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When HOW You React Makes a Difference

by Al Siebert, Ph.D.



The purpose of the Oprah Winfrey television program on March 11, 1997, was to show why some people have a better chance of living through deadly disasters than others might have. An extraordinary group of survivors was brought to Chicago for the program. They included:

Paul Barney - survivor of a ferry sinking that killed almost 1000 people.
Kelly Clem - survivor of a tornado that killed her daughter.
Margret Crotty - survived a ferry boat sinking by swimming for 16 hours.
Frank Lawrence - survivor of a casino fire that killed 97 people.
Richard Lawson - USAir flight 405 plane crash survivor.
Jerry Schemmel - Sioux City, Iowa, plane crash survivor. View info about Jerry's book.
Beck Weathers - left for dead near the top of Mt. Everest.


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Getting Past Chance: Surviving The Toss of the Cosmic Coin

Before a disaster, no one can predict who will live or die. Chance and luck play a strong role when a group of people is trapped in a fire, a sinking boat, or plane crash. It is as though a cosmic coin toss determines which people will be killed and which ones will not.

On July 19, 1989, Jerry Schemmel was a passenger on a United Airlines DC-10 flying from Denver to Chicago when the rear engine of the plane blew up. The explosion caused complete failure of the plane's steering controls. The pilots, by increasing and decreasing power in the plane's two huge wing engines, managed to nurse the crippled plane with its 296 passengers through a series of slow right turns to Sioux City, Iowa, the nearest airport. The plane slammed into the runway at full speed and shattered apart. Large sections caught fire as they skidded and tumbled into an adjacent cornfield.

Jerry Schemmel and his best friend, Jay Ramsdell, had been on standby. They were the last two passengers given seats on the crowded flight. They wanted to sit together, but could not. Jay was given a seat in row 30, Jerry a seat in row 28. When Jerry found his seat, he saw a boy sitting in it. The man next to the boy said he and his eight year-old son had been split up. He asked Jerry to take his son's assigned seat. Jerry agreed and moved ahead to the boy's seat in row 23.

Jerry describes what happened when the plane smashed into the ground as "raw chaos." A fireball shot through the cabin from front to back. Many of the seats next to Jerry's ripped out of their fastenings and hurled forward, but his held. Back of him, the plane split apart killing Jay and others in the rows where Jerry was supposed to be sitting. 112 people died in the crash.

Reverend Kelly Clem was conducting Palm Sunday services at the Goshen United Methodist Church in Piedmont, Alabama, on March 27, 1994. Her two daughters, Hannah and Sarah, were sitting in the front pew. A storm was raging outside, but no one knew that a tornado was coming their way. During the service the electricity flickered and then went out. Moments later a window shattered. As everyone ducked for cover, a wall and part of the church roof collapsed. Kelly was knocked unconscious. When she came to, she saw that Sarah was fine, but her 4 year-old daughter Hannah was dead. A total of 20 people (including 6 children) died.

Paul Barney is a survivor of the ferry that sank in the Baltic Sea in September, 1994. Only 139 people survived out of the 1049 on board the Estonia, making it the worst European Maritime disaster since WWII. When he was paying for his passage he almost rented one of the small, lower level, private cabins so he could sleep in a bed during the overnight trip from Estonia to Stockholm. The price was to high for him, however, so he decided to pay the lowest fare and spend the night on a bench in the cafeteria.

Paul says the cafeteria was on the upper deck, the cabins in the lower decks. If he had been in a cabin he probably would not have survived because the boat sank very quickly. Almost no one from the lower decks survived. Anyone can be killed if they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. One never knows.


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How You React Can Make a Difference

What can determine survival is how you react if you are still alive and there are moments when what you do makes a difference. During the chaotic turmoil of a disaster many people feel overwhelmed, become confused, feel bewildered, get angry, become distressed about their losses and injuries, cry, believe they are going to die, and give up. In contrast, people who read new situations rapidly, accept that they could die, but do not panic or fear death, take independent action, and refuse to give up, are the ones who increase their chances of surviving. Take the quiz given to the OPRAH studio audience.

During the "Would You Survive" program we showed the different ways that people reacted when told that their tickets to the Oprah show had been cancelled. A disaster amplifies a person's habitual ways of reacting to hassles, frustrations, and disappointments. Some are bewildered, some get angry, a few adapt and cope very quickly. Unfortunately, most people get upset, feel confused, flounder, and react like victims when confronted with deadly danger.

Paul Barney says "Sometime after 1 a.m. the Estonia started listing over. I was immediately aware when the ship leaned to one side that something was wrong. I thought we hit rocks. I went to the back of the cafeteria to see what was going on. The lights were out. It was dark and I couldn't get oriented. When the furniture began to slide I realized it was serious."

Paul saw over 100 people in the cafeteria. They were confused and bewildered. No crew members came to the cafeteria to tell people what was happening or what they should do. "Some people didn't move," he says. "I couldn't understand why people weren't going out." As the boat rolled onto its side. Paul says he felt angry as he thought to himself "I could die here!" He used moonlight that had appeared through an opening in the clouds to see by and scrambled to get outside onto the hull of the ship. He does not believe that many others from the cafeteria survived.

Margret Crotty was working in Indonesia in January, 1996, for a non-profit group called "Save the Children." She was 23 and had just graduated from Princeton University. Her assignment was to travel from village to village teaching empowerment workshops to women. (Margret's story was not included in the television broadcast, but she was part of the core group in the studio and her story helps fill out the picture.)

Late one afternoon she boarded a ferry scheduled to make a two hour trip to Weh island. "It was the weekend before Ramadan," she says, "a month long holiday, so the ferry was overcrowded. It left three hours late, after dark, and it didn't occur to me that it might be unsafe. An hour and twenty minutes after we took off, the boat slowed down. It almost came to a stop and tilted to the side. People ran to one side to compensate, but the boat tilted again. I knew something was wrong.

"People were panicking. They started jumping over the side to the water. I went to the life jacket cabinet. I started to give out life jackets. I knew I had to do it because no one else was." Margret did not keep a lifejacket for herself, but was not fearful because she is a certified life guard.

"The boat was going down," she says. "There was this disbelief. I fell into the cabinet when the boat jolted. I was stuck inside this cabinet, but I was calm. I was thinking 'this is what it is like to die.' It was dark. The boat was underwater I was inhaling water. I thought 'I can't believe I'm dying.' I had this burst of thinking about my family. I thought 'I can't let this happen.' I was trapped in the cabinet on the boat, underwater.

"I can't remember how I got out of the cabinet. The boat was fully underwater, but then I was free. I swam up to the surface. There were people all around. I thought it was over, that I had a brush with death and now I was fine.

"There was a life boat with 50 or 60 people. I was treading water near it with some other people. I had this attitude 'you speak English, there is a life boat we're OK.' We talked to each other. One guy said there were sharks swimming beneath us. The Indonesians were praying. Then the life raft popped and deflated. People were holding on to me.

"My ankle was swollen. I had a deep cut so I took my shirt to use as a bandage. I took off my pants, I learned this in lifeguard school. You tie them at the ankle, blow it up, and use it as a flotation device. I had a ball of air. It was 8:30 at night, dark. I was watching people panic and die so I was being rational. I had to help the other people get safe because they were panicking. I had to remain calm."

Frank Lawrence and his wife, Susan, were spending New Year's Eve in San Juan, Puerto Rico, at the Dupont Plaza Hotel in 1986. They had enjoyed gambling all evening in the hotel's third floor casino and remained there into the early morning hours. Suddenly smoke and fumes started spewing out of the air ducts.

The hotel management was in a dispute with striking union workers. Management knew there could be trouble so they had locked the Casino exit door to prevent strikers from entering. Down on the first floor one of the angry workers set fire to some plastic furniture. Toxic flames and fumes were drawn into the hotel's powerful air conditioning system and blown into the casino above.

Casino guests crowded toward the exit door, but could not open it or break it down. Smoke and heat began to overcome people crushing against the locked door. Frank did not panic. He steered Susan across the room to a window. Flames shot out of the air ducts and set fire to the room. It was like being in a blast furnace. People were choking and collapsing. The window was not made to be opened. Frank grabbed a chair and smashed the glass out. He looked for Susan, but could not see her in the smoky inferno. Frank was being cooked alive. He could not bear the pain. He jumped through the window to the cement walkway 34 feet below. His leg shattered when he hit. Several people rolled him into the swimming pool to put out his burning hair and clothing. Later he discovered that the heat was so intense it had caused the plastic face on his watch to bubble up. Susan Lawrence did not made it out of the casino. She was one of the 97 people killed in the fire.

Richard Lawson was one of 24 people who survived the crash of USAir flight 405 in March, 1992. Twenty seven people died. "There was ice on the wing," he says. "The plane rolled. The wing hit a weather station. The plane blew up. I was underwater in my seat upside down. I swallowed jet fuel and I had trouble breathing. I tried to accept this reality of dying. Then I had an overpowering feeling to overcome this. My spirit did not let me accept dying." Richard managed to unbuckle his seat belt and swim up to an air pocket.

"You either move or it consumes you," Richard says. "Once I get it in my head that I'm going to overcome something I do. Most of the 24 survivors have something consistent. The plane went upside-down in the water. What was uniform is the will to overcome. If I had been a person who was a fatalist I don't know what I would have done. It was the ability to stay in the present time that saved me. You can use your instinct and your impulse."


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An Intense Will to Live

Interviews with thousands of US Air Force plane crash survivors reveal that the ones who survive after the crash feel glad to be alive and focus on what they have to do to remain alive. They have an intense will to live and keep on going. Others who live through the crash, but do not survive their injuries and the following hardships, often say "Why me?" They feel distressed about their injuries and their situation. They often expect to die and act according to their prediction.

On May 10, 1996, Beck Weathers was climbing back down from the 29,028 foot summit of Mt. Everest with three other climbers when they were hit by a severe snow storm. They were on their own because their climbing leader, Rob Hall, had remained behind to assist another climber in trouble.

Beck felt deeply fatigued, but "It was not obvious it was a life or death thing," he says. "It was 50 below zero and the winds were so bad. We hadn't eaten and had no water in 24 hours. I knew I had to generate heat. I was blinded." Beck, a 49 year-old pathologist, says "I got hypoxia from the altitude. If you go high enough you are virtually blind."

He felt his right hand going numb. He took off his glove to place his hand under his jacket. He lost his glove in the storm. He became separated from the others. Disoriented and overcome with exhaustion, he slumped down and passed out. "I was in a hypothermic coma," Beck says. "One of the climbers found me and said nobody could be closer to death and still be breathing. The group left and they radioed my family I was dead.

The next morning a Sherpa starting up the mountain saw Beck lying on the ground, ashen-white, with a frozen-face. No one could survive a night on Mt. Everest at that elevation lying out in the open. The Sherpa radioed to the base camp "Beck Weathers is dead."

"Initially," Beck says, "when I woke up, the hardest thing was to recognize what was real. I kept waking up, and I'd look at my hand. I felt like I was dreaming and floating, I wasn't distressed. I felt like I was in bed dreaming. I saw my dead hand sticking out of my sleeve. I hit it on the ground to focus my mind. I knew I was on the mountain and that it was daylight and if no one was there they weren't coming to help.

"I knew I had one shot, and that I couldn't survive longer than one night. I was basically blind and frozen and lost. I decided to walk as far as I could. I threw my pack away. I knew it wasn't going to do me any good. I had to find camp or I was dead. I put all the negative things out of my mind. If I thought about the negative I would have been paralyzed. There was no reason I should have been awake, alive, standing. My feet were frostbitten and I was 1 degree away from a hypothermic coma.

"I started to fall and I knew I couldn't use my hands. As a doctor I understood you can't injure a frostbitten part of you body and get it back working again. In the half-hour before I came into camp, I was 99 percent certain that I was not going to make it," he said. "I knew that I had an hour or so before my knees gave out."

Early that afternoon the climbers at the high camp looked out of their tents and reported seeing "an apparition that can't be true. This person who has been pronounced dead by two people has stood up, his arms are askew from frostbite, sticking out like a scarecrow. His eyes are swollen shut, his whole face is frozen and swollen, he can't see, but he staggers into camp."

Beck says "I was 99.9 percent sure I was dead, but I figured as long as I can move I'm not giving up. I thought I might fall to my knees and not be able to get up. I wasn't frightened though. I thought rationally. What do I do to get through this? Being frightened was not my reaction. I did feel a melancholy sadness. I had no closure with my loved ones."

They put Beck in a tent, gave him oxygen, a hot water bottle, and fed him warm water, but were sure he was going to die soon. Beck's condition was described to a doctor on the radio. A hypothermic person's heart usually fibrillates and they die when they warm up. The doctor said Beck would not survive the night and to not try to bring him down the mountain.

Beck says "At one point my arms started to swell. I knew I was losing my right arm and my tent filled with snow. It never crossed my mind not to hang in there. We were still at 26,000 feet and I was blind, but I never gave up. My desire to return to my family drove me."

The mountaineers were amazed to find Weathers still alive the next morning. He asked for black tea with sugar and he ate something. He never complained. "I know I'm going to lose my hands," he said. "I'm happy to be alive. I want to live." It took a team of climbers two days to help Weathers walk down to the base camp, one slow step at a time. He kept them laughing telling jokes. He knew he was going to live and was happy. He held out no hope for his hands, and yet it he had an astonishing optimism and humor.

Beck was airlifted from the 20,000 foot level by a Nepalese Army helicopter in what is said to be the highest helicopter rescue on record. He says that throughout the ordeal he kept his mind on his family: his wife "Peach," his son Beck Jr., and his daughter Meg.


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The Second Survival Challenge: Choosing to Stay Alive

Beck Weathers knew he was so close to death that his thoughts would determine if he made it or not. For people still alive after a deadly disaster, the second survival challenge may require hours of personal endurance. Survival may require an active conscious decision to choose to stay alive and keep on going for a few more minutes despite pain, agony, and exhaustion.

Paul Barney says that about 250 passengers got out of the Estonia before it sank, but half of them died before the rescuers arrived. "I was on my own on the back of a sinking ship," he says. "I had no life jacket or raft. That infuriated me. I was going to need life saving equipment and I didn't have anything so I was angry instead of freezing with fear. Then halfway down the ship I saw some lights and I went over to where the waves were crashing. I found people who were inflating a life boat. People were screaming and shouting. I climbed on the raft and grabbed an Estonian girl who was hysterical.

"16 people were on this upside-down raft. I calmed the girl down. We pushed away from the ship, but we were crammed. Everyone was in shock. We drifted in the dark.

"People were starting to freeze to death from the wind, hail, and freezing cold waves splashing on us. I found a life jacket in the water, but it fell off. I fell off the raft, but I pulled myself back on. I found another life jacket and put it on. My hands were freezing.

"I'd taken Yoga classes on breathing. I knew I could last a long time and keep my muscles from cramping if I concentrated on my breathing. After five hours on the life raft people were dying right next to me. They were moaning and some drowned. I was so crammed in I couldn't get away from the bodies."

Paul says "some people were short and fat so I thought they had a better chance, but at no point did I think I wasn't going to make it. My nightmare was the life raft would deflate. I would never let myself give up hope. As soon as other people did they died. One person, I called him Mr. Positive, kept saying we are going to make it, we will be rescued soon. Ironically, he did not make it.

"In the end the living were not different from the dead. Being dead seemed like an easy place to me. But I hadn't finished with my life. I was determined that if there is one thing I can do to save my life I would.

"As soon as daylight came I knew we could be saved. Eight of us were still alive. I had no strength. I had to try to keep a young guy alive. He was 22 years old. But I didn't have the strength to keep him warm. I should have been unconscious, but at the time I knew if I let myself become unconscious I was dead."

After five and a half hours they were picked up by a helicopter. Television footage taken from the rescue shows Paul smiling in the helicopter. What the cameras did not record is that as soon as he was in the helicopter and wrapped in a blanket, he decided to "turn responsibility over to them." Because his body temperature had dropped to 28C (about 84F), his muscles went into extreme, painful spasms. He says a crewman massaged his arms and legs for the one hour flight to the hospital.

Margret Crotty says "At one point I swam away and swam all night. Being trapped in the cabinet, I thought that was the worst. It never occurred to me what I would have to go through, swimming for 16 hours through the night. The current was really strong. Then it was daylight and I could see islands. I was swimming toward them, but the currents were strong. I thought 'I can't let myself die and do this to my brothers and sisters. I will do everything I can. I can swim.' There were times I thought 'Oh my god, if I give up no one will know how far I came.' I didn't want my parents to know what I had been through.

"I was having hallucinations. I never really thought I was going to die. It was the feeling of responsibility. I saw so many other people die. I grew up in New York. I worked for an organization that was about empowering yourself and using your resources. I thought 'this is legitimizing everything I've done.' It was a mental thing not a physical thing. I thought so much about my family and amazing friends. How could I die? I thought I would get to this island and people wouldn't find me and they would think I was dead. It was this intense feeling of knowing what living in this country was like. I had a responsibility to what I was preaching at 'Save the Children.' Only I could do this on my own. I've done so much I don't want to die. That kept me alive. You are never given the chance to prove yourself in life, I never did until then. As a woman, trying to empower other women, I had to do this. I thought 'I've come this far I have to make it all the way.'

"The last hour I had to swim with absolutely everything I had. The current was so strong. I thought 'I can't give up now;' I made it to this island. If I had not made it, the next land was Sri Lanka. I thought I would find a beach, but it was cliffs and steep rocks. I got to these cliffs and I was being slammed against them. A wave pushed me into a small place and I couldn't get out. Finally I climbed out and I was exhausted.

"Then it was hot. It's the equator. I had no clothes. I was worried about getting a sunburn and getting dehydrated. I tried to climb up this steep hill. I had to keep going and get in the shade, but I kept taking naps I was so exhausted.

"I saw this boat. They couldn't come near the rocks. They threw me a floating bottle on a line. I didn't want to go back into the ocean, but I knew I had to. I made myself jump into the water. They pulled me in. My body was so cut up. They took me to this other island and they took care of me.


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Erroneous Thinking About Survivors: It is "Both Me and You," NOT "Either Me or You"

Many people assume, as did Oprah, that in a disaster a person will either fight to survive at the expense of others, or may sacrifice themselves staying back to help others survive. This kind of "either/or" assumption is not validated by real life survivor stories. The stories of survivors such as Margret Crotty often reveal that in the survival turmoil they extend their coping skills and their commitment to live to those around them. They reflexively act in ways to keep both themselves and others alive. Survivors of incredible ordeals usually try to help others survive as well.

Paul Barney says that when the Estonia was tilting over he and another man saw a life jacket washing by. He stood still as the other man dove for it. Hours later, when a rescue helicopter finally located his raft and started winching up the survivors, Paul told the rescue team to take the others up first.

Richard Lawson praises the man who stayed behind to help him after the plane crash. Richard says that his seat was upside down under water. After he struggled free and got to the surface he saw that he was trapped inside. Jet fuel was everywhere. Any spark could set it off. He saw a small hole above him, but didn't see how he could get up through it. He says "A guy up on top reached down and pulled me up through the hole. I got on top of the plane with him. We jumped into the water because we thought the plane was going to explode. We discovered how shallow it was and we made it to shore."

Jerry Schemmel says that during the 45 minute descent toward Sioux City, many passengers sat weeping. In the row ahead of Jerry, across the aisle from him, a boy saw his mother crying and asked "Are we going to die?" They were both frightened. Jerry says he couldn't sit still. He undid his seat belt, moved forward, and knelt in the aisle next to them. He talked to the boy and comforted him saying "We're not gonna die....We'll be OK....I'm a pilot. These kinds of planes are made to fly when an engine goes out....We'll be just fine." Back in his seat, he watched the woman directly in front of him trying to get her 21 month-old son to sit still. Jerry says "I tried to gather my wits. I told myself to concentrate on one task--help others--and perhaps in the process I could find a way out."

About 30 seconds before the impact the pilot gave the command: "Brace! Brace! Brace!" Jerry says, "I mapped out an individual plan for the aftermath of the crash." He looked at where the exit doors were located and then concentrated on helping the two woman with children after the crash. He would to see that they were OK and help them get out.

When Jerry's section of the plane stopped rolling and sliding he was suspended upside down. He managed to unfasten his seat belt and drop down to the roof of the cabin. The demolished plane was silent and filling with thick, black smoke. Small fires in the debris added dim light to the nightmarish scene. Jerry looked around for an exit but saw none. He could barely breath. The fires were spreading. "What an irony," he thought to himself. "Here I survive the crash of a jumbo jet, but now will die in the aftermath, either by the suffocating smoke or the fire or both."

Jerry's actions in the next few minutes has been seen by thousands of people in the opening scenes in the movie Fearless. Working in dense smoke and flames, Jerry helped dazed, bleeding, and injured people to an opening in the side of the plane where two men, also passengers, were helping people down. Jerry was the last one out. People were warning each other to get away from the burning plane because it could explode. Just as Jerry started to run away he though he heard an infant's cry. He turned around and ran back into the plane. He thought "Please keep crying!" He followed the sounds of crying to a pile of debris. He pulled away a bag, a blanket, and a large piece of metal. He saw a hole. It was an overhead storage bin. He reached inside, grabbed the baby's arm, and lifted it out. He pressed the baby's face to his shirt to protect it from the choking smoke and carried it outside.

For me, the best indicator of the survivor nature of the Oprah show survivors is that after being around them for only a short while, I know I would willingly go into a dangerous situation with any of them. None of them reacted to their survival challenge in ways that fit with the erroneous assumptions many people have about survivors.


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The Third Survival Challenge: PTSD

Immediately after the crash Jerry flew back home and returned to life as before. His best friend died in the crash, and he grieved losing Jay, but he felt that nothing had changed from before. Yes, Jerry was interviewed on many national television programs, but he knew that media attention would drift away and he would resume his life as before. A few months later, however, the impact hit. Jerry had lung problems from inhaling the toxic smoke, unrecognized physical problems from having his body slammed around during the crash, and post-traumatic depression.

Survivors of deadly disasters must usually deal with three survival challenges:

  1. Coping during the chaotic turmoil of the deadly action.
  2. Enduring until rescued.
  3. Dealing with the deep, lasting effects of the experience.

Survivors have to survive being survivors. Anyone going through a major brush with death will never be the same again. They must go though a recovery process. The challenges include being called "hero," feeling guilt and/or anger, and overcoming Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

An extreme experience imprints memories of deep distress and vulnerability into one's cells. The experience can shatter a person's self-concept. Trying to ignore or repress the memories, nightmares, and flashbacks does not work. Nor does trying deaden the pain with alcohol or drugs.

Frank Lawrence was so severely burned in the casino fire he spent the next year in a hospital receiving skin grafts. He says he is thankful that his daughter, 17 years old at the time, had one parent survive the fire, but he felt so emotionally traumatized by the experience that he started drinking to escape from the pain and the memories.

Frank remarried in 1992, but only stopped drinking a year ago. Like many Vietnam veterans who tried to escape from the pain of their PTSD through drinking and drugs, Frank wasn't able to escape from his memories or emotional pain either. His drinking means that even though the fire occurred over ten years ago, he is emotionally only about one year from the experience. With the support of his wife Linda, he feels ready to start the healing process now.

Methods now exist for helping people recover from PTSD. Progress in this field was helped in part from emphasizing that PTSD is a normal person's reaction to overwhelming stress. PTSD is not a mental illness.

The healing process includes:
  • Re-living the experience in sessions with people who can empathize.
  • Reducing guilt, blaming, and anger into a balanced perspective.
  • Giving up feeling like a victim.
  • Forgiving.
  • Learning useful life lessons from the experience
  • Developing a short statement to make about the incident when people ask.

The flight attendant shown in the program, for example, is accepting too much blame for a baby getting killed in a plane crash and the mother is making the attendant 100% responsible. Both of them will have to reduce the amount of blame being attributed and accepted. Neither is spreading responsibility to the training instructions given to attendants, faulty equipment, weather conditions, location of the mother's seat, and so forth.

Paul Barney says that right after the accident all the media attention kept him busy, but about eight months later he got depressed. "After the accident I had panic attacks. I had disaster nightmares. You keep thinking you are in a life threatening situation. You have to realize not everything in life is threatening." Paul, who lives near London, says he attended group therapy sessions with survivors of similar experiences and went to counseling for PTSD. He smiled when he told me "for the first time in over two years I am beginning to feel like myself again."

He also says "If you survive it is a life enhancing experience, but I struggle now in my relationships. It is hard to let myself need someone to be there for me. Estonia brought me feelings of abandonment."

Kelly Clem took a leave of absence from her ministry to give herself time to grieve and heal. She and her husband, Dale have moved to a nearby community and serve now as reverends in that town's church. They have had another child, a daughter named Laurel Hope. The Goshen Church has since been rebuilt, and the town now has a siren warning system for tornadoes.

Jerry Schemmel benefited from group sessions arranged by the airline for the crash survivors. Healing from an emotionally traumatic experience is helped by having each person to speak about their memory of the experience, listening to what others remember and feel, and talking about how the experience has affected them.


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Better Than Before

Survivors of life and death experiences can never be the same again. They must assimilate and integrate what happened into their life story and identity. A traumatic experience will lead to a person becoming either stronger or diminished. The long term outcome is to remain emotionally fragile and cautious, or to assimilate the experience and be transformed by it.

Kelly Clem says her loss has made her a better minister.

It has taken Jerry Schemmel over six years to deal with the effect of the crash experiences, and the ways it changed his life. Now he feels very different, "forever changed," blessed, and "reborn."

Margret Crotty feels more focused, validated, and self-confident than before and is less willing to put up with games and dishonesty from others. She works at an inner city school in Harlem. "Everything I've learned from that experience," she says, "I use it in everyday life."

Paul Barney is allowing all of his survival experiences to process at a very deep level. I anticipate that unexpected strengths and new directions will come to him.

About ten years ago Beck Weathers decided to climb the peak of the highest mountain in every continent. He has climbed Aconcagua in South America, Vincent Massif in Antarctica, Kilimanjaro in Africa, Elbus in Russia, and Cartenz Pyramid in New Guinea. He almost got to the peak of Mount McKinley. The climb up Everest was the last of the seven.

"I had the attitude," he says, "that I wanted to experience the Everest climb and all that went with it," he says. "I'll probably rephrase that now."

When he told me he suffered frostbite on a previous climb, his wife smiled and said, "He is a slow learner. The kids and I have suggested that he take up Bass fishing."

Beck's right arm had to be amputated and he now uses a mechanical arm. Reconstructive surgery is rebuilding his nose and his left hand. What is his attitude? "It's a small price to pay for the privilege of being alive," he says. "I'm happy to be alive. I'm a pathologist. All I need are my eyes and my mind. I'm back at work and can do everything I did before the climb."

"The mountain," he says, "gave me the opportunity to learn from those things. Most of us pursue the goals on your resume, but in the end it is the people who you hold in your heart and the people who hold you in theirs that is most important."

Richard Lawson says "Today I only deal with the present time. I can make plans for dinner but if you know me you know it is not set in stone. I'm flexible. I don't make plans. I focus day to day. I make plans last minute. Focusing on darkness of what will occur or could occur you pave your own path. You won't be available to see the opportunity if you don't focus on the present."


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Oprah Is a Wonderful Role Model

When Oprah said she didn't know if she would be a survivor, I just smiled. She is curious, asks great questions, listens well, is highly empathic, reads people accurately, is playfully spontaneous, and adapts quickly to unexpected developments. During the show, for example, she identified with the woman who was not dismayed when told that her Oprah show tickets had been cancelled. The woman was not bothered. "That's all right," she said. "We'll reschedule." You knew that this minor disappointment was not going to ruin her day, not like it would for most of the others.

Oprah is visible proof that some of the best people in our world have been through the worst experiences. She is a stronger, better, more resilient person than most because of very distressing childhood experiences, prejudices against her, and other major barriers. She has amazing self-confidence, does things her own way, trusts her intuition, is both creative and organized, takes risks trying new things, and keeps getting better and better.

The best sign, however, is to observe what happens around her. Even though she is very self-reliant, she attracts excellent people to work with her doing important work. She is interacting with the world in a way that leads to things working better for thousands, even millions of people. And she earns a good income from her work. She has blended the selfish-unselfish dichotomy in a very healthy way.


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Summary

The point here is that the survivors on the program and people like Oprah handle disastrous crises in the same way they handle everyday life. Survivor reflexes develop from reacting to hassles, disappointments, challenges, and opportunities in ways that make survival more likely when survival is necessary.

Copyright © 1997 by Al Siebert, PhD


To obtain a written transcript of the March 11th, 1997, OPRAH! program "Would You Survive?" send $4 to :

Burrelle's Transcripts
P.O. Box 7
Livingston, NJ 07039

Jerry Schemmel has written about his experiences in a book titled Chosen to Live. It is available from Victory Publishing Company, P.O. Box 621129, Littleton, CO 80162 (ISBN 0-9652086-5-6, $22.95) On-line it is available through www.amazon.com, among other places.



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Dr. Siebert's work lives on. To arrange for a Certified Resiliency Facilitator "Resilitator" to give your next meeting or conference presentation, please contact us.

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