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.

ByABC News
January 16, 2009, 12:31 PM

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."