Surviving an Emergency: 'If You Need to Think, It's Too Late'

"20/20" looks at what you can do to survive almost any catastrophe.

Jan. 19, 2008— -- When disaster strikes without warning, why do some die while others live?

How do some people survive devastating injuries and seemingly impossible odds? And what can you do to better your chances of surviving almost any catastrophe?

On Thursday, a US Airways Airbus A-320 made an emergency landing in the Hudson River off Manhattan's West Side. All 155 on board survived.

Journalist Amanda Ripley, author of the book "The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes -- and Why," says this is, amazingly, not surprising.

"We expect, if we're in a plane crash, that's it for us," she said. "That's a very dangerous mentality because if you think that's it for you, then you won't do anything to save yourself."

We've all seen disasters unfold on television, but few of us know how we'd react if we were caught in one. If you had a few seconds to make a life or death decision, would you make the right choice? Would you freeze or panic?

There is a common misconception that when faced with disaster we will panic. Ripley says that in fact the opposite usually occurs -- people freeze.

"The more I looked at this, the more examples I found, in sinking ferries, in plane crashes and burning buildings, you name it," she said. "There is a good number of people who literally stop moving and they shut down. I think the thing that's most surprising is that your biggest threat is that you will move too slowly or shut down altogether."

Ben Sherwood is the author of a new book called "The Survivors Club -- The Secrets and Science That Could Save Your Life." He says freezing in disaster situations is called behavioral inaction.

"When you look out the window and see the wing of your plane burning, you've never seen that before," Sherwood said. "And your memory searches for what to do in this situation. Finding nothing that compares to a wing burning, you search again. And it becomes an endless loop of searching and having no action."

'Everybody Is a Survivor'

Everyone has a so-called "disaster personality" -- their way of reacting in a sudden crisis. And while a few behave heroically, the truth is that most of us will simply freeze, helpless to survive.

But all that can change if we've done one simple thing. Ripley says all you need is a little knowledge.

"Everything you've given your brain before things go bad matters a great deal. It's just amazing how much better your brain can do with a little bit of information."

Learning simple information can be critical, especially when every second counts. In a major plane crash with fire you have 90 seconds to escape before the cabin is filled with toxic smoke. Ripley says you have to be prepared.

"People who are sitting near the exit row should kind of visually rehearse how you could open that door," she said. "If you need to think, it's too late, because the way your brain operates under extreme duress is that you lose functions like processing new information. So it's got to be in there on some level. Even people who read those silly safety briefing cards on airplanes, there's evidence those people are more likely to survive a plane crash."

Sherwood says plane crashes are highly unlikely and the odds are you will survive.

"You could fly every day for the next 164,000 years and not have an airplane crash. So in the unlikely event that something were to happen, there is this idea that everybody dies in airplane crashes. I call that the myth of hopelessness," he said. "But when the government looked at 53,000 people who have been in airplane accidents in the last 20 years, they found that 95.7 percent survived the accident."

In the unlikely event of a plane crash we should all take comfort in the knowledge that we have the power to save ourselves.

"If a plane crashes it's very likely that I'm going to survive it, and if I do the right thing, if I pay attention, if I have a plan, if I act, the chances are even better," Sherwood said. "Everybody is a survivor. Everybody has some of the qualities to get through life's toughest stuff."