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Editor’s Note: Risk, Preparation, and Planning

“Contrary to popular expectations, this is what happens in a real disaster. Civilization holds. People move in groups whenever they can. They are usually far more polite than they are normally. They look out for one another, and they maintain hierarchies.” These perhaps unexpected findings are at the core of Amanda Ripley’s book The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes—and Why. This tendency towards civility explains why people survive disasters—human kindness—and also why they perish—niceties allow people to deny reality and delay escape.

Ripley, an investigative journalist for The Atlantic, first published Unthinkable in 2008, but the book has special meaning this year—the 20th anniversary of 9/11—because a meeting with survivors inspired the book.

The best way to get the brain to perform under extreme stress is to run it through rehearsals beforehand.

Preparation in the form of disaster training is critical, but convincing people of this need is difficult, Ripley wrote. “When they do have drills, most people see them as a waste of time. They overestimate how well their minds will perform in a real crisis. When the alarm goes off, they know they are being interrupted and inconvenienced, but they don’t necessarily know how much they might one day appreciate the remedial help.”

GSX, which debuts virtually on 15 September and continues in both in-person and digital formats 27–29 September, provides the perfect environment to contemplate risk, preparation, and planning. Ripley will share her insights on addressing conflict at Tuesday’s keynote. Find out more about other GSX events, including additional keynotes, educational sessions, and exhibits at

In Unthinkable, Ripley devotes her final chapter to Rick Rescorla, CPP, vice president of security for Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co. and ASIS member. After a 1993 bombing forced an evacuation of corporate offices at the World Trade Center in New York City, Rescorla made many changes, including frequent, all-staff fire drills. He trained people to descend the stairs two-by-two and insisted that the higher floors evacuate first—compensating for the tendency people have to become overly courteous in disasters.

“The radicalism of Rescorla’s drills cannot be overstated. Remember, Morgan Stanley is an investment bank. Millionaire, high-performance bankers on the 73rd floor chafed at Rescorla’s evacuation regime,” Ripley wrote. “But Rescorla did it anyway. He didn’t care whether he was popular. His military training had taught him a simple rule of human nature…the best way to get the brain to perform under extreme stress is to run it through rehearsals beforehand.”

The training paid off. “Rescorla taught Morgan Stanley employees to save themselves,” wrote Ripley. “When the tower collapsed, only 13 Morgan Stanley colleagues—including Rescorla and four of his security officers—were inside. The other 2,687 were safe.”

GSX can facilitate another successful tactic through education, networking, and camaraderie after this tumultuous past year. Ripley urges all of us to “tell the story of Rick Rescorla…or your own tale of walking through hellfire. Storytelling is essential to survival. It’s what turns preparation into ritual and victims into saviors.” 

Teresa Anderson