Here’s why the story is so important: it’s about why, when disaster strikes, some people die and other people live. And if you ever find yourself in such a situation, I want you to be in the latter category.
So what makes the difference? Turns out it’s the advice that every Boy Scout has been taught for nearly 100 years now: be prepared.
I know that when you hear advice like this, it’s easy to dismiss it with a roll of the eyes. Oh sure, you think, you want me to turn into one of those fruitcakes who hole up in a cabin in the woods with a hundred cases of ammunition to wait for the End Times.
But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m not talking about going overboard and trying to protect against every eventuality, no matter how unlikely. What I’m talking about is taking some basic, easy, inexpensive steps to protect yourself against common threats to life and limb.
The common thread in the survival stories TIME recounts is this: the people who survive had thought about how to survive. The people who died had not.
Why is this important? Because in a crisis situation, the easiest way to die is to freeze up — to do nothing. And the best way to avoid freezing up is to have some ideas in advance about what you would do if you were put at risk. If you can easily reach for those ideas without having to think them through for the first time under incredible pressure, you will be much, much more likely to survive than if you cannot.
Here are a few examples of what I’m talking about. Finding the answers to these questions will literally take you only a few minutes — but those few minutes could save your life.
- At work: Do you know where the fire exits are in your building? If you work in a multistory building, do you know how to reach the stairwell? Could you find it blindfolded if you had to? (If the building is on fire, smoke and panic will cut visibility way, way down.)
- Commuting: If you commute to work, and your method of commuting (car, train, bus, subway) disappeared, how would you get home? (Don’t say “I’d call someone on my cell phone”; in emergencies, the cell networks are commonly swamped with people trying to make that call.) If you work in a city, could you walk home if you had to? Do you know what route you would take?
- Traveling: If you’re traveling on a ship, do you know where the lifeboats are stored? If you’re on a plane, do you know where the nearest emergency exit is?
- At home: If the electricity was turned off to your residence suddenly and didn’t come back for a week, would you be able to survive? What about if the running water disappeared for a similar period? If your home or apartment caught fire and you had to leave immediately, what would you take with you? Could you find your important documents easily in such a situation?
These are all simple enough to answer “yes” to — and if you can’t answer “yes” today, a few minutes’ time will get you to the point where you can. Thinking through these precautions won’t cost you anything. But they can save lives.
These simple precautions can help you whether you are caught in a big crisis or a small one. On 9/11, for example, untold numbers died in the World Trade Center because they didn’t know how to find the stairwell and exit the building, or because they believed that instead of going down via the stairwell the wiser decision was to go up to the roof and wait for rescue by helicopter. (It wasn’t; rescuing people from a skyscraper by helicopter is very, very tricky. If you’re in a burning or otherwise threatened building it’s always safer to go down.) Some offices took the time to teach these facts to their people; those offices suffered far fewer casualties than the ones that did not.
But even in smaller-scale crises, a little thinking ahead can do you a lot of good. In 2003, for example, the town where I live (Alexandria, Virginia) was hit by a hurricane — Hurricane Isabel. Isabel was no Katrina, but it was a pretty bad storm, and it wreaked some substantial havoc in our community. After the storm blew through, our power was out for several days, and thanks to damage at the city’s water treatment plant, our water wasn’t safe to drink for nearly a week.
As you can imagine, this put a serious crimp in a lot of people’s ability to live. Water, especially, is a terrible thing to lose suddenly; we can live several days without food if we have to, but without water that time is cut down to hours. Thankfully, the city managed to bring in water from outside and distribute it to those who needed it. But I didn’t have to join the long queues for water because I’d learned as a child in Cairo (where the municipal water would often shut down for hours or even days with little warning) the wisdom of keeping a few days’ worth of canned food and bottled water on hand. Having those supplies handy meant that what could have been a major life disruption was, instead, only a minor inconvenience.
In a crisis, that’s where you want to be. That’s where I want you to be. And that’s why I urge you to read the TIME article and think about those questions I posed above.
Five years ago, I wrote in this space that “the antidote for terror is knowledge“. That’s as true today as it was then. So take a few minutes, get the knowledge and bank it away. Hopefully you will never need it — but if you ever do, you’ll be glad it’s there.