My husband and I were staying at a very nice hotel in Boston last year (thank you, Priceline) when the power went out late at night.
The emergency lights came on and the phones were working, so we called the front desk. No worries, the desk clerk said, it was a scheduled test of the emergency generator. We should have been told about it at check-in but somebody forgot.
Reassured? Not entirely.
I grabbed my pocketbook, car keys and flashlight (we always travel with a flashlight) and put the palm of my hand flat on the door to check for heat on the other side. Then we walked down 10 flights of stairs (even though the elevators were working) to the lobby and stayed there for nearly an hour, until the drill was over.
Overreaction? As it turned out, yes. But it’s not the overreactions that tend to kill you.
I have decided over the years not to rely completely on what I’m told in an emergency or anything that looks like one. Because when things are going wrong, the people in charge sometimes tell the people who aren’t in charge not to panic, to stay where they are.
It happened on the Titanic. It happened as the World Trade Center burned on 9/11. It happened as the Costa Concordia began to sink last month.
Disbelief and underreaction, it seems, are fairly common reactions to disaster. And even when there’s nobody in authority to minimize the danger, people will do it for themselves. The building is on fire but they don’t run. The tsunami approaches and they stay to watch.
So when I’m in a shopping mall and nobody is paying attention to the fire alarm, I calmly head for the door, anyway. And when the power goes out on the 10th floor of a hotel, well beyond the reach of any fire truck ladder, I take a stroll downstairs.
It always turns out that everything is fine. So far.