I was flabbergasted when I read this story last week: Baggage-Toting Fliers Remain a Risk to Emergency Evacuations. It begins:
Jumping down a steep evacuation slide from a burning airplane with people all around panicking isn’t easy, and you need your arms and hands to help. Yet time after time, passengers evacuate toting suitcases, laptop computers and other valuables they apparently can’t leave behind.
Images from the crash landing of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 in San Francisco showed some dazed passengers fleeing the Boeing wreckage with carry-on bags and iPads. One even had two boxes of duty-free alcohol. Some ran in shoes with heels—another bad idea when survival is at stake.
“You have 90 seconds or less to evacuate. If people are worried about their luggage instead of the people behind them, it’s a problem,” said Leslie Mayo, communications coordinator for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants and a veteran American Airlines flight attendant.
Flight attendants are trained to bark commands that get dazed and panicky passengers moving. At American, attendants train to yell “Open seat belts! Leave everything! Come this way!”
There are multiple reasons to leave belongings behind. Grabbing bags out of overhead bins or from under seats can clog aisles and slow an evacuation. Jumping down a slide designed for rapid movement is jarring and often people clutching bags lose them. Items go flying into other evacuees, flight attendants say. And then there is the need for your arms and hands when you get to the bottom to brace against impact with the ground.
Initially, I was amazed to think that people could be so damn stupid — and even callous — to risk themselves and their fellow passengers by attempting to carry their baggage with them from the crashed plane. After some reflection, however, I realized that most people have never seriously thought about what to do in such an emergency. Then, when it strikes, they’re petrified. They’re panicked and unprepared. They’re probably not thinking clearly. To leave their always-with-me personal belongings behind would go very much against the grain of their habits, plus leave them feeling even more vulnerable. So they cling to those possessions, even when they ought to leave them behind.
People living in areas subject to flash floods, tsunamis, or wildfires are used to the demands of speedy evacuation. They know that they might be required to leave pretty much everything behind, with just a few minutes of notice. (In contrast, hurricanes and blizzards offer plenty of advance warning, tornados trigger seeking shelter not evacuation, and earthquakes happen without warning.)
For me, adjusting to the risk of wildfire definitely required a change in my mindset. I had to explicitly recognize my priorities, namely people and animals… and then hard drives, computers, and the rest — time permitting. Ultimately, I came to see every material possession as disposable — even insignificant — when compared to the lives of the humans and beasts Chez Hsieh. Even still, I’d struggle to leave my wallet and iPhone behind in case of an emergency evacuation from a plane.
That’s a mindset that most passengers on that dreadful Asiana Airlines flight on probably never cultivated. Until that day, they never seemed to have any reason to do so. Yet in reality, every person who steps on a train or plane should recognize that they might need to evacuate quickly, with nothing more than the shirt on his or her back. The risk is very small, but the consequences of attempting to take a suitcase down an airplane slide can be quite serious for yourself and your fellow passengers.
If you’re interested in further discussion of this topic, check out my recent interview with Community Preparedness Program Manager Fran Santagata about “Preparing for Wildfires and Evacuations” on the 2 July 2013 episode of Philosophy in Action Radio.
For more details, see the episode’s archive page.