Lessons out of a disaster

28th August 1998 at 01:00
PROFESSOR Helen Muir looks rueful. "It's a terrible thing, but the Manchester air disaster made my career."

She has just watched 20 teenagers on British Aerospace's summer camp scramble out of a mock-up 737 fuselage and down an inflatable chute in a simulation of a emergency plane evacuation.

The chute is a fun ride, even if it scuffs some expensive trainers. But it's the only such research facility in Europe and the professor is one of the world's leading experts on emergency evacuations.

Her research was inspired by the 1985 Manchester Airport disaster. Fifty-five holidaymakers died when fire broke out as they taxied for take-off.

For any plane to win certification, passengers must be able to escape in 90 seconds. Yet on a Manchester runway, people could not get out.

Thick smoke and confusion about the nearest exit were reasons. But a third was the passengers' own behaviour.

In a test, people naturally co-operate to get out quickly. Professor Muir devised a simple method to replicate something of the real thing - she offered passengers Pounds 5 if they are in the first half to get out.

The results are scary to watch. The volunteers climb over seats, over people, claw each other back, get stuck between the 20-inch-wide bulkheads and in the emergency exits. If they'll do that for a fiver, you think, what they would do for their lives?

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