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The problem with disasters is that we never know when they are going to happen and they usually do at the most unexpected moment.

Unfortunately, the greater the surprise, the greater the consequences of a disaster.

A simple truth applies here: if one knew he was going to fall, he would have sat down.

During a disaster nothing functions as it should, and all the everyday appliances stop working.

Living in a civilised world, we are used to running water, electricity, phones, lifts, air conditioning, shops that are well stocked and function 24 hours a day etc. and all that suddenly vanishes.

More than that, all the institutions that normally guarantee our everyday safety (such as police, city guards or emergency medical service) are paralysed, at least for some time.

A disaster brings out what is worst in human nature.

For example, in 2005 when the hurricane Katrina (category 5 – highest in the SSHS scale) struck the USA and 80% of New Orleans was flooded, the city plunged into chaos. 2251 of men, women and children were reported dead or missing.  Unfortunately, not only because of hurricane or flooding. The city was taken over by organised gangs which took advantage of the lack of communication and helplessness of police. They robbed houses and shops, attacked, beat and murdered people, raped girls. The city was ruled by violence and chaos.


In Poland we do not have to be afraid of tornadoes, but that does not mean that we live in a land of happiness where nothing bad can happen.

A good example was the construction disaster at the Katowice International Fair in Chorzów which took place on 28th January 2006 at about 5.15 p.m. Because of the load of snow that had not been removed from the roof of a trade hall it collapsed, burying hundreds of visitors of the International Exhibition of Carrier Pigeons.

Most probably the administration of the hall as well as its constructors were not aware of the fact that 1 cubic metre of old and iced snow can weigh from 300 to 900 kilograms (depending on the stage of its transformation). Huge, steel posts, gratings and air conditioners size of lorries crushed and fell on people’s heads. There were few ways to escape as the emergency exists were closed!

At the moment of the disaster the temperature inside the hall was high and so the lightly clothed people were suddenly exposed to the temperature of -15 degrees, often lying on concrete in snow and water, unable to move under the parts of collapsed roof. Apart from injuries and fractures they also suffered from cold – an awful killer. Why is cold so dangerous? Because humans are warm-blooded. We were created to feel best with the temperature of 36,6 degrees. Every, even minor, variation of our temperature creates dangerous changes in our bodies. The body temperature over 42 degrees causes death, but also the temperature below 27 degrees causes a gradual loss of life functions and so the life flows out of a body just as water flows out of a bathtub...

During the disaster in the trade hall in Katowice there were around 700 people inside, both exhibitors and visitors. 65 people were killed and more than 170 injured. It was a bit of good luck that helped here, as around midday there were three or four times as many people inside. A lucky coincidence prevented more deaths as most people came back home in the afternoon to watch a ski jumping championship in TV, in which Polish famous ski jumper, Adam Małysz was taking part...

One would have thought that there can be nothing more safe than, after a family dinner, taking a child or a grandchild to the exhibitions of pigeons and rabbits in the centre of a huge urban complex of a modern, European country...


Airports are places where we feel most safe, surrounded with security and monitoring. With antiterrorists, medical help and firefighters who are always ready to act if there is such a need, airports seem a peaceful place.

But we should remember that planes do not always land safely and in the places they were supposed to.

If such a machine, weighing a couple of tonnes, hits the ground with the speed close to 200 km/h there are no chances for anyone to survive. A beautiful construction of a steel bird is then turned into a heap of scrap metal. What is more, pilots not always manage to discharge jet fuel in time. If they do not, a machine catches imminent fire that creates extreme temperatures. No living creature can survive that.

But not all plane and helicopter crushes have such tragic consequences as the crush of the president’s plane at Smoleńsk, of a military plane Casa near Mirosławiec, of a air medical service helicopter near Jarostów or the Tatra mountains search and rescue helicopter in Dolina Olczyska, in which no one survived.

Sometimes fate is kind to passengers. Here we could mention the crush of a Polish government helicopter with Prime Minister Leszek Miller on board, which took place on 4th December 2003 near Piaseczno. The engines of the machine failed because of icing and the helicopter fell on trees. There were 15 people on board: 4 crew members and 11 passengers. No one died.

We can also mention the controlled ditching of the passenger aircraft belonging to US Airways on the Hudson river on 15th January 2009. The machine lost thrust from both engines after it struck a flock of Canada geese. The pilot managed to ditch the aircraft safely on the water. No one from 150 passengers or 5 crew members got injured and the rescue forces acted immediately so the survivors were quickly transported to the shore.

But we should realise that those disasters took place in huge urban complexes or in their vicinity so the professional help was on the spot immediately.

Situation becomes more difficult if a crush happens in a secluded place, where help will not arrive.

A good example of that was the crush of the Uruguayan Air Force plane Fairchild FH-227 that happened on 13th October 1972 in the Andes. The plane was carrying 45 passengers among them a rugby team with families. In a fog the plane crushed into a mountain and lost one and than the other wing before coming to a rest on a slope. 12 people died in the crush. The rest of them survived 72 days in very difficult conditions at the altitude of 3600 metres, in low temperatures, without warm clothes, food or water. As the result of injuries and lack of help some other people died in the days following the crush. The living ones had no food or water so in order to survive they turned to eating bodies of the deceased.

As if that was not enough, an avalanche came, killed some more passengers and trapped the others for several days.

After eight days of rescue operation the authorities decided not to look for the missing plane and the survivors learned about it from a radio.

If it was not for three of them, who decided to go on a risky mountain trek in order to find human settlements and who brought help, no one would have survived this crush, despite suffering and extreme motivation.

It should also be noted that those were not mountaineers or people trained in survival who would be well equipped, trained, prepared for the risk and the adventure of high mountains...

Those were normal people who, together with their families, took a comfortable flight to the capital – Santiago de Chile, where they were supposed to land after a couple of hours...


 To be continued...