Survival Sage on Who Lives, Dies—And Why

October 21, 2003

Survival runs thick in Laurence Gonzales's bloodlines. During World War II his father, then a 23-year-old B-17 pilot in the Eighth Air Force, took to the air for his twenty-fifth and last mission. At 27,000 feet (8,230 meters), an 88-millimeter antiaircraft shell hit his Flying Fortress and sent the bomber hurtling toward Earth. "Well, I guess this is it," Gonzales reports his father saying to his co-pilot. But, at least for him, it wasn't. After passing out from lack of oxygen, the young pilot woke to find his crew dead, his bomber twisted and broken in two, and himself very much alive—though sniffing the barrel of a German peasant's gun. "It was such a mysterious and unlikely event," Gonzales says of the episode his father miraculously survived. "When hearing the story while growing up, it naturally raised the question: Why does one person survive and not another?"

Gonzales seeks to answer that question in his new book, Deep Survival.

First hired in 1972 as an eager, though dyslexic, staff writer for Playboy, Gonzales has since fashioned a career in journalism spanning over three decades. In that time, he has written for Harper's, Smithsonian Air & Space, Rolling Stone, and other magazines. He's contributed to National Geographic Adventure since the magazine's launch in spring 1999, and has produced two National Magazine Award-winning articles, November 2001's "Land of the Lost" and January 2000's "Rules of Adventure." He has become Adventure's survival sage, reporting on everything from the May 2002 climbing disaster on Mount Hood to Aron Ralston's shocking decision to amputate his own hand to escape the grasp of an 800-pound (363-kilogram) boulder in a Utah slot canyon. Adventure caught Gonzales at his home in Evanston, Illinois, days before he prepared for a national book tour by hiking around Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

You have written rock-and-roll fiction, an Emmy Award-winning television program, and a volume of poetry. Why, now, survival?

All of my life I have been interested in accidents. One of the reasons for that is my father's experience of being shot down over Germany during World War II, and while his case is not the type of survival situation I write about in Deep Survival, in a way it informs the whole book because it's the genesis of my interest in those kinds of things. Then I became a pilot myself and began reporting on aviation accidents back in the 70s. When I eventually transitioned to writing about outdoor adventures, naturally I gravitated toward the accidents. I began asking myself why these things happen, and who gets out alive. For example, I was sent to Hawaii by Adventure to do a story about what a beautiful place Kauai is (see "Hawaii's Edgy Eden" March/April 2000). "Go have an adventure," they said. But when I went, I approached it from the point of view of how people get killed there [laughs]. I looked at everything from my own experience of jumping into the surf and almost getting swept away, to what happens to lost hikers and people who don't understand the environment they are in.

How did your experience as a pilot add to your curiosity?

One of the important things flying taught me I learned the first day I soloed: Flying is one of the few pursuits in which you have to take complete responsibility for yourself. From the moment you leave the ground, you can yell and scream and call for help, or do anything else you want, but the only things that are going to get you back to earth safely are your emotional and mental states and your two hands. If you don't have it, you are going to perish.

We live in a society that encourages us to abdicate responsibility. That's why everything you buy has a warning label on it that says, basically, don't be a moron and stick this aluminum ladder in the electrical wires. If it didn't and you're dumb enough to stick the ladder in the electrical wires then, of course, you sue the company that made the ladder—and the electric company. That sort of thing leads to a kind of helplessness. When you're flying, or in the backcountry or doing these risky sports that we do, you really have to get away from the cultural attitude that leads to helplessness because if something goes wrong, then it is really all on you.

While the responsibility may fall on you, one of the more interesting ideas in the book is that survival is really a selfless act.

That's right. For example, people who have survived grim circumstances say that they did it for someone else. In fact, doctors and nurses in catastrophes are said to survive much better than other people because they have a job to do and people to take care of. When faced with some sort of survival situation, keep in mind that being a rescuer instead of a victim is a good way to keep yourself alive too.

Does that hold true in non-wilderness survival situations? For example, did you find similar responses during your research at Ground Zero?

The World Trade Center collapse provides a laboratory of survival reactions for psychologists to study. A lot of people didn't get out of there who could have gotten out simply because of ingrained attitudes they had developed over a lifetime. When you spend your life in a relatively benign setting, as most of us do, you get used to that. You are not forced to observe your environment and react to it. When something goes wrong you can refuse to believe it. Many people didn't get out of the Trade Center because they were in denial, they just didn't believe the seriousness of what happened, and they waited too long. By the time the realization hit them, it was too late.

Continued on Next Page >>




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