The Anatomy of Memorable Disasters

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 1960 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.

What do memorable disasters have in common?
What separates them from the mundane disasters?

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 life or property lost. 20,000 people a year die on our nation's highways, but do we remember? 150,000 people died in the Battle of Mukden, China, in 1905, but no one from the West feels much about that battle. Two Westar satellites misfired while being launched from the Space Shuttle in 1984. 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, but not so short that the survivors can't sense what is happening. A year-long disaster is too long. A building collapse is too fast. 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, and 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 in 1983 was carrying an average cross section of Koreans and Americans when it was shot down by Soviet interceptors.

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, and 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. Its 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 disaster. One area that seems particularly ripe for such legend is the question of when the crew actually died. Did they die in the fireball almost in space or upon crashing into the sea below?

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.

Update: The September 11th Disaster: "The Mona Lisa of Disasters"

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. Amazingly -- well perhaps not so amazingly given this was the center of New York City -- there are even one or two videos 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?

The terrorists also added an innovation to airline hijacking: Suicide. No hijackers before that had ever planned on anything but a safe landing for the plane -- safe landing was something hijackers, crew, and passengers were all in agreement on.

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, which I talk about in another essay.

Jan 04: Further update to 9/11 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 close-knit one, so it's easy for that community to "carry the torch" and keep "the 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. (There is another curious element in this choice. By 2011 the media choice of what word to use to describe these people has changed from “firefighters” to “first responders”.)


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