Yet another perspective on 9–11

What would you do when the fire alarm rings?

I have just finished reading Stephen Grosz’s “The Examined Life”. The book is sub-titled “”How we lose and find ourselves”.

Grosz is an English psychotherapist with many decades of experience who has assisted 1,000s of clients in his time. The book is filled with case histories from his files. He talks about successes and failures. It is an engrossing book and I missed many train stops while my head was buried in its pages.

In the section dealing with change, Grosz relates the experience of one 9–11 survivor.

When the first plane hit the north tower of the World Trade Centre, Marissa Panigrossi was on the ninety-eighth floor of the south tower. She was talking to her co-workers. She felt the explosion as much as heard it. A blast of hot air hit her face.

While a wave of panic spread through the office very few evacuated the building. Marissa Panigrossi didn’t pause to turn off her computer or even pick up her purse. She just walked to the nearest exit and left the building.

What would you do?

The two women she was talking to and the woman in the cubicle next to hers did not leave the building, even though the fire alarm began to sound at one point.

The north tower was just 131 feet away.

A friend of Marissa’s, Tamitha Freeman returned to her office after descending several flights of stairs. “I have to go back for my baby pictures.” she said. Tamitha lost her life when the south tower was hit by the second plane.

Marissa Panigrossi did not understand why her friends just stood around. She asked them why they were not leaving. However and surprisingly the reaction of her friends and co-workers is the rule.

Research has shown that when the fire alarm sounds people do not act immediately. They talk to each other and try and work out what is happening. We don’t act, we wait. We wait for clues, smell of smoke, direction from a warden, word from management etc.

However, even with more clues some people still do not move. In 1985, fifty-six people died when fire broke out in the stands at Valley Parade stadium in Bradford. Footage later revealed that despite the fire, people did not move preferring to watch the fire and the game.

Research shows that when we do decide to move we rely on old habits. We don’t trust emergency exits. We usually exit the way we entered. Sound familiar?

Forensic reconstruction of the famous fire. at the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Kentucky confirmed that many of the victims sought to pay before leaving and died in the queue.

We are vehemently faithful to our view of the world, our story. We will not exit our current circumstances until we know all we need to know about the new circumstances.

Marissa Panigrossi’s story will stay with me for a long time.

What would I have done? I might have thought the worst is over. With a plane hitting the other tower I may have thought I was in the safest place on Earth. What are the odds of two planes hitting two adjacent towers on the same day?

We hesitate because change involves some loss.

Think of the man who discovers a lump on his testicle but defers a visit to the doctor until he returns from his vacation in three months time. Or the woman who is constantly battered by her husband. She won’t leave him because she can’t. Where will she go? What will she do?

For both of these people the fire alarm is ringing but they will not move …….