The Idea of Order on the Hudson

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The most memorable subplot in the saga of Flight 1549 was Chesley Sullenberger's skillful landing on the Hudson River. But Butler Shaffer notes another lesson worth retaining from the rescue:

[T]he only seen presence of government at the site of the U.S. Airways emergency landing involved police helicopters interfering with rescue efforts by keeping the water around the plane churned up. These helicopters were of value to the state, of course, as a visual symbol of its superintending presence above a scene in which its practical role was nonexistent. Like a president or state governor flying over an area hit by a tornado or flooding, such an aerial presence reinforces the vertically-structured mindset upon which political authority depends. After rescue efforts were substantially completed—with no loss of life—New York and New Jersey police officials arrived (those whom the New Jersey governor incorrectly described as the "first responders").

The real work of rescuing passengers and crew members was left to the sources from which the only genuine social order arises: the spontaneous responses of individuals who began their day with no expectation of participating in the events that will henceforth be high-water marks in their lives. After the airliner came to a stop, one private ferry-boat operator, sensing the danger of the plane's tail submerging, began pushing up on the tail in an effort to keep it elevated. Other private ferry-boat operators—whose ordinary work involved transporting people between New York and New Jersey—came to the scene in what became a spontaneously organized rescue under the direction of no one in particular. Photos of the area show the plane surrounded by ferryboats on all sides.

On board the plane, passengers were making their own responses. CNN's Wolf Blitzer—a man who has probably seen one-too-many Irwin Allen films—interviewed a passenger, asking whether those aboard the plane were yelling and screaming at their plight. "No," the man replied, going on to describe how calm and rational was the behavior of his fellow passengers; removing exit doors; putting on life vests; and helping one another get out onto the wing of the plane.

Something similar happened on a much larger scale after the attacks of 9/11, with an improvised waterborne evacuation of Lower Manhattan. Impressive as such efforts are, they shouldn't be surprising. Contrary to media stereotypes, disasters are usually followed by far more spontaneous cooperation than social disorder.

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  1. People in general are made of sterner mental and emotional stuff then most cynics give them credit for. Though I suppose it’s also part of human nature when doing a thought experiment about such an emergency situation to assume the worst behavior rather than the best.

    It semms Wolf Blitzer and the Joker share the same basic premises about how people react to danger.

  2. It semms Wolf Blitzer and the Joker share the same basic premises about how people react to danger.

    “What were you hoping to prove? That, deep down, everyone’s as ugly as you? You’re alone!”

    I’ve been in a few fucked up situations, and in general, most people are calm. It’s a survival reflex, and a good one. What happens in the movies is all based on providing the “hero” with the opportunity to show leadership and take command. It has little bearing on real life and a lot on plot advancement.

  3. So your’re telling me that the media (print, radio, TV, et al)hype and bloviate and in general make shit up about things they don’t understand or mis-comprehend and then spray it in our face for 24 hours until the next big thing comes along? Say it aint so.

  4. It’s also pertinent (and encouraging) that, even though various media could not resist calling the event a “miracle,” I didn’t hear one survivor praise Jesus. Indeed, all of them put the credit firmly where it was due: with the captain and crew. It was a triumph of secularism, private initiative and rationality, not religious salvation, despite what Bill O’Reilly said about it later on (too many “coincidences” for it to be anything other than divine intervention).

  5. What happens in the movies is all based on providing the “hero” with the opportunity to show leadership and take command

    So yesterday’s festivities in DC were an Irwin Allen disaster film?

  6. I will attest that when I was grievously wounded and required medical attention, the cops were the only ones being dumbasses. They even managed to force the ambulance to park two house away because they didn’t leave in room in the driveway of the house I was actually bleeding in. And they delayed the EMTs taking me to the hospital to ask me questions I had already answered four or five times. I resorted to alternately screaming the foulest obscenities I could manage and howling in agony to get them to leave me alone. I calmed down in the ambulance so much they thought I had gone into shock.

  7. the cops were the only ones being dumbasses

    Ooh, potential for another cop-bashing thread, and Radley had nothing to do with it!

  8. “the captain and crew. It was a triumph of secularism, private initiative and rationality, not religious salvation”

    God made Capt. Sully. 😉

  9. Did anyone say “damn Jesus for those geese?”

  10. Dear Ellipsis,

    You know the best way not to get called a dumbass? Don’t act like one.

  11. Nick,

    Everyone knows birds are the work of the Devil. Didn’t you take high school biology?

  12. I understand the police have confiscated the tapes and are scrutinizing them to identify everyone interfering with the police rescue operation, so charges can be brought.

  13. I imagine a few unlicensed ferry-operators-cum-rescuers are going to be hearing from the Authoritahs.

  14. Everyone knows birds are the work of the Devil. Didn’t you take high school biology?

    Fuck that, man. Rabbits are all possessed by the Devil. Have you never read Watership Down (or watched that childhood-scarring cartoon version)?

  15. I’m sure the government/FAA will pass some new regulation that makes it a criminal offense for private citizens to “interfere” with a downed airplane, with “interfere” defined as approaching to provide assistance to the craft and any survivors and injured persons. Surely in the eyes of government it’s better for a few hundred people to die in an accident not caused by the government than for non-government individuals to get the credit for bravely and prudently saving the day. Of course such a regulation will be justified by saying it is for our own protection – a downed plane, even one sinking in Hudson Bay, could explode at any time and thus We The People should stay at least 500 yards away – only “the authorities” with their special “training and experience” (and government uniforms) should approach an airline crash. Violations will be punishable by up to 5 years in prison and/or $500,000 in fines. For our own protection.

    What if the government can’t get there in time to save people hurt/dying/drowning in the crash? Well that just means the government agencies responsible for the rescue effort need more money! Dead people are the best excuse for more government spending.

    Note: this is a comment about government in general, not a comment about how Obama will run his administration.

  16. If libertarians had their way, we wouldn’t even have roads rivers.

  17. Fuck that, man. Rabbits are all possessed by the Devil. Have you never read Watership Down (or watched that childhood-scarring cartoon version)?

    I remember reading, and watching, it and going “when did rabbits become so bloodthirsty?” The book was pretty great and the cartoon was amazingly violent, considering it was techniically for kids. Great stuff.

  18. I was wondering who had piddled in Shaffer’s cornflakes when I saw that it was a Lew Rockwell link, and it all came clear.

    I don’t want to put down the ferry captains and over-hype the idea of an “official response”, but not every potential major rescue/disaster situation takes place right in front of people who have exactly what they need to help out ready to hand. Particularly when what is needed to help out is large and expensive. Not many people carry fire extinguishers, much less ferry boats, on their person on a regular basis.

  19. That’s one thing Shaffer mentions, Jammer – that any such situation is going to have its own peculiar circumstances, which any by-the-book government response is not going to be flexible enough to handle.

  20. Rabbits chew their cud. Of course they are evil.

  21. I don’t want to put down the ferry captains and over-hype the idea of an “official response”, but not every potential major rescue/disaster situation takes place right in front of people who have exactly what they need to help out ready to hand.

    (1) rescue/disaster situations generally take place around people who have some resources and ability to help, and they do.

    (2) who said the local police, etc. will always have exactly what they need to help ready to hand, not to mention the skills and willingness to use it?

    (3) the odds are that the local citizenry will have more skills, resources, and willingness to help than the local officials.

  22. SugarFree,

    Do tell the story of your grievous wounding – inquireing minds want to know…

    “Everyone knows birds are the work of the Devil. Didn’t you take high school biology?”

    I believe I will insist this point be taught alongside intelligent design at the next school board meeting…

  23. You know, looking at flight 1549 from the point of view of ‘hey, union workers saved the day!’ was kind of ridiculous, and this is about equally so.

  24. This may have been written up here before, but the California SC decision about the civil liability of Good Samaritans seems relevant to this discussion…

  25. police helicopters interfering with rescue efforts
    by keeping the water around the plane churned up

    And if they hadn’t been there, we’d be hearing how incompetent the civil authorities are.
    To an anarchist, no government is the best government. We get it.

  26. “God made Capt. Sully. ;)”

    Ahem, Capt Sully was “made” at the US Air Force Academy, class of ’73. God couldn’t make a pilot like him, but the finest institution in the land sure as hell can. GO AIR FORCE!

  27. domo,

    Sully had a pilot’s license at age 14, well before he made it to Colorado.

    I think a bunch of credit should go to his initial trainer.

  28. Are the ferry boats really, truly private? I’ve never lived in NYC area, but every place I have lived ferries, buses, etc are operated by public benefit corporations, like Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (DC Metro).

  29. “(2) who said the local police, etc. will always have exactly what they need to help ready to hand, not to mention the skills and willingness to use it?”

    A young woman drowned inside her car in a lake here in Texas not long ago. The police arrived on the scene fairly quickly but did not enter the water because they were not trained in water rescue. They waited instead for the fire department water rescue team, and the young woman drowned in her car while talking on her cell to the dispatcher.

    Protect and Defend, my ass.

  30. Well, I didn’t RTFA Xeones, so you may be right, but from the excerpt it sounds to me like Shaffer has a point, only he is trying to spread the butter over too much bread.

    RC, you (and it appears some others) are for the most part arguing against points I was not making. (3) is the only thing that addresses my argument at all, and hardly makes a strong dent in it. Unless you know lots of people that carry specialized rescue gear with them all the time, because sometimes that is what you need.

  31. What we need is more regulation of the airlines. The evil free market corporations should not be allowed to fly such planes. If only we had more regulatory oversight this sort of thing would never happen in the first place.

  32. Everyone knows birds are the work of the Devil.

    Would angels be considered birds? :o)

  33. Angels shouldn’t be held accountable because their human fathers fucked birds. They can’t help the perverted miscegenation that lead to their creation. They are delicious deep-fried, though.

  34. And if they hadn’t been there, we’d be hearing how incompetent the civil authorities are.
    To an anarchist, no government is the best government. We get it.

    Bingo. This is the most irritating thing about a priori, retributivist anarchists. To give joe some credit, it’s the “one drop rule” that appeals to some libertarian religionists.

    So:

    1. Had the police not been there, some folks would bitch.
    2. If the police are there and they do they make mistakes, people will bitch.
    3. If the police are there are do their jobs perfectly, we wouldn’t be talking about this.

    Not to go all Pollyanna “you never report the good news!”…but reason (and I don’t blame them) has an incentive to make hay after every little police error.

    So, when Shaffer says that the police were interfering with private rescue efforts, what is his source for that? I saw no footnotes and one link in the article (to another LRC article).

  35. robc,

    bah – rain on my parade why don’t you. I guess the guy has some serious god-given skillz as well. Anyway – I’m sure his AF training helped a lot – and my asserting about USAFA stands!

  36. I havent RTFA, so I don’t know it is addressed, but from a lot of the pictures I saw there were people standing on the wings being assisted by NYDP, FDNY and USCG boats, in addition to the private boats. So while the ferrys may have gottend their first, I’ve also read it was the intention of the pilot to put the plan down close to the ferry routs, to use this as an example of how bad public services are is a little bit of a reach.

  37. Are the ferry boats really, truly private?

    From what I’ve seen, yes, they are.

    http://ti.org/antiplanner/?p=879

  38. when Shaffer says that the police were interfering with private rescue efforts,
    what is his source for that?

    Sources? Sources? He don’t need no stinking sources!

    One item that was somewhat revolting was Little Dictator Bloomberg’s rapidity in awarding certificates, medals, commendations, etc. to his “first responders,” barely 24 hours after the incident. Does there have to be an awards show for every act of American life?

  39. The point isn’t how bad or good the officially organized public response was. It was how good — and how much more important — the informally organized spontaneous response was. This is typical after disasters, both when government officials are competent and when they are not competent.

  40. …what Bill O’Reilly said about it later on (too many “coincidences” for it to be anything other than divine intervention).

    When someone is saved from certain death by a strange concatenation of circumstances, they say that’s a miracle. But of course if someone is killed by a freak chain of events — the oil spilled just there, the safety fence broken just there — that must also be a miracle. Just because it’s not nice doesn’t mean it’s not miraculous.

    — Terry Pratchett, Interesting Times

  41. Imagine how much better the response would have been if everyone involved — airline pilot, ferry captains, police — were cheap at-will employees barred from having a union, and were fresh out of whatever training (or lack thererof) the airline deemed necessary and had maybe 3 months’ applicable experience between them?

    If for instance Capt. Sullenberger didn’t have to meet all those gubmint and union regs that pretty much force airlines to hire and retain — at great cost — virtually nothing but experienced ex-military pilots with massive numbers of hours logged piloting smaller commercial aircraft, I’m sure this would have turned out much better.

    Point made about the self-organized nature of the successful rescue operation, but maybe it’s best not to look at it as a binary choice between top-down regulation and bottom-up cooperativism. Maybe sometimes [ahem] the right formula is one of the infinite ways the two kinds of forces combine.

  42. “Does there have to be an awards show for every act of American life?”

    Life in America has become one big Special Olympics. Everyone deserves a medal because, uh, everyone deserves a medal.

    I blame the self-esteem movement.

  43. I always fear I would pull a Castanza and run out the room screaming knocking over old people and children in my rush.

    Anyway this was nice to read. Thank you Jesse Walker.

  44. It has little bearing on real life and a lot on plot advancement.

    I am confused. Are you defending Blitzer for seeing the world through fictionalizing glasses?

  45. This reminds me of some accounts of self-organized rescue efforts in NOLA, like a neighborhood shelter/kitchen/clinic organized on the second floor of a school by the locals. The Gestapo, of course, stormed the place like an enemy bunker.

    And the helpful feds were blocking all bridges and other exits out of town and turning people back at gunpoint.

  46. domoarrigato | January 21, 2009, 10:23am | #
    “God made Capt. Sully. ;)”

    Ahem, Capt Sully was “made” at the US Air Force Academy, class of ’73. God couldn’t make a pilot like him, but the finest institution in the land sure as hell can. GO AIR FORCE!

    robc | January 21, 2009, 11:12am | #
    domo,

    Sully had a pilot’s license at age 14, well before he made it to Colorado.

    I think a bunch of credit should go to his initial trainer.

    How about some of the credit actually going to Sully?

  47. It was hardly spontaneous. NYC ferries are required by law to train, and be available for, waterborne emergencies.

  48. The point isn’t how bad or good the officially organized public response was.

    Mr. Walker – you would have to ask why it is that Shaffer spends half the article taking cheap shots at government response, then. Look at this laughable statement:

    One of the more telling distinctions between informal and formal responses to problems was seen in Capt. Sullenberger’s being the last person to leave the plane but, before exiting, making two trips through the aircraft to be certain that everyone on board, for whom he felt responsible, had gotten off. No government officials would likely have deigned to exhibit such a personal sense of responsibility: they would have been too busy conducting press conferences!

    I mean, what the fuck ever.

  49. And the helpful feds were blocking all bridges and other exits out of town and turning people back at gunpoint.

    The cops at the bridge were locals, not feds. (Not that this affects your point.)

    It was hardly spontaneous. NYC ferries are required by law to train, and be available for, waterborne emergencies.

    I don’t see how your second sentence supports your first.

  50. I mean, he really says that a government official would not have double-checked because a government official would be holding press conferences…where? In the plane? In the water?

    I mean, we talked about Tom Friedman, but what the fuck is Shaffer talking about?

  51. Mr. Walker – you would have to ask why it is that Shaffer spends half the article taking cheap shots at government response, then.

    I won’t defend the joke about the press conferences, which I agree falls flat. I also didn’t quote it. The focus of my post was the informal rescue effort.

  52. Mr. Walker,

    That’s fair. I take your point, but I personally think you could have made the point much better without linking to a dink like Shaffer and the loathsome LRC, especially since Shaffer refuses to source his contention that the police were in the way of the ferries.

  53. Thanks, Ska.

  54. I’d like to thank all the little responders…

  55. “The focus of my post was the informal rescue effort.”

    Jesse,

    But wasn’t your focus (at least your secondary focus) on “police helicopters interfering with rescue efforts by keeping the water around the plane churned up.”?
    Come on. It was a snark piece. Admit it?

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