This article accompanies ep three of Extremes, which is a VICE podcast exclusive to Spotify. This week we speak to two people who survived the sinking of the MS Estonia. You can listen to the show for free, right here
Paul Barney was almost asleep when he heard a metallic clunk somewhere below. It wasn’t a loud noise, but there was something in the way the shock reverberated through the ship’s superstructure that got his eyes open. Paul was laying on a roll-out mattress surrounded by others who’d found their way into the restaurant area, which was closed and dark. There was no other sound. The MS Estonia was a big modern ship. Nothing was wrong, surely.
But then, just as soon as Paul's rational mind began to find explanations, he realised the floor had began sloping—just enough to cause a flutter of concern through the dining room.
“That’s when my alarm bells started to ring,” Paul recalls.
It was the night of September 28, 1994, and the MS Estonia was charting its usual journey across the Baltic Sea from Estonia to Sweden. The ship was an overnight ferry with nine decks of restaurants, bars, and accommodation, with modern comforts such as a swimming pool, a casino, and a cinema. There were 989 people onboard that night, and most of them would never get off. Paul was an exception.
He didn’t know it at the time but a hatch in the ship’s bow—a big hydraulic door that allowed people to drive in and out of the car deck—had come open in the swell. Paul had woken to the sound of the door being torn off its hinges, at which point sea water began sloshing into the car deck and pulling the ship to one side. And as it listed over and furniture began sliding about the dining room, Paul Barney realised something was very wrong and jumped into action—even though he wasn’t quite sure what that action should be.
“I started to put on my boots, and then realised that they’d be absolutely no use in the water, and I didn’t want to have them on me if I was to end up in the water.”
Eventually Paul hugged the doorway between the restaurant and the outside decking, so that he didn’t get trapped in the swamped dining area like so many others. Then, by the time the ship rolled over and lay flat in the waves, Paul rode it like a surfboard until eventually he was atop its hull. From there he made his way into a life raft, which is where a rescue team found him the next morning: exhausted, hypothermic, but still alive.
Paul was a 35-year-old landscape architect from Reading, UK. He’d never been in a crisis situation before, yet he somehow made all the right decisions at all the right times. A total of 137 people survived that night, and Paul got off in much better shape than many.
“I had to choose the harder path and stay alive, freezing, and aware, and keep going because I hadn’t finished,” he explains. “I really hadn’t finished with this life.”
At first glance, people who managed to get off the MS Estonia were similar to Paul. They were relatively young and fit, with an unusual ability to stay calm under pressure. But the profile for survival gets a little more ambiguous beyond there. And not just in the case of the Estonia disaster, but in many crisis situations the world over. People who seem strong, relaxed and confident in everyday life sometimes fall apart in a crisis—while sometimes the meek swing into action.
So what’s the science behind self-preservation? Why do some people prevail in disasters while others freeze and panic? Luck aside, is there a play book for survivalism?
“I think I spent about two and a half years in my regional time working on that and I found no personality traits specifically that would identify someone as a survivor,” says Dr John Leach, a Senior Research Fellow of survival psychology at Portsmouth University. “A lot of it is just preparation.”
John has been immersed in survival psychology for decades while serving as a military psychologist. John’s conclusion is that survival isn’t about genetics, strength, agility, personality, or even gender. Instead, it’s a product of experience. Preparation is obvious. Knowing where your lifejacket is definitely lowers your chances of drowning. But some other variety of rehearsal helps enormously when unforeseen variables arise.
He explained that neurologically, this makes sense. Normally, when you’re in danger, the human brain shuts down some parts of the prefrontal cortex associated with future planning. This enables it to channel energy to areas associated with immediate responses, such as the Basal Ganglia. “And that’s where you start talking about the fight-or-flight response, although we tend to overlook the initial response, which is to freeze. So quite often, your first response when placed in immediate danger is the freeze reaction,” John adds.
Of course, freezing is usually disastrous in a crisis, whereas prior experience allows people to get moving. Experience creates neural pathways through the brain that can come online when other areas are shutting down. So, if you're in a situation like a sinking ship, your first response isn’t to freeze, but rather to act in accordance with your experience.
According to John, survivors in crisis situations have often experienced events in their past which require similar responses. As an example, he describes British POWs who managed to cope simply because they’d attended boarding school, which had given them self preservation skills in large groups.
John goes on to say that prior experience also allows the prefrontal cortexes to begin functioning in minutes, rather than hours, which is essential to planning in the post-impact phase of a catastrophe. But that experience doesn’t necessarily guarantee survival. What’s just as relevant—and something John has documented for decades—is how emotional resilience and adaptability is essential to surviving a catastrophe.
In 1991, John debriefed a group of survivors who had spent 13 days in Northern Canada following a plane crash. Five of them had died, but only two of them had any injuries. The others had just given up.
John defines this phenomenon as "give-up-itis" (which he described in 2018 as a passive coping mechanism that leads to a dopamine imbalance which impacts the areas of your brain associated with planning, emotions, and decision making). Effectively this means that people let go after they lose hope. And, in turn, it explains how some people can push forward because they have something to live for.
Paul Barney described how he “wasn’t finished with life,” and so staying alive naturally became his goal. In this sense, the question isn’t why do some people survive, but rather, as John puts it, “why do some people die when there’s no need for them to die?”
In the almost three decades since the MS Estonia accident, Paul has come to see the event as “life-enhancing and grounding.” But it also provided him with a sense of empathy for anyone in a life-threatening situation, which is an understanding that he believes very few people possess.
“That has left with me that degree of empathy: never give up hope,” he says. “And that, hopefully, will get you through.”