Disaster behaviour: how people acted in Mumbai

Amanda Ripley, author of The Unthinkable (which I’ve just started and which is shaping up to be very good) has an interesting observation on her blog about disaster behaviour during the Mumbai attacks.  She starts by quoting a New York Times article on the attacks as follows:

As the city faced one of the most horrific terrorist attacks in the nation’s history, many ordinary citizens…displayed extraordinary grace….[At] the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower Hotel, a sous chef named Nitin Minocha and his co-workers shepherded more than 200 restaurant diners into a warren of private club rooms called The Chambers. For the rest of the night they prepared snacks, served soda, fetched cigarettes and then, when told it was safe, tried to escort the diners out through the back. They wanted to make sure their guests, many of them Mumbai’s super-elite, were as comfortable as possible. “The only thing was to protect the guests,” said the executive chef, Hemant Oberoi. “I think my team did a wonderful job in doing that. We lost some lives in doing that.”

As Ripley observes, the interesting thing here is that,

In catastrophes, human beings tend to hold fast to the roles they held before anything went wrong. Hotel guests, like airplane passengers, tend to play the part of the passive, obedient victims. Employees–even ones earning poverty level wages–tend to feel a profound sense of responsiblity for the guests they were serving cocktails to just moments before. A study of the Beverly Hill Supper Club fire found that about 60% of the employees tried to help in some way–either by directing the guests to safety or fighting the fire. By comparison, only 17% of the guests helped. People were remarkably loyal to their identities, and so it was in Mumbai.

Her conclusion:

Imagine, just for kicks, if our culture pushed everyone to have an identity as someone who helped, who took action in the face of terror and confusion, who was responsible for the safety of others. Imagine how crowded the trenches would be.