Panic or Situational Constraints? The Case of the M/V Estonia

March 2001 (VOL. 19, NO. 1)

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This paper evaluates behavior among individuals during the sinking of the M/V Estonia in 1994, which caused the deaths of 851 people. Survival rates of those on board indicate a drastically higher proportion of men surviving than women (.22 vs .05), and a higher proportion of crew members surviving than regular passengers (.23 vs .12). These patterns suggest that intense competition and panic may have ensued during the escape, since it appears that individuals with (socially-defined) role obligations (e.g., crew members) disregarded others’ (e.g., regular passengers) need for aid during the emergency. However, we can believe that the unusually tumultuous physical constraints effectuated by the disaster may have made it difficult for these individuals to help one another escape from the ship. Thus, unlike previous research on disasters, this paper treats the situational environment of the disaster as a factor that can influence survival rates differentially across groups. The usefulness of reaching conclusions about the existence of panic based solely on observations of overt action and/or covert emotional states (especially those based on quantitative analyses) is thus called into question.