Wednesday, January 19, 2011

I Kinda Like It When a Lot of People Die

Right up front, let me admit that I stole this title from the late, great George Carlin.
I heard a radio interview with him one day when he talked about how much he loved disasters, and had planned to do a live show that would eventually become a TV special and a DVD.  A big part of the show was going to be about how fascinated he was with natural disasters. This was going to be the title. The show was to be filmed in New York City, somewhere around September 13, 2001.

Needless to say, he scrapped the title and that section of the show.

But something about the way he talked about disasters struck a chord in me. You see, I also love disasters. I'm not as much into natural disasters as George Carlin was, my interest lies more in man-made disasters, but I have to admit to being completely, totally, captivated by movies, books, blogs, anything to do with disasters.

I never really told anyone about my "hobby" until I heard George Carlin on the radio. There is something liberating about realizing that you are not the only one with a strange interest. Even if there are only two of you!

It's not something that many people understand, and some are naturally a little taken aback. I remember once running into a woman from Halifax, Nova Scotia, and telling her all excitedly how I LOVE Halifax because they have had so many great disasters. (It's true... explosions, floods, fires, ship wrecks, plane crashes, hurricanes...the list is endless). All I got back was a blank stare. I guess she didn't find disasters as entertaining as I did. Another time I mindlessly told someone that The Cocoanut Grove Fire was my "favorite" fire. Same odd look. (BTW, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire is my second favorite. The local story has to win out.)

Now I'm not saying I'd like to be personally involved in a disaster, or even have any personal experience of one at all. I'm not saying that I'm happy to hear about a disaster, it's usually very upsetting, but like George said, "I don't want a lot of people to die, but if they do..."

Why? There are about as many reasons as there are disasters.  I'm always enthralled by the human element stories. Why do some people live, some don't in bad situations? Sometimes people do all the right things and die anyway, sometimes people do all the wrong things and walk away unscathed. Some people are fully able to function in and emergency, some can't do a thing. Some will make incredible sacrifices, others will do incredibly selfish things. It's all amazing to me.

I love reading about what causes man-made disasters. It's hardly ever one thing. It's almost always a series of errors that in a million years you would think would never come together and cause the chaos that they do, but somehow they do.

I'm fascinated with how disasters keep affecting people long after the event, in ways we don't even think about. People know that the Boston Cocoanut Grove fire cause massive changes to be made in the way burns are treated and is the cause of the stringent fire codes in Boston. But did you know that the first time Post-Traumatic Stress was studied seriously was when doctors started noticing the symptoms in the people who survived the fire? Many people know that the Christmas tree that decorates the Boston Common every year is a gift from the people of Halifax, Nova Scotia, for the assistance Massachusetts gave after the horrific Halifax Explosion of 1917, but how many people know the skills that some of the doctor's learned in Halifax about treating children translated into the opening of Children's Hospital, the first hospital that focused on the health needs of children? Until that point, children were treated as "small adults", often with tragic results. Many people go to the section of Tufts hospital called the "Floating" hospital without knowing that there was, indeed, once a boat that was used to treat cholera victims, and it was  known as The Floating Hospital.

I'm also enthralled with the mechanics of disasters. How can nearly 500 people die in a fire in 15 minutes? What could cause a fire to rage like that? How could a giant molasses tank explode in a congested urban area and kill 21 people? How do first responders know what to do? How do you rescue people from a flooded subway tunnel? An overhead trolley?

Also, reading about disasters gives you a glimpse of an era that you rarely get in traditional history books. If a description of an event lists the victims as "just immigrants" it gives you startling insight about who was considered expendable.  People living crowded, unsafe conditions are often blamed for the tragedies that befall them because it is "their fault" for living like that. For disasters that happened during the 1800's immigrant boom, blaming everything on the immigrants (or children of immigrants) was a popular past time. Chicago Fire? Mrs. O'Leary's cow, obviously. In 1915 over 800 people die in a Chicago boat accident. The captain's opinion? "The questionable character" of the mostly immigrant passengers was to blame. The Boston Cholera pandemic? The official report listed "Irish immigrants" as the cause.

So I've finally decided to put my ridiculous knowledge of disasters to use. I'm going to try to do a walking tour of Boston's best (?) disaster sites, come this spring. I'm trying it on some friends first, and who knows, maybe it could blossom into something more than just a hobby.

Let's hope it's not a disaster.  

1 comment:

  1. Lynne, I think that in many ways, this type of fascination is what drives people to keep printing about stories that are hardly ever told. When I read this article, the Bath Massacre came to mind. I am of the opinion that Andrew Kehoe is America's first "home grown" terrorist. I got rid of my old FB page because there were people on there that only serve to remind me that there are real nuts out there. I read an old message you sent me the other day, and deleted a few more people after I read it because of the vitriol. Andrew Kehoe had enough hatred in him against good people who were doing their jobs to blow up the state.

    That disaster happened in 1927 in Bath, MI I believe. Someone needs to write a screen play on it. I think the most notorious school disaster that was an accident was the New London, TX school fire. There were no additives to Natural Gas at the time so it was odorless. The school blew up and hundreds were killed. After that the governor of TX ordered that an additive be put into it so that people could smell the gas leaks...

    I look for the "story behind the story" and if anyone ever finds out from the Kehoes what really made that Andrew as crazy as he was, that story will make history all over again. They keep refusing interviews with everyone though because they only want to forget...I can't blame them, though.

    Anyway, I just wanted you to know that I see nothing abnormal about your fascination with disasters. There is much that can be learned from them. Look at Japan... Have a great week!