As the San Francisco bureaucrats on the dais murmured about why they weren’t getting anywhere near what we in the audience passionately hoped for, asked for and worked for, my mind began to wander. I began to think of another sunny day on the other side of the country thirteen years earlier, when nothing happened the way anyone expected. I had met a survivor of that day who told me his story.
A high-powered financial executive, he had just arrived on the sixty-sixth floor of his office building and entered his office carrying his coffee, when he saw what looked like confetti falling everywhere—not a typical sixty-sixth floor spectacle. Moments later, one of his friends ran out of a meeting room shouting, “They’re back.”
It was, of course, the morning of September 11th and his friend had seen a plane crash into the north tower of the World Trade Center. My interviewee and his colleagues in the south tower got on the elevator. In another fifteen minutes or so, that was going to be a fast way to die, but they managed to ride down to the forty-fourth floor lobby safely. A guy with a bullhorn was there, telling people to go back to their offices.
Still holding his cup of coffee, he decided—as did many others in that lobby—to go down the stairs instead. When he reached the twentieth floor, a voice came on the public address system and told people to go back to their offices. My storyteller thought about obeying those instructions. Still holding his coffee, he decided to keep heading down. He even considered getting back on an elevator, but hit the stairs again instead. Which was a good thing, because when he was on the ninth floor, the second plane crashed into the south tower, filling the elevator shafts with flaming jet fuel. Between 200 and 400 elevator riders died horribly. He put down his coffee at last and lived to tell the tale.
The moral of this story: people in power and bureaucrats seem exceptionally obtuse when it comes to recognizing that the world has changed and the old rules no longer apply. The advisors in the towers were giving excellent instructions for a previous crisis that happened to be profoundly different from the one at hand. That many had the good sense to disobey and evacuated early meant the stairwells were less crowded when the second round of evacuations began. Amazingly, the vast majority of people below the levels of the impacts made it out of both buildings—largely despite the advice of the building’s management, not because of it.
Going Nowhere Fast
Sometimes the right thing to do in ordinary times is exactly the wrong thing to do in extraordinary times. That’s easy to understand when something dramatic has happened. It’s less easy to grasp when the change is incremental and even understanding it requires paying attention to a great deal of scientific data.