!

Decide right here and now that there are no material possessions worth more than your life and that of your fellow passengers!

Do not bring any luggage with you in an evacuation. In fact, if you don’t have your jacket on or in your lap, don’t bring it either.

How about irreplaceable family heirlooms?

Don’t bring them on vacation! Keep them in a fire safe or bank safe! If you have to transport them, use a specialized transport firm.

How about irreplaceable digital information?

That’s easy! Use backups and cloud drives. That way you can leave your laptop behind in an emergency.

Keep your property insured.

Groups or families

If you travel in a group, or as a family, your plan should be to rendezvous on a predetermined spot outside the hotel/airplane.

Do not plan to evacuate as a group!

Worst case scenario, your kids will run back into a burning building to evacuate with mom and dad… Make sure they know to wait at the rendezvous point instead!

Of course, you should assist kids or other people to evacuate, but your plan should never be to rendezvous first and evacuate afterward.

Surviving a disaster in a hotel

Hotel Colina Fire, Puerto Montt, Chile By Rodolfo Ditzel Lacoa (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Read the safety instructions.

Count the number of doors from your door to the emergency exit.

Use your hand on the wall to feel each door and the structure of the wall in between, that way making a tactile memory as well.

Follow the evacuation route all the way out on the street.

Test each and every door to familiarize yourself with how it operates.

Things to be cautious about in hotels

Missing safety information.

Places where you cannot follow the evacuation route all the way out on the street. Should you really go to sleep in this place?

Evacuation routes where you can easily get lost, for instance, a staircase that continues into the basement, or where the ground floor is similar to every other floor.

Ways to improve your odds of surviving a disaster in a hotel

Get a room no further up than the sixth floor. Most fire trucks don’t have ladders that can reach above the sixth floor.

Surviving a disaster on an airplane

“Plane crash into Hudson River (crop)” by Greg L – originally posted to Flickr as Plane crash into Hudson River. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons

Read the safety instructions and pay attention to the safety briefing.

Count the number of rows from your seat to the emergency exit. If possible, touch the seats with your hand to make a tactile memory as well.

You cannot rehearse opening the emergency door, but if you are seated near it, and may be expected to open it in an emergency, ask the cabin personnel if you are unsure of how it works.

Make sure you know where your life vest is located.

Things to be cautious about in an airplane

The seat belts do not operate like a car seat belt. Familiarize yourself with how it works. You may be required to operate it while hanging upside down after just having regained your consciousness.

Ways to improve your odds of surviving a disaster in an airplane

Always keep your seatbelt on, even when the seat-belt-sign is not lit. There have been cases where the airplane crew never had time to warn the passengers that they were about to have a crash. When the plane goes ”Terrain! Pull up!” the captain’s first priority will not be that of flipping on the seat-belt sign. Having the seatbelt on may save your life.

In a water landing, do not inflate your life vest until you’re outside the airplane. Otherwise, you risk being stuck in the top of the airplane body when it fills with water…

Each airplane disaster is different, and people seated at different places have different survival rates depending on the type of disaster. Statistics are dubious as to whether there are any safer seats. However, there are a few locations that may be beneficial.

Prefer a seat in the aisle, that way you do not have to wait for another panicked, drunk and/or stupid passenger to evacuate before you.

Prefer a seat within six rows from the emergency exit. There are airplane disasters where only people within this range of seats from the emergency exits survived.

Most airplanes in crashes travel nose first into any obstacles, so being seated further back in the airplane may be beneficial.

“Mayday Air Crash Investigation,” season 13, episode 11, “Getting out alive,” is covering air crash survival. Here’s a “freebie” version from YouTube:

Surviving a disaster on a ship

“A Costa Concordia kiemelése” by Lwp Kommunikáció – Flickr: A Costa Concordia kiemelése. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons

Read the safety instructions.

Count the number of doors from your cabin door to the emergency exit. Use your hand on the wall to make a tactile memory.

Follow the evacuation route all the way to the lifeboat.

Test each and every door to familiarize yourself with how it operates.

Find out where the life vests are located.

Point out any problems to the crew.

Things to be cautious about on a ship

Missing safety information.

Missing lifeboats or life vests.

Confused or unprofessional cabin crew. Do they seem like they would know what to do if a disaster would strike? If you are unsure, ask questions about safety procedures…They give vague answers? They have no clue? They don’t speak your language? Is that good or bad…?

If things look really bad, perhaps you should jump ashore rather than risk becoming one of those ferry disaster victims you’ve heard about in the news?

Ways to improve your odds of surviving a disaster on a ship

Some ships are floating nightclubs. If you get dead drunk your odds of surviving a disaster is decreased – in fact if you have a habit of getting dead drunk, you’re cutting down your lifespan anyway, so why not keep the drinking a bit more moderate while onboard?

Helping others survive

Here’s a case from real life:

You’re on a train with your spouse and children. Suddenly a metal beam comes shooting up from the floor, just where you’re sitting, all the way to the ceiling. No one is hit. You panic and leave the train car for an adjacent one.

What do you do next?

  1. Inform the conductor that there’s something wrong with the train
  2. Decide to leave the train at the next stop
  3. Pull the emergency brake

If you opt for alternative 1 or 2, congratulations, you’ve just missed an opportunity to save a hundred people, or at least limit the death toll.

If your train starts shooting metal beams up from the floor pull the emergency brake.

If you see smoke, pull the fire alarm.

If you see something strange on the airplane wing or engine call the cabin personnel.

Wouldn’t you rather have been wrong and get an earful from some person at the hotel, train, or airplane, or even have to pay some fee, rather than having done nothing and risk your own and other’s lives?

After initial survival

In some cases, you escape the airplane, the building, or the ship and run straight into the waiting arms of rescue workers. In other cases, you run straight into new problems…

If you’ve adopted the rule of being prepared that a disaster may occur (that’s general rule #2 above!), it’s time to read up on how to survive things like being in a desert, forest, or jungle, or on a deserted island, or just in the open ocean… here’s a good place to get you started:


The survival tips in this article are for informational purposes only. I take no responsibility for the reader’s individual actions or use of the information presented in this article.

Header image “A Costa Concordia kiemelése” by Lwp Kommunikáció – Flickr: A Costa Concordia kiemelése. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons

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