Figured I’d write about a situation I was in where others’ inaction and panic almost got some people killed, since almost no one believes it happens in the ways that it does, nor do they believe how many people just utterly lock up in such situations.
As I’ve written before, I was a paratrooper in the army. But on this day, I wasn’t jumping from a plane but rather escorting some civilians out to the drop zone to view a jump. It was what is called a “mass tactical” jump, meaning it involves 500+ paratroopers jumping in with all their gear and equipment – including trucks, artillery pieces and Humvees.
This latter equipment is what constitutes the “heavy drop” of the title. Descending on multiple massive chutes, it is an impressive and awing sight watching a 30,000 pound military vehicle plummet from a plane and boom onto the drop zone without a scratch on it.
That day I’d herded the journalists to a supposed “safe zone” on the DZ and waited for the paratrooper jump to start. But first, the heavy drop occurs.
Something went wrong, though.
The pilots or the navigators of the planes with the heavy drop equipment didn’t see the drop zone in time and let the heavy drop equipment out too late. Far too late. Right over the heads of me and the journalists I was escorting.
It was at least 3/4 of a mile to the edge of drop zone. Too far to run before the equipment slammed into the ground. Nothing at all to do but wait, and dodge.
There were probably 50-75 pieces of equipment in the sky, about 500 feet above our heads. The wind was around 7-9 knots, making their paths a bit predictable but also means they were moving at good clip.
We had fifteen seconds.
The journalists were freaking out at this point. Not yet panicking, but it was on the way.
I told them to watch only the equipment closest to dropping directly on top of them, stay in a group, and to ignore anything else – and to walk upwind from the truck or gear directly above them as if they did, that one would pass behind them and they’d be ok.
There was plenty of space between the heavies to make it with no problems if no one lost their head.
Unfortunately, a few of them did. And panic, it spreads. It spreads like ebola.
It started with expensive video camera gear on the ground. One of the reporters noticed that it was likely to get crushed by a heavy. She and her partner are freaking out about the camera gear, and about the heavy drop right above our heads.
We had maybe 10 seconds before we’d become crushed like bugs by a 30,000 pound truck.
The worst off of the two was walking back and forth in a little circle as panic and indecision set in. I didn’t have time to restrain her and drag her out, and her partner was just too big to attempt to do that to. And no way I could’ve done it to both, anyway.
The other journalists, while still freaking out, had at least managed to follow my instructions somewhat well. They were rubbery with fear, but were going to be ok it appeared as I glanced their way.
At this point some of the first equipment to be dropped had started hitting the ground and as it collapsed the shock-absorbing cardboard attached the bottom of the drop palette, massive and resonating booms echoed across the DZ. The parachutes collapsed in slow billowy blooms like decaying mushrooms.
“Look at me!” I hissed to the woman. Her eyes were wide, glazed. “Do you want to die for a camera? A fucking camera? Come with me right fucking now or that’s what you’ll do!”
I thought – rightly – that if I could move her, her partner and cameraman would follow.
Luckily my guess was correct. She came, me leading her by the hand, jogging upwind. Three or four seconds later came the expected massive boom, and the ground shook under our feet.
A few seconds later, a massive chute from another drop, one I hadn’t seen, descended over our heads, burying us in viridian glow, blocking our sight of the sky. If there were any more heavy drops in the sky – and judging by the booms happening nearby there were – we wouldn’t be able to see them.
By this point, both journalists with me are visibly shaking with fear. The woman has my upper arm clasped in her fingers, and they were very cold. I could feel her trembling. “Oh my god what do we do?” I heard her say, but ignored her as I tried to quickly figure the fastest path out of the chute.
“This way, move,” I said and headed towards the suspension line portion of the chute. A few seconds later we emerged into the yellow sunlight again. There were no more heavies anywhere near us.
Everyone was alive. The journalist was still clutching my arm in a death grip. I pried her fingers away. Her arm hung in the air. I pushed it down to her side. Her partner looked like he did not know where he was.
But no one died, and that was exactly why I was there.
I’ve told a very short, very humorous version of that story before to a few people. You know, “The time we almost killed a bunch of journalists by dropping big-ass trucks on them, ha ha.” As to me, that was just another day. I have no desire to make myself look like a hero or any such thing so I’ve never told anyone the full version of that tale. I don’t have a panic button and I was not afraid. I am just not constitutionally set up that way. There’s no courage in that, trust me — it is just the way that I am.
But that’s what really happened that day, and that’s one of the reasons I know how people react in such situations.
And that was with very simple, very clear instructions in a fairly linear, predictable situation.
So that’s how I know also that Sandra Bullock’s character in Gravity does an exceptionally good job of handling her fear and panic and turning it into something useful.