by Roger Bourke White Jr., started 1986, copyright June 2002
In 1912 the Titanic struck an iceberg and sunk in the Atlantic Ocean. In 1986 the Challenger space shuttle blew up over the Atlantic Ocean. On September 11th, 2001 two jet planes flew into the World Trade Center (see the updated section at the end). All of these are memorable disasters. They will be talked about for years and have become part of our mythology.
In 1961 the Agir Hotel in Morocco collapsed completely in a violent earthquake. Who reading this has heard of that disaster? This is just one of many disasters that only a few people bother to remember. It's one that won't become part of our mythology.
First, the basics. To have a disaster, there must be a loss of property, and usually a loss of life. There are exceptions. There was no loss of life in the stock market crash of 1929. (Although loss of life was later added to the mythology -- in the form of stockbrokers leaping to their deaths from the skyscrapers of Wall Street.)
A memorable disaster isn't closely related to the magnitude of losses. 20,000 people a year die on our nation's highways. But do we remember? 50,000 died in the battle of Mukden, China, but no one from the West feels much about that battle. Two Westar satellites mal-fired while being launched from the Space Shuttle. Those were 300 million dollar disasters each, but what are the chances you'll tell the kids about that?
So, Rule number one: There must be loss, but the key to a memorable disaster isn't the victims, it's the survivors! It's the survivors that make disasters memorable.
Rule number two, the time span of the disaster must be short enough to keep the survivors' attention. A year-long disaster is much too long. But not so short that the survivors can't sense what is happening. An hour to a half day seems ideal.
How many died on the Titanic? 1500. How many survived? 700. How long did it take? About two hours to sink; about six for other ships to come to the rescue and pull survivors off the water.
Next, we must consider who gets affected. The richer and the more famous, the better. The Titanic was carrying the cream of Anglo-American society. Korean Air Flight 007 was carrying an average cross section of Koreans and Americans.
Next, let's look at the condition of the survivors. In the case of the Titanic, the weather conditions while the ship went down were ideal. It was cool, about 35 degrees, there was absolutely no wind, and the boat sunk slowly. It took two hours for the bow to slowly lower itself into the waves with little listing, finally followed by the ship's stern riding high over the waves. Even the ship's lights continued to burn almost to the end, so the view was spectacular. For those that survived there was comparatively little physical discomfort. It was easy to concentrate on the significance of what was happening, and remember every little detail.
It is the survivors that carry the tremendous details needed for a rich disaster mythology.
Compare the Titanic to the situation in the Agir hotel. There were four hundred people in that hotel. Many were rich and famous Europeans. But the shaking came and went, and in seconds four hundred died in a concrete hotel that went from four stories high to a half story high. It was as visually spectacular as the Titanic, but it was too fast, and there was no one left to tell any tales of heroism, sacrifice or cowardice.
So, to be memorable a disaster needs:
There is one more element that seems to be needed: Technological hubris --Technological pride. The Titanic was the biggest, most advanced transportation system of its day. It's engineers and designers were justly proud. But to show how strong mythology is, the White Star lines, owners of the Titanic, never claimed it was unsinkable. That claim was added after the fact, and it stuck because it resonated with the "hubris of technology" theme.
There are similar myths being generated about the Challenger. One area that seems particularly ripe for such legend is the question of when the crew actually died. Did they die in the fireball, or upon crashing into the sea below?
So, now let's get back to the Challenger. Does it have all the elements it takes to be memorable?
But there are some weaknesses that may cause it to fade.
But I contend that it will be a memorable disaster. It has all the elements. The weak elements are illusions. They should look like this.
The Challenger fits the mold well. It will be memorable, but not as memorable as the Titanic. With seven hundred of society's creme de la creme, participating, and watching comfortably for two hours. That's a hard disaster act to follow.
The September 11th Disaster is a "Mona Lisa of Disasters" -- I doubt it can be topped. I know the world will be talking about it and watching the pictures of it on September 11th, 2101.
On that day four planes were hijacked and three were run into two famous buildings, the World Trade Center (WTC) and the Pentagon. In this disaster every element is perfect for memorability.
The September 11th Disaster "innovated" disaster in several ways: it was the first to bring two famous technology symbols into the same disaster: airplanes and skyscrapers, and it added terrorist fanatics -- an important "bogeyman" of turn-of-the-21st-century American mythology.
The fanatics also managed to do the impossible: transform an airplane crash into a long and publicly viewable event. Normally an airplane crash takes a few seconds and happens in a remote place. But, because two planes ran into the WTC, spaced by twenty minutes, and both hit the buildings high, the world could watch the second crash over and over. Perhaps not so amazingly, there is even one video of the first crash.
Weather and timing helped: it was a clear, cloudless, warm, autumn day with a modest north wind to keep the smoke from obscuring the view of most New Yorkers, and it happened in mid-morning after most New Yorkers had finished the morning commute, and were ready to absorb a memorable event without distraction. There was even a "cherry on top" of this disaster: the dust cloud that covered Manhattan following the WTC collapse gave a million spectators a tactile experience that transformed their experience from that of passive spectator into that of active survivor. How much more memorable can a disaster get?
Finally, the WTC and the Pentagon were both enormously potent symbols; filled with enormously potent people. The fanatics couldn't have picked better choices to permanently scare America... as has been shown by the enormous Panic that Americans have experienced since the disaster.
It has taken two years, but a "poster child" for the 9/11 Disaster has finally emerged. The human interest symbol for the 9/11 Disaster is becoming "the firefighter." In my mind it has been surprising how long it has taken for a human symbol for the disaster to emerge. The Titanic had the Astors, the Space Shuttle had the astronauts and the teacher, and these human interest symbols established fairly quickly after the disaster occurred. In the case of 9/11, it has taken two years for this symbol to emerge.
In retrospect it is a good candidate: lots of firefighters died, and the firefighting community is a closeknit one, so it's easy for that community to "carry the torch" and keep "remembering" a current activity. But this is clear only in retrospect, for the last couple years I have been wondering who the poster child would become.