9/11 survivors' motivations under scrutiny

Experts at Columbia study why some lived, some died

May 19, 2004|By Rinker Buck | Rinker Buck,HARTFORD COURANT

NEW YORK - On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, some World Trade Center workers survived because they sat in windowless cubicles and never knew they were under attack. They felt comfortable about making an orderly, calm evacuation down the emergency stairways.

But others perished for the same reason.

Underestimated danger

They just didn't know how desperate their situation was, so they delayed their departures for several critical minutes - even 15 or 20 minutes - while they downloaded computer files or made calls to overseas markets, afraid their bosses would be angry if they left their desks without permission.

Such life-and-death decisions are part of a portrait of complex motivations emerging in a study of Sept. 11 survivors being conducted by the Center for Public Health Preparedness at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health under a grant from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Yesterday, as the Sept. 11 commission conducted its public hearings downtown, the psychologists, engineers and statisticians conducting the Columbia study in Upper Manhattan were putting the finishing touches on an exhaustive questionnaire that will be mailed to 20,000 people who worked in the buildings, whether they were there that day or not.

Focus groups and in-depth interviews with more than 100 survivors have revealed fascinating details about the evacuation of the towers. In many respects, these are concerns not addressed by the Sept. 11 commission, which focused yesterday on the emergency preparedness of the New York City police and fire departments.

The Columbia group's findings suggest the need for considerably more extensive emergency training for employees and a deeper understanding of individual responses during a terrorist attack or other mass disaster.

Health issues

Dr. Robyn Gershon, a national expert in occupational safety who is leading the Columbia study, said:

"We found that a lot of health issues that all of us take for granted in the workplace - overweight fellow workers, diabetics, the elderly - were a bigger factor than we expected.

"The public just has no idea what went into getting many of these people with health issues out of the buildings."

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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