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'Survival' author: Taking responsibility is key

Laurence Gonzales: Non-survivors often
Laurence Gonzales: Non-survivors often "don't see what's going on."

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NEW YORK (CNN) -- They grab headlines occasionally -- amazing stories of survival. For instance, there was Aron Ralston, who cut off his own arm to survive after getting trapped under a boulder. But what is it that separates the survivors from victims?

Laurence Gonzales is the author of "Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why." He is also contributing editor to the "National Geographic Adventure" magazine. He discussed survival with CNN's Paula Zahn.

ZAHN: Are we born with an instinct to save ourselves?

GONZALES: Well, I think we're all born with the survival instinct, but I think the true survivors who get out of really bad situations are ones who have lived in a certain way that directs them towards survival.

ZAHN: So what is it that separates them from the rest of us?

GONZALES: Well, there are a lot of qualities that are described in the book, but I think taking responsibility for yourself is certainly a big one. And we live in a culture that encourages us not to take responsibility. We're always expecting someone else to come and get us. If something goes wrong, we blame other people, we sue each other. Survivors don't think that way. They think, "If something bad happens, it doesn't matter whose fault it is, I'm going to take care of it."

ZAHN: So what are the biggest mistakes people in general make during a crisis?

GONZALES: I think the first one is they don't see what's going on. They deny it. You've been in a high-rise building for years, working on a certain floor. You've never smelled smoke. One day you smell smoke. What do you do, talk about it, sit there, keep working? Or maybe you go find out what's wrong, go down to the first floor? I had a flight instructor, when I was learning how to fly, who used to say about the weather, "If it looks bad, it is bad." And then he used to remind me that I'd much rather be on the ground wishing I were in the air than in the air wishing I were on the ground.

ZAHN: Smart instructor. Let's talk about how 9/11 has changed everything and all of our senses, collective senses of vulnerability. When I think of the stories that are going to stay with me forever, these are the stories of people who carried folks down in wheelchairs 30, 40 flights, folks that didn't even know they would be physically capable of doing that. What did we learn that day about the will to survive?

GONZALES: Well, I think we learned a lot about the will to survive, but I think we learned that these environments that we accept as completely safe are not really completely safe. Every day, we spend time in places where the thin reed of technology that we depend on can break and leave us stranded. This happened in Chicago the other day, where I come from. There was a high-rise fire ...

ZAHN: Awful.

GONZALES: ... and people didn't know where the stairwell was. They knew where one stairwell was, but that was the one that was on fire. And six people died as a result of simply not looking around their own environment and saying, "Well, where am I really? I'm 200 feet off the ground in a manmade maze."

ZAHN: So we're basically asleep, you're saying.

GONZALES: We're asleep at the wheel, a lot of us. And I am, too. If there were a fire here right now, I don't know how...

ZAHN: I'd help you out.

GONZALES: ... to get out.

ZAHN: I know the way the out of here.

GONZALES: You'd help me.


ZAHN: Let's talk about some of the general rules of survival because I think you have an interesting approach to the whole idea of panic. Panic isn't necessarily people screaming, it's being frozen in time.

GONZALES: Right. A lot of people in the World Trade Center just sat there for a variety of reasons -- denial, this isn't really happening, thinking someone else would rescue them, or just being so afraid they couldn't move. But I think there are four -- in the excerpt in "National Geographic Adventure" of the book, there are a bunch of different qualities we use, but there are four ways this breaks down in my mind. One is your attitude. Another is your perceptions. Another is your plan. And another is your actions. So all of those can be kind of lumped together under those four things.

ZAHN: And then you have another point where you say celebrate success.

GONZALES: Yes, and when you...

ZAHN: Be a survivor. Do not be a victim.

GONZALES: Right. You've -- we've all met whiners, people who complain about everything and blame others. That's not what a survivor's like. A survivor takes the attitude that, "This is a challenge. I'm going to meet it. I have the will and I have the skill, and I'm going to do it." And they go forward.

ZAHN: Well, "Deep Survival" confronts a lot of questions I think many of us have asked ourselves and sometimes been too troubled to try to answer them. So thank you for going over them with us tonight.

GONZALES: You're welcome.

ZAHN: Good luck with the book.

GONZALES: Thanks very much.

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