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Tomorrow, some of us will have to make split-second choices to save ourselves and our families. How will we react? What will it feel like? Will we be heroes or victims? Amanda Ripley, an award-winning journalist for Time magazine who has covered some of the most devastating disasters of our age, set out to discover what lies beyond fear and speculation. Then, to understand the science behind the stories, Ripley turns to leading brain scientists, trauma psychologists, and other disaster experts, formal and informal, from a Holocaust survivor who studies heroism to a master gunfighter who learned to overcome the effects of extreme fear.

Finally, Ripley steps into the dark corners of her own imagination, having her brain examined by military researchers and experiencing through realistic simulations what it might be like to survive a plane crash into the ocean or to escape a raging fire. The Unthinkable escorts us into the bleakest regions of our nightmares, flicks on a flashlight, and takes a steady look around. Then it stopped for good, trapping her and five other people. Smoke began to slowly coil in from below.

Thinking About the Unthinkable

Two men grappled with the door. A woman dropped to her knees and started praying, making Zedeno nervous. Then one of the men calmly directed everyone to get low and cover their faces. They all did as they were told. Zedeno concentrated on keeping her breathing shallow and slow. But the more she tried to calm down, the harder her heart seemed to pound. Then they heard a man screaming in the elevator next to them. But soon he was quiet. She visualized rescue workers finding them dead inside the elevator later.

Just then, she thought she would lunge for the doors and start banging herself. But before she could, the temp had started doing it for her. He was screaming and banging. So Zedeno took charge of quieting him down. You're going to inhale too much smoke," she told him. He started to cough and returned to the floor. It was around then that Zedeno was filled with a wave of peace, inexplicably. My mind no longer wandered.

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Suddenly, I wasn't there anymore. I was just watching. I could see the people lying in the elevator. The sounds were far away, and I was just hovering.

Amanda Ripley: The Unthinkable--Who Survives When Disaster Strikes on Vimeo

I had no emotions. It turned out the car had returned to the lobby level, and that's where they'd been all along. Zedeno could not see the face of the firefighter who pulled her out; the smoke was too thick. She did as he instructed, grabbing onto a rope and following it out through the lobby and out the doors. She was stunned by the darkness in the lobby and the emptiness outside. She thought that once she had made it out of her own private catastrophe, everything would be normal, bustling and bright.

She never imagined that a place could look so different.

In the basement below, a Ryder truck full of eleven hundred pounds of explosives had left a crater five stories deep. Six people had died. It was the largest full-building evacuation in U.

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - And Why

Smoke purled up the stairways. The power failed, rendering the emergency communications system useless and the stairways dark. People moved extraordinarily slowly. Ten hours after the explosion, firefighters were still finding people who had not yet evacuated in their offices. After the bombing, glow-in-the-dark tape and backup power generators were installed in the Trade Center. Both helped save lives eight years later.

But still no one fully answered the fundamental question: why did people move so slowly? The bombing became a story about terrorism, as would the attacks on the same buildings eight years later, and rightly so. But they were also stories of procrastination and denial, the first phase of the human disaster experience.

A few days later, Zedeno was right back at work in a neighboring building.

One month later, her office reopened on the seventy-third floor of Tower 1. She started riding the same elevator to work. But it was months before she could get the taste of soot out of her mouth. She thought about leaving the towers, but not with any conviction.

Amanda Ripley: The Unthinkable–Who Survives When Disaster Strikes

It's in Your Head! She came to America with her family from Cuba when she was eleven. Her parents had spent her entire childhood plotting to get away from Fidel Castro. When they finally got permission to leave in the early s, they moved to West New York, New Jersey, where their daughter could see the brand-new Trade Center Towers sunning themselves almost everywhere she went. When she was nineteen, Zedeno visited the Trade Center for the first time. When she returned for her second interview, her mother came with her. The boss hired her on the spot, and, on her lunch break, Zedeno ran to the plaza to tell her mother.

They took the train home together that evening. Eventually, Zedeno got promoted to the finance section. Her office had regular fire drills, which consisted of gathering in the hallway to gossip.


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During a blackout in , she and her office mates walked down the tower's stairs. That's how they learned that homeless people had been using the lower stairwells as bathrooms. When Zedeno talks, her voice goes up at the end of her sentences, like a child telling you something outrageous. She remembers life in surround-sound detail. When I ask her what it was like to leave Cuba as a little girl, she tells me about the day she left in April of Her mother was doing her hair when they heard the sound of a motorcycle.

Suddenly, the sound stopped in front of their house. A soldier walked in the front door without knocking and told them to leave. Zedeno knew this was good news: they had finally won permission to go to America. Fifteen minutes later, they left their house forever.