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Paul Barney is an excellent example of the way to behave when catastrophe strikes.

In 1994, he took an overnight trip to Sweden aboard a ferry, the Estonia. To save money, he’d bought a ticket allowing him to camp out on deck.

Midtrip, Barney awoke to a powerful bang. The ship was listing. His first thought: We’ve got to do something. “I realized that this was quite a desperate situation,” he says, “and I was quite likely to die.”

While others seized up, Barney took some warm clothes from his pack, ditched his boots (too heavy in water) and climbed ceiling pipes to the exposed hull, where he crawled across to passengers launching a raft.

Of 16 who made it onto the raft, 10 died of hypothermia. Of close to 1,000 passengers, nearly two-thirds never left the ship.

In any emergency, people generally form three groups:


  1. About 10% fly into a panic.
  2. About 80% simply freeze, stunned in the confusion. One of Barney’s fellow passengers said: “Just don’t think about it.”
  3. About 10% handle the situation in a calm manner.

Place yourself among that last group. If you find yourself muddled in crisis, shake off the shock, orient yourself and start looking for solutions—fast.

Here’s how:

1. Relax and break out of brainlock. Skydiving instructors use a signal to help new students loosen up when they’re in free fall: They pat their heads. Come up with a “relax” signal and practice it.

2. Get your bearings. Seems basic, but in an emergency, simply remembering where you are and figuring out where you need to go can make the difference between life and death. Race car drivers say that your steering will follow your eyes automatically, so keep your eyes fixed on the destination instead of on the pileup.

3. Never give up. Sure, it’s a cliché, but many people and groups would still be around today if they’d kept trying new tactics, acting on the belief that problems can be solved. One thing’s for sure: If you don’t try to fix something, it won’t get fixed.

— Adapted from The Survivors Club, Ben Sherwood, Grand Central Publishing.

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