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Sept. 11 Brought Out Best in Crowds

Tragedy created sense of unity among those in danger

MONDAY, Aug. 12, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Altruism trumped panic during the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, says Rutgers University sociology professor Lee Clarke.

The tragedy actually created a sense of unity among the people in danger, and there was no group panic or irrational behavior, Clarke writes in the Fall issue of Contexts magazine.

People escaping the World Trade Center buildings didn't commit desperate acts of self-preservation or disregard the needs of those around them.

"We now know that almost everyone survived if they were below the floors where the airplanes struck the buildings. That is in large measure because people did not become hysterical, but instead facilitated a successful evacuation," Clarke says.

It wasn't an unusual response.

In the article, "Panic: Myth or Reality?", Clarke says 50 years of evidence about how people react to disasters or extreme situations shows that panic is rare in such circumstances.

Whether it's a plane crash, a fire in a crowded hotel or the World Trade Center attack, most people in such life-threatening situations don't turn against their neighbors or forget their moral commitments.

"The rules of behavior in extreme situations are not much different from rules of ordinary life," Clarke says.

That includes the rule that that people should help those next to them before they help themselves. Disasters are special situations, but they're still social situations where most people follow community expectations.

Even after a disaster where there's been a great deal of destruction, people don't lose their sense of community.

"The more consistent pattern in disasters is that people connect in the aftermath, and work to rebuild their physical and cultural environments," Clarke says.

Politicians and other authorities need to understand it's a myth that panic and hysteria are the response when people are confronted with disasters, Clarke adds. Instead of trying to pacify or placate the public in disaster situations, authorities need to provide people with truthful, accurate information, Clarke says.

More information

Read about how New Yorkers have been traumatized by the Sept. 11 attacks.

SOURCE: American Sociological Association, news release, August 2002
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