It’s a well-known fact that I am interested in pretty much anything. I don’t generally need a personal motive to dive into a topic and research it. A few months ago, as I related in my piece called “Titanic, Motherhood, and Unanswerable Questions,” I read a book on the way people react in disasters. Ostensibly, I read this book to better understand the men who evacuated the Titanic and how they handled the catastrophe unfolding around them, so that I could answer questions from my son. But secretly, I was also reading it to try to confirm something I felt, but for which I had no proof: that those who are granted authority in an emergency aren’t necessarily the best people for the job.
This conviction comes from a selfish and bitter place. For six years, I worked as an English teacher at a local private high school. It was both a wonderful and miserable experience. I loved my students, didn’t mind the parents, and really enjoyed the job itself. I got along, for the most part, with my colleagues. However, like almost all teachers who quit the profession (as explained in The Atlantic), I left because I hated my bosses. When I worked hard and was successful, they downplayed that success, or took credit for it themselves. When I failed at my job, my bosses magnified that failure (at my final, disastrous review, I was told that I needed to “stop complimenting other teachers behind their backs.” No, I’m not joking). I received little support or encouragement, and plenty of criticism. My most memorable moment of ridiculous, pointless critique (besides that “complimenting others” thing), happened the year my boss told me that he had been disappointed in the sub plans I had submitted during a recent illness. When I reminded him that my illness had been bacterial meningitis, and that despite being in crippling pain and on high-dose pain killers the entire time, I had managed to still submit a coherent (if somewhat basic) sub plan each day, he said: “Yes, I know. But I still feel they could have been better.”
Of the many things that galled me in my time at this school, there was one thing that I knew was especially petty and stupid, but that stuck with me: my role in our disaster plan. All schools are required to develop a plan to address what they will do in the event of a major disaster, such as an earthquake or a school shooting. Every person needs to have a role, and great thought goes into the hierarchy of roles assigned. At least, in theory it does. What I found, and this shouldn’t have surprised me, was that the roles given to people in our emergency plan were based on two things: seniority and popularity. Those in positions of authority were naturally at the head of various emergency departments, but right behind them were the teachers most favored by the administration. In fact, though it was probably just an oversight, the first time my boss handed out the disaster plan assignments, I wasn’t even on the list. When I was added, my role was something that I didn’t feel suited me at all: “student comfort,” the last role available.
I know this designation shouldn’t have bothered me, but it did. I don’t see myself as all that good at comforting people. I have a no-nonsense air about me, at least in my own mind. Certainly, I know I have a tendency to grow impatient with people whining or complaining. I like to take action. Though I’m talkative as all get-out, when something needs to be done, I don’t want to discuss the fifty thousand ways we could do it. I just want to get the damned thing finished. Picturing myself surrounded by frightened, miserable children while others rushed around achieving… things… I was convinced that “student comfort” was the last thing I should be doing.
More than that, I was annoyed by what other people had been assigned to do. I knew this was ridiculous and jealous on my part, but it was the truth. People I perceived as dithery and frustratingly prone to making protracted, agonized decisions had been put in charge. Friends I knew were capable and thoughtful were relegated to secondary roles. When we attempted each year to practice acting out our roles, I could see that few people even knew what their job entailed, much less took it seriously. The highlight of each year was figuring out who got to go off alone and “die” (usually on the floor of a locked bathroom stall) and how long it took us all to figure out who was missing. Though we were clumsy, slow, and badly organized, we never worked on improving our responses. We never learned anything from the fact that it often took an hour to find the “dead” person. Let me tell you, I seethed inwardly over that damned disaster plan. Each year, as it was trotted out yet again and I saw my name listed at the very bottom of the category for “student comfort,” as I watched the head of school don her yellow vest and pick up the bullhorn no one would listen to, I felt my gorge rise. I just knew, somehow, that they had the whole thing wrong.
I wasn’t sure what would actually be right, mind you. And that’s where the book comes in. Reading it, I figured, might finally explain to me why the plan was such a failure, and what might have worked better. The title of the books is The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – And Why, by Amanda Ripley, and it features a collection of stories about survivors’ reactions to disasters along with research that might explain why each person reacted as they did. I ate it up, fascinated. The whole time I was reading, I was thinking: “How would our school have reacted to this? Why didn’t we try these techniques?” But most importantly I wondered: “What would I do in this situation?”
I’m sure this is how most people think as they read books like this. We all wonder: what would I do if I were on the Titanic? Would I get off the boat alive? Presumably, we all like to think we would. Statistically, of course, that’s not true. People die when disasters come. As Ripley notes in her section on “Deliberation,” the second part of the human reaction to a catastrophe: “We all have ideas about what we might do in an emergency, but we are probably wrong. There are ways to predict behavior under extreme duress, and they aren’t what you might expect. People who are leaders or basket cases on a normal day at the office aren’t necessarily the same in a crisis.”
Of course, in the absence of any real disasters in my life (I have not been on any sinking ships), I had to ponder the few times when something happened that might have been disastrous in order to anticipate my own response. There was that time, shepherding sixteen teenagers across England, when one of the kids went off his rocker and randomly attacked another child with a wooden sword. Though it was my travel companion who did all the first aid, the trip was my responsibility, and so it was me who got us all to a place where we could find emergency care for the bleeding boy; it was me who led the others, including the attacker, back to our hotel in the dark; it was me who had to call the school and both boys’ parents; it was me who insisted, against pushback from my superiors, that the attacker had to go home immediately; and it was me who was, in the end, blamed for the incident occurring in the first place. I felt that I had handled something unexpected and unpredictable relatively calmly and with deliberation. The school felt otherwise, insisting that I could have been even more in control. Since I only had my own sense of the incident to really go on, I wasn’t sure they were wrong, exactly. Was I a leader? I thought so. But that was only one incident, and I wasn’t in any danger. No one was, actually (the wounds were relatively minor, and the attacker had calmed himself within seconds of the attack).
I hadn’t been through any other emergencies when I read the book. It wasn’t that no stressful situations had ever occurred in my life, but those that had occurred were long-term, not emergencies. Okay, once my infant son inhaled his own vomit and had to be rushed to the emergency room. I stayed pretty calm through that. And I had broken my wrist while out hiking miles from medical care, and I’d handled that pretty well. But Titanic? Nope, no way to know.
Until, on a small scale, last week.
I was driving home from the grocery store with my son and my youngest step-daughter. The grocery store is up the hill from our house. We were headed back down the hill from the store, when I saw a car coming toward me from the other side of the road.
The street we were travelling on is a four-lane main arterial with a center median lane, and generally very busy. Fortunately, this was a quiet Sunday afternoon, so the road was less trafficked than usual. I registered that the car was crossing out of the two uphill lanes into the median and toward the two downhill lanes. I saw that the driver’s-side door was open, and a man was running beside the car, holding onto the door. The car was accelerating up the hill at a pace that meant the man was struggling to keep up.
The first thing I thought was that they were trying to somehow start or push the car. After all, that’s normally what is happening when someone is running alongside a car’s passenger side with another person in the driver’s seat. Amanda Ripley explains that in an emergency, the first thing our brains do is to try to make sense of what we are experiencing: “The human brain works by identifying patterns. It uses information from the past to understand what is happening in the present and to anticipate the future. This strategy works elegantly in most situations. But we inevitably see patterns where they don’t exist. In other words, we are slow to recognize exceptions.” She calls this stage “denial.” In some people, denial can last for so long that the situation is over before the person experiencing it even realizes fully that it has begun. Denial can be deadly. How long one stays in this stage, therefore, is a good indicator of whether one will react to an emergency, or simply become another bystander.
It was only after I had carefully driven around the car and passed it that I realized my initial assumption must be wrong. Nobody pushes a car UP a hill, especially at that speed. Then my brain registered one other important feature of the car: the front end was badly damaged. I slowed my car to a stop and looked in my rear-view mirror. At this point, I had driven less than a few hundred feet after passing the other car.
I saw that the man I who had been running beside the car was now at the back door, pulling a small child from the still-moving vehicle. I heard the vehicle’s horn sounding. And then, as I watched in growing horror, I saw the driver struggle out of the car, catch her foot in the seat belt, and fall. The car, still powering up the hill, ran over her. Her legs were drawn up into the wheel well and pulled through. The car continued toward the opposite curb, while the woman lay in the median of the street, screaming and writhing in pain.
“Oh my god!” I said. “That person just got hit by the car!” My kids, eyes wide, turned in their seats to stare, fortunately missing the actual accident.
For a moment, I hesitated over what to do. I knew I needed to get out and help; that wasn’t even a question. My concern was that I was now stopped in the far lane of a busy four-lane road, with two children in the car. I searched frantically for the button to active my hazard lights, which I had never had to use. After I found it, I shouted to my kids to get out of the car and stand on the sidewalk, so that if someone hit my car, the kids wouldn’t be injured. Of everything I did in the next few moments, I’m oddly proudest of that moment.
Before my children were fully out of the car (and to their credit, neither child said a word: they just got out), I was running toward the injured woman with my cell phone in my hand, dialing 911.
Perhaps this isn’t news to you, but it was to me: sometimes, 911 doesn’t answer. The phone rang and rang. I couldn’t process the fact that no one was picking up on the other end, but as soon as it went through to some sort of “the lines are busy” recording, I simply hung up and put the phone in my pocket. Across the road, further up from my car, I saw another woman standing and talking on the phone. I assumed she was also calling 911, and that calmed my rising sense of panic.
As I approached the three people who had been in the accident, I saw that the man had helped the woman to her feet. She was covered in blood, as was the child. Both were sobbing hysterically. “Call 911!” the woman shouted to me. I explained that I had tried but that I hadn’t been able to get through, and that someone else was calling them. We made our way toward the sidewalk. By now, her car had rolled back across all four lanes and stopped. They were limping slowly toward it, so I followed.
What was I thinking? I’m not sure. The woman who had been run over by the car was now holding the crying child. Both were bleeding, though neither one was in any danger of bleeding to death. The man appeared to be in shock, following silently beside them, supporting the injured woman. All I knew was that I needed to take the child from the woman, that she shouldn’t be carrying anything. This compulsion was overwhelming.
I said to her: “Give me the baby, sweetie, so you can sit down.” The child reached out and grabbed me tightly around the neck, but the mother wouldn’t let go. For a moment, we had a tug-of-war: I kept asking for the baby, and she kept screaming and holding his legs. Finally, I said, as clearly as I could: “If you let go and sit down, I’ll put her on your lap.”
“It’s a boy,” the man said quietly behind me.
“Okay,” I said. “Sit down and I’ll put him on your lap.”
She sat down heavily on the curb, and I gently laid her son down in her arms. She held him close, rocking and weeping.
At that moment, my phone rang.
Why did I answer the phone? I have no idea. The number was unfamiliar. I didn’t know why it was ringing, but when your phone rings, you answer it, right? So I answered it. It was 911, calling me back because I had hung up. This particular operator hadn’t yet heard about the accident. I explained where we were, and that we had two injured people in need of an ambulance. I walked over to the car and saw that it had crashed into a light pole (either initially, or when it rolled back down the hill), which was now blocking one lane of the road. Everything was covered in broken glass. The operator took the information, and asked for my name. “Jessica,” I told her, and then she hung up. I turned back to the mother and child.
And this is where it gets really strange. The mother had been screaming, as I’ve said, the entire time. Mostly, she was unintelligible, but now she was apologizing to the child, over and over. “I’m sorry, baby. I’m so sorry,” she cried. Then she leaned over, and began to lick the blood from her child’s scalp. This didn’t seem nearly as odd to me in the moment as it does now. I think she was just trying to see where the blood was coming from, how badly he was hurt. And I’m sure she was in shock. But in my memory, this macabre moment stands out anyway, as though painted in brighter colors than the rest of the day. The child stared up at me, eyes fixed in shock. He had stopped crying by this point. I leaned over mother and child, reassuring her that everything was going to be okay.
The woman from across the street arrived at that moment, handing her phone to the injured mother and explaining that 911 wanted to talk to her about her injuries. After handing the mother the phone, the second woman stood back up and looked at me. “Are you all right?” she asked, and pointed to my face. “You’re covered in blood.”
“It’s the little boy’s,” I told her and she grimaced. I heard the sound of sirens coming up the hill, and seconds later, I was motioning the police car over, and after that, the fire trucks. There was no more need for me to do anything.
Before I left, the man turned to me. “Jessica,” he said, “thank you.”
I hugged him. “I hope everything is okay,” I replied. Then I jogged back across the blocked-off street, gathered my kids into the car, and drove home. Once inside, I walked to the bathroom and looked in the mirror. Blood streaked my cheek and trailed down my neck. I washed it off quickly.
Then I cried for at least fifteen minutes.
I don’t know what happened to cause the accident. I have no idea what happened to the mother and her child. I don’t think, in the end, that either one was grievously wounded. After all, the mother was able to walk across the road after being hit by her car, and the child, as far as I could tell, was only suffering from cuts along his scalp (probably from flying glass). The child was probably about four or five, old enough to get out of his car seat on his own. That might explain why the man was removing him from a still-moving car. I don’t know why the mother tried to follow him out of the car before it stopped. I have no idea who the man was, or how he escaped the accident unscathed. Was he in the car? Was he a bystander too? I don’t know.
Once the emergency crews arrived, I was no longer needed. There was no follow-up story in the news. No one called me to ask what I had seen. In the end, both mother and child have passed from my life, and I will probably never know what became of them. I can only assume they were both fine, once they received treatment.
Everything about that accident shook me. I couldn’t sleep that night, playing the moment when the car hit the mother over and over again in my head. Waves of nausea would roll over me just thinking about the child’s blood on my cheek. It took at least a day before I could talk to anyone about it. I spent a lot of time wondering how paramedics, doctors and soldiers deal with the much more terrifying things they see every day, given how much this relatively minor accident affected me.
Looking carefully my own response, I am gratified to know that I did not freeze. Amanda Ripley explains that there are three reactions to emergencies after the stages of denial and deliberation have passed: people either panic, suffer paralysis, or take action. Panic is unpredictable and deadly, but didn’t really apply here, as I wasn’t personally in danger. Paralysis is another story. “’Freezing’,” Ripley reports, “is as common as fleeing in the repertoire of human disaster responses. But it’s also a complicated response. It has meant certain death for many thousands of people over the centuries.” My greatest worry while reading the book was that I would freeze in an emergency, so I was happy that I hadn’t. I acted quickly, even before I knew what the situation would require.
I took action, and that’s good, but what surprised me most is the action that I took. I didn’t try to administer first aid. I can rationalize this now, saying that there was no way I could possibly have offered it. No one was bleeding profusely enough to require pressure, and if either mother or child were injured, that injury must have been internal. I’m not prepared to help with that. We weren’t there long before the paramedics arrived, so shock wasn’t yet dangerous enough to warrant treatment from me. But still… shouldn’t I have checked for injuries in some way? I don’t know why I didn’t do this. I’ve been trained in first aid, multiple times. But in the end, what I did… was to offer comfort.
I know, I know. It’s ironic. All those years of chaffing against that last-minute designation, given to me because I was accidently left off the list in the planning stages, and what do I do when the first real emergency situation of my life arrives? Live right up to that damned emergency planning list, of course.
Not that this is a bad thing, really. I know comfort is important. It was, in the end, really all that was required of me in this situation. But I’m still fussy about it. I hate, hate, hate it when idiots are right, even when they are right only by accident.
Would I have survived the Titanic? This incident has made me think that perhaps I would not. If it were to happen today, I suspect I would throw my kids in the lifeboat and stay behind to help. I might, when faced with real danger to myself and my family, freeze, though this seems unlikely. I might choose, as so many women did, to stay with the man I love. Who knows? There is no way to predict what action I would take in a life-threatening emergency. Heck, I didn’t even know I’d try to offer comfort. But at least I’m pretty sure that I’d do something, and that makes me feel… relieved, I think, in some small way.