Book Excerpt: 'The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes -- and Why'

Zedeno has revisited the moments of her escape from the Trade Center until they are worn and familiar. She now gives tours of Ground Zero to tourists from around the world. But still there are riddles she cannot decipher, behavioral glitches that don't make obvious sense. More than anything else, she is mystified by how slow she was to accept what was happening all day long.

After the plane hit the building, Zedeno told me, she wanted nothing so much as to stay. Like her, I was perplexed by this reaction. Shouldn't a primal, survival instinct have kicked in, propelling her to the door? I wondered if Zedeno was unusual. So I went to the National Fire Academy to find out. The instructors at the school, located on the rolling grounds of a former Catholic college in rural Maryland, are veteran firefighters who have witnessed just about every conceivable form of human behavior in fire. I met Jack Rowley, who spent thirty-three years as a firefighter in Columbus, Ohio. When I told him about Zedeno, he told me that he saw this kind of curious indifference all the time. In fact, he came to consider one particular kind of fire a regular Saturday night ritual. His station house would get dispatched to a bar; he would walk into the establishment and see smoke. But he would also see customers sitting at the bar nursing their beers. "We would say, 'Looks like there's a fire here,'" he says. He'd ask the customers if they felt like evacuating. "They would say, 'No, we'll be just fine.'"

One of the few people who has extensively analyzed behavior at the Trade Center in both 1993 and 2001 is Guylene Proulx at Canada's National Research Council. And what she saw fit with Zedeno's memory exactly. "Actual human behavior in fires is somewhat different from the 'panic' scenario. What is regularly observed is a lethargic response," she wrote in a 2002 article in the journal Fire Protection Engineering. "People are often cool during fires, ignoring or delaying their response."

In a May 19, 2006, column in the Wall Street Journal, Matthew Kaminski wrote about a recent flight he'd taken from Paris to New York. Three hours out of Paris, halfway into the movie Jarhead, Kaminski heard a loud thud and felt the plane shudder and swerve. "The captain made no announcement. No one asked the flight attendants a thing," he wrote. And yet, wrote Kaminski, a veteran traveler, "My stomach told me to worry."

About an hour later, the pilot announced the plane would be making an emergency landing in St. John's, Newfoundland. It seems one of the plane's four engines had blown out. As the plane approached the landing strip, the passengers could see fire trucks and ambulances on the tarmac below. The French flight attendant's English was deteriorating fast. In a high-pitched voice, she ordered the passengers to "Brace, brace!" And what did about half the passengers do in this moment of exquisite tension? Did they panic or weep or pray to God? No. They laughed.

The plane, as it turned out, landed safely. And Kaminski was left to marvel at his fellow passengers' well-developed sense of irony.

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