The 2005 London bombings are one of the most notable disasters of recent times. However, disasters occur all too often in the current world, and therefore it is undeniably interesting to consider how we, as humans, react – likely socially – to having the misfortune of being a victim in such an event. The unpredictability of disasters means that such research has an extensive scope regarding our reaction to group trauma. Contrary to expectation, research has consistently shown that we do not panic in the aftermath of being caught up in tragedies, rather mutual concern and helping behaviour is frequently demonstrated. This study reinforced such findings in the form of a thematic analysis of eye-witness statements from six individuals caught-up in the London bombings. The study looked to consider, in light of previous research, the effectiveness of this helping behaviour, with consideration for practical applications of these findings and potential future research in this area.
The London bombings of 7th July 2005 were the most fatal attack on the United Kingdom since the Second World War. This study seeks to identify patterns in statements from survivors of these attacks with the intention of analysing these patterns qualitatively in order to identify the characteristics of individual’s initial responses to this disaster. This subject area is vital in understanding our nature in times of group emergency, and is extensive in its potential practical applications to both the general public and to Rescue Services. Indeed, past research into this topic area is vast and has been consistent in its findings that responses to such disasters are, perhaps surprisingly, ordered and selfless (Cocking and Drury, 2009), and high in helping behaviour towards others (Avdeyeva, Burgetova and Welch, 2006). Recent research of this type is of significant challenge to the so-called ‘myth’ of pass panic that is widely assumed amongst the general public and many academics (Mawson, 2005). While it has been predicted that one individual behaving disorderly and demonstrating irrationality would lead the rest of the group to act similarly (Le Bon, 1968), research has instead shown that while individuals do panic, this behaviour is notable for the fact it does not escalate to the crowd. This resilience is apparently not merely a result of commitment to loved ones, it has been found that in groups made up of strangers, helping behaviour and self-sacrifice is still highly present (Ripley, 2005), and that any form of collective presence therefore appears to reduce the likelihood of a mass flight response. An area for further development within this topic – which this study attempts to clarify – is the issue of whether such behaviour is an efficient response to disaster, and can ultimately aid the wider group in the aftermath of an event of mass emergency. This current study, therefore, is expected to demonstrate cohesion within a group of victims of the 7/7 London bombings, and for this rational behaviour to be effective. While it is expected that some individuals within the crowd will act irrationally and show panic, this response is not likely to spread to the wider group.
The participants in the study were six individuals who spoke separately about their experience being eyewitnesses to the 7th July 2005 London Bombings. The age and gender of all participants is unknown, and participants are referred to only by initials. Their data was collected from various online sources.
The nature of the study was a thematic analysis, carried out with the intention of gathering an overview of how individuals react in times of disaster and stress.
Data was collected from various online sources in the form of transcripts of statements made by the participants in relation to their experiences in the London Bombings. The accounts were recorded shortly after the bombings. After multiple initial readings of each statement, constant patterns of experience were identified. With such patterns in mind, data or quotations relating to these patterns were identified, and it was then considered if these patterns were consistent over all the reports. An understanding was therefore gained of the eyewitnesses’ collective experience, which allowed a final reading of the texts to identify if the themes were interrelated and had significant links.
Thematic analysis of the statements showed responses to disaster to be structured and practical, and largely undertaken with consideration and interest of the wider group. A key theme was evidence of the attempts of many individuals to take leadership as an immediate response, with the individuals recalling how ‘a few of us told people to calm down’(MH), and ‘I was trying to reassure people’ (JG). This behaviour occurred, as expected, in spite of the fact that the crowds were compromised of strangers, with other people on the train being referred to consistently as ‘fellow passengers’ (EK). Significantly, it also became an apparent theme that this leadership and reassurance was an effective response, and that when victims were reassured by others to keep calm, ‘they did very quickly’ (MH) and this ensured the group got out ‘in a calm and safe way’ (JS). Individuals additionally sought to remain with the group, one participant even doing so when given the chance to evacuate the carriage (GQ). A continuous theme was that the victims showed an eagerness for contact, particularly with people of perceived authority, whether this be people who ‘worked in HR’ (JS), a ‘chap with (a) torch’ (GQ) or seeking more conventional authoritative potions such as ‘people shouting… Doctors (and) nurses’ (EK) or an off-duty police officer who was approached by many fellow hurt passengers (EK).
As was anticipated on the basis of findings of previous studies into this area, the essential findings from this study demonstrated significant evidence of collective concern and a search for contact and authoritative reassurance. Such findings correlated those of studies of a similar nature; the evidence of citizens making rational decisions (Helsloot and Ruitenberg, 2004) and a lack of widespread personally selfish behaviour (Cocking and Drury, 2008) were clearly identifiable themes in this analysis, as was true for previous studies. It is worth noting how this behaviour was present despite the groups of victims being largely compromised of strangers, as referenced in many of the statements. The significance of this comes in challenging the Social Attachment model of response to disaster, which explains people to have a preference to stay by the side of loved ones instead of attempting to escape alone (Sime, 1983). Results of this study – and others – would heavily suggest that mutual concern is a broader social response than one purely based on the primacy of attachment, though the decisions of some participants to remain with the injured group when given the chance to leave the carriage does support the Attachment approach’s concept of not abandoning responsibilities to our peers in an emergency. However, in order to use such findings to fully assess the implications of this study it needed to be considered whether this helping behaviour was an effective response in the situation. Indeed, findings that this response was beneficial are central to enabling real-world applications to arise from it. It is worth considering that this apparent efficiency of asserting leadership may be due to a social desirability bias whereby the participant’s may want to appear to successfully demonstrate the reassurance which may be expected of them, while these details may vary additionally depending on who is taking their statement – whether the media, or a police officer for instance – though this theme has been present through numerous studies into responses to many different disasters. Additionally, past research demonstrated that victims of disasters would quickly seek contact (Cocking and Drury, 2008), a theme which was likewise prominent in the statements used in this study, and which was able to be developed further as it emerged that, more specifically, individuals were quick to seek support from people in actual or perceived positions of authority when in danger, though some individuals did attempt to take leadership themselves rather than seek a person of authority, a distinction that may be interesting to consider in future research questioning whether our personality type has an influence over whether we exert this apparently social response to mass emergency. In light of findings of previous research combined with these findings, we may wish to consider the possible practical implications that this evidence of the collective, rational responses to disaster could provide; it may be advised that emergency services take note of such research, and potentially utilise the altruism of the crowds, and their desire for an authority figure to take verbal leadership, in order to initiate an efficient response to future disasters. As a whole, this study reinforced findings of previous studies that identified structured group responses to disaster are much more prominent than selfish, impractical displays, while emphasising the importance of a person of authority in providing reassurance in such a situation.
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