As a part-time first responder who is interested in emergency management, disaster recovery, and safety in general, I read pretty much everything related to those topics that I can get my hands on, including a lot of stuff about how people respond in a crisis. It’s fascinating stuff, and some really excellent books have been written about it, such as Amanda Ripley’s The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – And Why.
A side effect of this is that I have started paying attention to what I would call “unusual” deaths and accidents. People keep doing things that I would consider to be pretty damn unsafe, and it costs them. Recent examples are plenty. A man leaves the designated paths at Yellowstone, and falls into a spring that is so high-temperature and acidic that there is literally no body to recover. A young man accidentally shoots himself while taking a selfie with a pistol. A tourist in Australia goes swimming at 10 at night in an area clearly marked with signs warning about crocodiles and gets killed by a crocodile over 14 feet long. Or the guy in Georgia back in March who decided that it would be cool to pack an old lawnmower with 3 pounds of Tannerite and then shoot at it from only 40 feet away. He blew off his own leg, and the whole thing was caught on video.
And I realized that what all of these people had in common was this: a lack of fear. Specifically, a lack of what I would consider to be the healthy kind of fear.
The people who scoff at danger, only to be killed by it, are so frequently portrayed in popular culture, especially on television and in movies, that it’s become a trope. But there’s a large element of truth to it. People frequently refuse to believe they are in danger, even when they are. They have been through this before, and so they think it will be just like that other time. So their experience actually works against them.
One person who comes immediately to mind for me is a man named Harry Truman. Not the President, mind you, this was a different guy named Harry Truman. This Harry Truman owned a lodge on Spirit Lake in Washington State. He refused to evacuate when the government ordered it on April 30th, 1980. He scoffed at the idea that the volcano would erupt, or that he would be in any danger if it did. He had run the lodge for more than 50 years. It was his life. So he was one of the few people who lived there year-round, with his 16 cats to keep him company. A local TV crew spent some time with Harry the year before, filming him and his cats and talking with him about his life at the lodge. You can see how a lot of people thought of him as a lovable curmudgeon.
When Harry refused to evacuate, to some people he became a bit of a folk hero, even making it into national media for a few weeks. I remember seeing other people on TV, complaining about how the government made them leave for nothing because nothing was going to happen.
So when the mountain finally erupted on May 18, 1980, Harry and all his kitty companions died, buried under the largest avalanche in recorded history when the entire northern slope of Mt. St. Helens collapsed and the mountain exploded. One of the reasons that the eruption still killed some 60 people is that no one expected the blast to be as big as it was. In fact, only 3 of the people who died were in the designated danger zone (Harry was one of them). And if the eruption had not happened on a Sunday morning, but a weekday, there would have been even more casualties – probably hundreds – because of all the logging crews in the area.
A big part of the problem, then, was the underestimation of the threat, for a variety of reasons. The danger zone extended out to 3 miles or so, if memory serves. Yes, that is a fair distance, but you have to put it in perspective of the scale of the possible events we might be talking about. But the historical record certainly showed the range of possibilities, and without better information, it would seem prudent to take that into account. For example, Saint-Pierre was about four miles from Mt. Pelee. Pompeii was about five miles from Mt. Vesuvius. Pyroclastic flows from the 1883 eruption of Mt. Krakatoa traveled as far as 25 miles. So knowing that it would be near impossible to escape once it started would motivate me to be quite further away.
So fear, properly handled, can be a constructive tool. Certainly that seems to be the perspective of some writers, such as Gavin De Becker, whose book The Gift of Fear is on my list of things to read. I am guessing that De Becker talks about what I would call the healthy kind of fear.
I guess my point in all this is that ultimately, I hope to make decisions based on a strong grasp of the facts and knowledge of the full range of possibilities and probabilities. I tend to err on the side of caution when it comes to most things. And frankly, I feel better that way.