I used to stay in a hotel in Alsace for a horrible job I once had working for the European Parliament. The hotel was called the Pax, but was (un)fondly known as the Pox to everyone in the office. The room I was always allocated was so small you had to open your suitcase on the bed – there was not enough floor. The loo was down the end of a long, dark, creepy corridor and there was no bathroom. I had to take a towel to the European Parliament and shower there and dodge back to my office, hoping I wouldn’t be spotted with sopping wet hair by too many MEPs. One night, in the grim hotel room, I was trying to sleep when the door knob started to turn. Luckily, I had locked the door (I had been advised to do so by a wise colleague) but whoever it was outside continued to try and get in for some time before giving up. On the back of the door was a notice telling you what to do in an emergency. These were the days before mobile phones or the internet, there was no landline and I hadn’t thought to bring a gun. I think the sign probably had a plan of the hotel with emergency exits marked, but all I remember was a line saying, “gardez votre sang froid”. My blood was nicely chilled that night.
I thought of the notice yesterday when I heard the recording of the British Airways pilot speaking calmly to the air traffic control tower. “Mayday, mayday. We have a fire,” he announced, as though he was reciting his Ocado shopping list. What a brilliant job he did, aborting the takeoff so quickly as soon as it became clear that something was catastrophically wrong with one engine. Over the holidays, I read a fantastic book, The Examined Life, by Stephen Grosz, which included a story about how difficult it is to change your behaviour, even when danger threatens. People in the Twin Towers on 9/11 fannied about, going to meetings, discussing the situation at the water cooler, when the rational thing would have been to run screaming from the building. One lady even went back up to her office to get photos of her baby – and perished.
Yesterday, on the BA flight, some passengers tried to get their cases out of the overhead lockers as the cabin filled with smoke. At least one turned round, when running from the plane, to take photos on his phone. No one knows how they will behave in a crisis, until the crisis happens. Stephen Grosz’s patient felt guilty about surviving, when so many co-workers had gone about their normal days and not made it out. Thank goodness the BA pilot yesterday didn’t cling on to normal until the last second.