Survival 101: How to Survive a Plane Crash, Train Crash and Other Disasters

Experts say one second can make the difference between life and death.

ByABC News
December 22, 2009, 6:28 PM

Dec. 22, 2009— -- When disaster strikes without warning, why do some die while others survive? A second can make the difference between life and death.

"You are responsible for your life," said Ed Galea, professor at the Universities of Greenwich, Liverpool and Ulster, who has spent the last 25 years analyzing how humans react in emergencies. "If you know what you're doing, you've got a better chance of surviving."

Galea and his team interviewed 300 people who escaped from the attacks on the Twin Towers on 9/11. They made a startling discovery. When the planes hit, only one in 10 people inside the World Trade Center reacted immediately.

"The majority of people took about a maximum of about eight minutes to react to the building being hit! Eight minutes," he said. "Some people even took longer -- 20 minutes, 30 minutes -- to actually disengage from whatever activity they were involved with to start to physically evacuate."

That's normal human behavior, but it's not the most prudent for survival. Galea walked "Nightline" through his tips to survive disasters -- and strategies to weather a plane crash, train crash or sinking ship.

1. Listen to the alarm.

Galea said the most common response to hearing a fire alarm, or any sort of emergency alarm, is to ignore it. People assume that any alarm is a false alarm, or just a drill.

"People don't want to be, or to appear to be weak or to be silly or to be scared," Galea said. "Peer group pressure actually prevents people from being the first to react. And once you've had one person react, other people are likely to follow."

But when escaping disaster, every second counts.

"People need to learn to react immediately [when] an alarm is sounded," he said.

2. Fear fire. It spreads very fast.

In modern life, our fear of fire has dimmed to a dangerous nonchalance.

"People have lost respect and understanding of fire," Galea said, "The only time people come into contact with fire in modern society is perhaps lighting a barbecue."

When a blaze swept through a British department store in 1979, people could smell the fire, could hear the alarm, but since they'd just bought lunch, they stayed to finish eating. The fire killed 10 people -- most of them in the cafeteria. If you weren't out of that building in 30 seconds, you didn't stand a prayer.

In 2003, 100 people died at a Rhode Island nightclub during a fire sparked by a pyrotechnics. "The fire just engulfed the building at such a high rate of speed -- from then on it turned into a nightmare," one survivor said.

Galea built a computer model of that fire and saw how quickly flames and smoke spread. It only took 90 seconds until the entire dance floor and bar area were covered.