January 12, 2011

Three Accounts of Terror

The terror image word "terror," as used in this essay, does not relate to "terrorism" or to "acts of terror," at least not directly. One goal of this essay is to make a distinction between those things for which the words "fear" and "terror" stand, the latter commonly being a synonym for fear, or representative of an extreme form of fear. Another goal is to describe "terror" in a way that provides a basis for understanding how insights arise in our associative minds.

These personal accounts do not confront pain or horror.

Account #1 -- Orange Light

In the sound-track album of Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now," the Ride-of-The-Valkyrie scene is entitled "Orange Light."

That title probably refers to the morning twilight in which the helicopter-borne air cavalry attacks a village located near a beach where the surfing is supposedly good. Or maybe it refers to something else entirely. I saw an orange light in one of my encounters with terror and, as reported below, so possibly did at least one other person under similar circumstances.

I saw the orange light on a summer evening in the late 1970s. I lived then in a house near the Potomac River in Maryland, about five miles upstream from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Parallel to the Potomac is the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal which extends a hundred miles to the west. The street I lived on sloped downhill to both the canal and the river.

Each evening after work I would get on my bike and coast down to the canal's towpath and then peddle about half a dozen miles up the Potomac to Great Falls National Park, where the Potomac's waters chisel away at the 200-million-year-old sandstone that comprises the river's valley. Those evening bike rides got my mind off the work, which was contract research for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The Potomac River upstream of Washington is surprisingly pristine, given its closeness to the main political center of our planet. The scenery along that part of the Potomac is about as it was ten million years ago, except, of course, for the jet aircraft and the occasional beer can in the woods.

My destination each evening was one of the two "Rocky Islands" (so designated on the Geological Survey's maps) just downstream from the torrents of Great Falls. Those islands are the remnants of the water's carving of the sandstone which long ago might have been part of a beach when the Atlantic was only a narrow and shallow sea between Europe and North America.

At Great Falls each evening, I'd hide my bike in the woods between the canal and the river, then I'd walk out to the Rocky Islands by way of a sloped path to a part of the riverbed that was usually dry enough to traverse to the islands. Rotting bodies of carp and bass lay among the rocks where they had been trapped for slow death after rainstorms that had been sufficient to raise the water into those higher parts of the riverbed.

I would cross the semi-dry riverbed by jumping from rock to rock till I reached my favorite of the Rocky Islands, one that had, at its highest point, a water-carved reclining seat on the edge of a fatally high drop to the rocks and flowing water. From that vantage in the middle of the Potomac just downstream of the falls, I would sit on warm evenings and watch the airplanes coming and going from National Airport while Olympic-class kayakers practiced in the rapids as the sun dropped into the trees on the Virginia side of the river.

Near every evening for three summers I went to that ancient contoured seat that was perhaps a hundred-thousand years old. I would watch the kayakers till they left, and often I stayed till well after sunset. Then, in the twilight, I would climb down from the island, cross the semi-dry, rocky riverbed, climb the sloped bank to where my bike was stowed, and then pedal home on the nearly dark towpath.

Toward the end of the third summer I began staying later -- or perhaps till the same time on the clock, but the sun was setting earlier.

I always walked out to the island and returned by way of the same gentle-sloping route to where my bike was hidden. On some evenings before leaving the Rocky Island, I'd run along the top of the island high above the water, leaping in the twilight from boulder to boulder just for the thrill of it. It was crazy but exciting stuff, leaping along the edge of a cliff where a slip could have been fatal. But the challenge of the dim light, if anything, encouraged my recklessness -- until one early September night when fate delivered one of its unexpected lessons about mind and being.

On that night, about an hour after sunset, with stars visible and only a residue of twilight in the western sky, I climbed down from the island and, in the dimness, began working my way across the dry riverbed. I was headed toward the usual sloped path to where my bike was hidden, but this time my attention focused on a more challenging route -- a sheer vertical wall which, for reasons I do not know, but related maybe to the thrill of having run along the top of the rocky island, looked like, for sure, the path less taken.

In sufficiently dim light, colors are not visible; everything is in shades of black and white. Under those conditions, the eyes and brain work in such a way that the peripheral vision dominates and is most sensitive to unexpected motions, which reflexively attract the eyes; the part of one's field of view that is sharpest in bright light becomes less sensitive dim light, which is why it's easier to see dim stars by looking askance of them. In that level of light I headed toward the vertical cliff -- thinking even as I changed direction that climbing a cliff alone and at night might not be smart, might, in fact, even be stupid. But arrogance is predicated upon ignorance of that sort, as it begs for the kinds of knowledge that the gods usually deliver at high prices, often including the price of life itself. The lesson I got that night was certainly interesting, and the price, seemingly high at the moment, was not so high at all for what I learned.

The part of the cliff I headed toward was only about 30 feet high -- enough that were I to have fallen I would likely have been injured, possibly severely, and maybe killed. Still, the vertical wall looked like it had plenty of hand holds, and I saw no problem and had no fear at all. But fear was soon to come.


The first ten feet or so were over the pile of rocky debris at the base of the cliff. Then came the vertical part.

The remnant of twilight had a touch of yellow, but I was effectively in the dark, dealing with a sedimentary wall located far enough from the human world that, were I to have fallen, I would not have been found till the next day, or the day after.

As I started up the vertical face, I thought, This might not be too smart. But I kept going.

A few seconds later, and only about five feet above the talus: I shouldn't be doing this. Several feet more and, having trouble finding hand holds, my thoughts about my foolishness changed to self accusation, I am really stupid!

About two-thirds up the cliff, I found myself barely balanced on a ledge, my right side tight against the wall, with my left knee conveying my center of gravity to the ledge's sharp edge which was cutting my knee. With my right arm I was reaching blindly above for a hand hold, but the rock was smooth. On that narrow perch, even a slight breeze would have whisked me off.

Fear was setting in.

I became suddenly aware of frogs in the riverbed, screaming. I hadn't noticed the frogs before, not in all my prior visits to that part of the river. But now their noise seemed loud.

I decided to climb back down from the ledge -- but I couldn't back up because I was balanced so precariously on one knee, with nothing to hold on to.

My fear increased rapidly. A mental image of holding my balance all night, of waiting for someone to find me the next day, came and then went fast; I could maintain my balance for a few minutes at most.

The noise of the frogs got louder yet. And that's when the riverbed lit up in orange light -- and I realized, or thought, or felt: I'm in a dream, this is only a dream, all I have to do was let myself fall and I'll drift to the riverbed and wake up at home in bed . . .

That was my last memory, that I was in a dream, with the rocky riverbed lit up in orange light, and thinking that all I had to do was let go. I was fascinated by that orange-lit riverbed: If I let myself fall, I would drift to the riverbed and then wake up at home, safe in bed . . .


With no sense of a break in consciousness nor idea of how I got there, the next thing I knew I was standing at the top of the cliff, looking over the dark river valley at the last of the day's light. I was surprised, for sure, and exhilarated.

Memory is social, its trade is words. While one can remember that, say, a dinner was good, the taste of food cannot be summoned from memory in its animal intensity to satisfy hunger. We could not survive if memory could summon actual feelings instead of society's wordy codes for feelings; if we could sate hunger with memories, we'd starve; our memories are language-dependent. That I have no memory of having got to the top of the cliff, and of my apparent instinctive response to the situation, suggests that words were irrelevant and useless to the problem at hand, so there was nothing to remember of how some ancient yet complex reflex drove my body to climb that cliff, and with apparent speed and ease.

I call that reflex terror. It is distinct from the fear that preceded it.

Alternatively, that apparent gap in consciousness between thinking I was in a dream and suddenly being at the top of the cliff can be interpreted in terms of the dream-like state that preceded the reflexive actions that got me out of danger: In effect, waking consciousness went to sleep, passing through a dream state; and then nonrational instinctive reflex took over.

That reflex must have been predicated upon earlier life experiences, simple ones, like climbing on a jungle gym when I was a kid. Perhaps such childhood experiences create the "muscle memories" that, when needed, are available to instinct's ancient survival expertise. That I have no memory is because . . . I was asleep!

Yet another theory of why I have no memory of the event is because waking reason cannot grasp the complexities of reflexive physical activities. That is, the body's experiences in moving itself from one place to another by walking or bicycle riding, or by leaping across rocks on the edges of cliffs, happen without thinking or recourse to ordinary waking rationality. In contrast, the instinctive reflexes, programmed by simple body movements learned in childhood, can take control in desperate situations. On that cliff, the muscles and spinal ganglia said in their quiet way something like, "Stop thinking. Go to sleep. We can climb this cliff, no sweat."

Such cellular-level language is incompatible with waking word-predicated memory. Hence no memory: I was saved by the nonrational actions of inarticulate instinct as it grasped control from paralyzed waking reason.

As I rode my bicycle home in the dark I considered that my performance had been good, and I felt exhilarated. Based on that and similar brushes with death I feel like I understand one attraction of war: Confrontations with death brings a fullness of life and, as I describe below, a special clarity.


The distinction between fear and terror is this: Fear I felt during the first part of the climb up the cliff. Terror is what got me to the top. That vivid orange light, that was my last waking memory; it seemed to mark the onset of terror.

Several years later I saw a television news report about a fisherman who had fallen, at night, into the cold Atlantic. By his reckoning, he had spent two hours treading 50-degree ocean water. "I finally gave up and said, Oh, what the hell," he told the television reporter. "And then I saw an orange light."

When I heard the man mention the orange light, I assumed he meant the same orange light I had seen, heralding the stoppage of normal time and the onset of terror. Terror had taken over. But I had never heard anyone else mention that orange light, and perhaps the orange light the fisherman saw was the light from the boat that rescued him. Maybe he was referring simply a light on a boat . . .

. . . only he hadn't really said anything about having immediately been rescued. Maybe, just possibly, he spent hours more in the water, and had no memory of it, terror having done its job -- making him survive a situation that wordy social reason would have said was impossible, hopeless, and the rest.


About a week after my experience on the cliff I needed to clean the gutters of my house. I set up the ladder and began to climb -- but I couldn't get past the second rung before becoming paralyzed with fear, right on the edge of terror.

About a month later, a friend asked me to examine the clutch on her Porsche, which meant I had to jack the car up, get under it, and snake my arm up over the transaxle, which I did. But in reaching into that narrow space, that same kind of fear came upon me as when I was on the ladder, only this time it was fear of being trapped under a car. I couldn't get out from under the car fast enough. Such "phobias" were new to me.

A friend related to me an experience similar to when I was on the cliff. She was to give a talk to a large audience, and she had been waiting to go on stage. She said she was afraid of being in front of the audience -- and suddenly, as if teleported, she was walking down the street, blocks from the auditorium, with no memory of having walked away.


Terror -- Generalized

Imagine you're walking along the top of a high mountain ridge. The trees are thin, the sky is clear, the air is comfortable, the view is great, and there's a slight breeze. You are alone and comfortable, enjoying the scenery when, there in front of you, is a three-foot gap in the path, and an abyss with a thousand-foot drop. The path continues on the other side. For most people, a three-foot gap across a thousand-foot abyss would be too daunting take in stride. Most likely one would get down on their hands and knees and crawl up to the edge, peer over, and behold its depth.

Everyone has fallen and got injured in life; everyone knows about the dangers of heights. When we were kids, our parents warned us about not going near the edges of cliffs, and so did our teachers and friends. Accordingly, fear develops in a logical sequence: The abyss is dangerous, therefore don't get too close, else you might fall and get hurt or killed.

The three-foot distance in this hypothetical setting is only slightly more than one large stride; you could make it across at a slow run -- if you manage to push off with your foot close to the side you launch from -- and if your foot doesn't slip backwards when you push off -- and if you don't trip in your running approach to the jump. The "ifs" are part of fear's rational underpinnings: if such and such, then you might get, in this example, killed.

Fear, predicated upon prior experiences and upon things you have heard and read, says to turn around and return the way you came. That is the rational thing, the reasonable thing, to do. So you turn -- but only a few feet away is an eight-hundred- pound grizzly bear rising on its hind legs and getting ready to charge. In other words, another rational fear presents itself: The bear can kill you.

The abyss is only three feet across -- but it's also a thousand feet deep, and the bear begins advancing. Then, as if out of nowhere, comes a vivid and incongruous childhood memory: You are playing hopscotch with friends on a chalked pattern on the concrete sidewalk in front of your house. How bizarre. The next thing you know you are on the other side of the abyss, and the bear has fallen into it. You are safe. You have no memory of having decided to leap across the abyss. Terror has done its wordless reflex action, presaged by a vivid memory from childhood, of hopping.


Account #2 -- North From Kingston

Terror, accompanied by the kind of timelessness that can be called eternity, came upon me in the midsummer of 1971 during a flight from Jamaica where I had spent three weeks visiting friends in Kingston.

The plane, a Boeing 707, left Kingston in the evening. I had got a window seat on the plane's left side because I hoped to see the sunset over the Caribbean and also the lights of Washington, D.C., as the plane passed east of the city on its descent into Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

We flew across the Caribbean and over Cuba where the countryside looked serene and peaceful in the slant, orange, late-day sunlight.

The sun was below the horizon by the time Florida came into view. From about 30 miles out over the Atlantic, the lights of Miami were bright in the twilight.

By the time we crossed the coastline, somewhere near south Georgia, night was upon us and clouds below blocked the lights of the rural towns I'd hoped to see during the flight up the coast. From an altitude of 35,000 feet, towns and cities at night look like phosphorescent fungi -- dim tentacled creatures of light marking the settings of the on-going human drama.

Somewhere over central Georgia, the pilot came on the intercom. Buckle up, he said, we're going to fly over a storm.

We flew over the storm, hitting heavy turbulence which caused the engines, two on each wing, to bounce around in scary ways. Aircraft can seem so fragile.

The flight got smooth after flying over the storm's updrafts. But the cloud cover below still blocked the view of the towns. So I leaned back to doze, hoping to wake in time to see the lights of Washington during the descent into Baltimore.

I awoke when the engines changed tone, indicating the plane was beginning its descent near Richmond, Virginia. Clouds no longer covered the countryside, so the towns and cars were visible all the way till the lights of Washington came into view. The plane was maybe a mile high when it happened.


Suddenly, without even a warning shutter, the plane was caught in a violent updraft that rammed me down in my seat. I had never felt such force acting on an airplane. I thought, for sure, the wings are going to tear off. For sure, too, I knew I was going to die, so I closed my eyes to face the end of my life.

In retrospect, I estimate my eyes were closed less than a quarter second before I thought that if I was going to die, well then, "goddamit" -- exactly what I thought! -- I want to see it all. So I opened my eyes and turned to look around the cabin. No one was moving, which surprised me; only later did I realize that, as in other fast-moving experiences like car accidents, my mind was going so fast that external reality seemed slow by comparison -- i.e., I had glanced at the other passengers for only fraction of a second.

In the remaining fraction of probably that same second, I felt that my whole life had lead to this moment: "So this is how it ends," I thought. And I thought about my childhood and the efforts of my parents to raise me, and of my schooling and how absurd it was that it all lead to this moment. My plans for the future all seemed absurd too. The feeling of absurdity was overwhelming, and I took in a breath to begin to laugh out loud at the cosmic joke of being. At the same time, I felt utterly free of all regrets, and unburdened of future dreads. All my plans, desires and regrets were irrelevant. I was free as never before, and just as I was about to laugh I turned to look out the window to watch the wings break off -- and there, in the landing lights of the 707, a twin-engine Beechcraft was coming out from under our plane. The pilot had pulled up as hard as he could to avoid a collision!

In reflecting on that experience, I assume that others who have survived such fast-moving experiences also achieve a similar feeling of peace, acceptance and freedom. The Challenger astronauts, for instance, or people in combat, or the passengers of Flight 800 that broke up east of Long Island in July of 1996, or, most recently, on September 11, 2001, the people who went to work on the top floors of the north building of the World Trade Center, buying a donut or bagel on the way and anticipating another ordinary day, and by they 9:30 were jumping out the windows. Had it been me, the initial fear would have been extreme, but the fall would have been divinely fine, okay.


Because of my experience on the airplane, I feel like maybe we are most alive when we are closest to death. I never want to repeat such experiences, but I'm glad I've had them. That feeling of freedom, of being unburdened of concerns . . . I wish I could summon that memory at will. But, of course, I can remember only that I had a feeling of freedom -- that is, the word "feeling," which is word-encoded feeling. Memory seems to work with words, not with actual sensory or emotional feelings.

To achieve terror's purity of presence, its total focus on now and its sense of freedom, you have to be convinced you're about to die, like the people on that terrorist-controlled flight that crashed in Pennsylvania: They knew they were goners, so they must have experienced that clarity of mind and purity of purpose, that present-moment focus that comes when you have nothing left to lose, and that everything is just fine, perfect. It is the basis of glorious death, which now, after having lived these experiences, I understand.

Stage performers are aware of the importance of fear before a performance. It sets the stage, so to speak, for the performance. But upon going on stage, fear has to yield to terror's focus -- else comes paralyzing stage fright.


The Pucker, and the Flood of Memories

One initial physiological response to fast-moving danger is a whole-body muscle tension that includes, notably, the pucker - - the cinching up of the anal sphincter. The pucker is well- known to those who've had brushes with death. It immediately precedes the so-called flood of memories. And, notably, it is the opposite of what happens during fear when, as part of the anticipation for fight or flight, the body unloads excess weight from the bowel and bladder. In my experiences, the pucker happens close to the transition from fear to terror in fast- moving situations.

And the memories that seem to be provoked during terror are not of random life events. Rather they are related to the challenge at hand. The associative human mind scans thoroughly the archives of life experiences in search of prior experiences having even a loose relationship to the immediate challenge.

The memories can be visual or auditory. Either way they are vivid. In 1962, while I was riding a motorcycle, a large dog ran in front of me, and even though the bike was heavy, the impact launched it end-over-end into the air. The first memory came within milliseconds of the impact; it was of someone having said years previous that if you're ever thrown through the air you should let your muscles relax, which I did. Then, as the rear of the bike began to lift into the air and my brain was racing at psychotic speed, I made a rough estimate of my finances and college schedule for the next six months during which I assumed I'd be recovering from two broken thighs, such being the main injury of friends who'd wrecked their bikes -- i.e., that being my indirect prior experience in such things. Then, relaxed, upside down with a motorcycle between my legs, the road beneath my face seemed to move by so slowly that the individual stones in the tarmac were visible as they went by at fifty miles an hour.

As for visual memories, in 1964 I was riding a motorcycle on a winding mountain road in central Mexico when I hit a gravel patch in a turn and began sliding toward the edge of a slope that dropped hundreds of feet. I got the pucker and then came a vivid memory as the motorcycle slid sideways; the memory was of a photo my father had made of me as an infant, crawling up stairs. The associative link between that photo and the prospect of sliding down a long and steep hill was of clawing at the rocky incline; crawling and clawing on inclines were associatively linked.

During the airplane flight from Kingston, my prior experiences included nothing that could be associatively linked to falling thousands of feet from a disintegrating aircraft, therefore I had no flood of related memories, rather only general ones about my life. I had closed my eyes to face death, then opened them to face it, and experience my hilarious astonishment at the absurdity of my life, and the sublime, divine freedom.


Account #3 -- Over the Side of the BSOB

If you are rescued in mid pucker, i.e., just before terror pushes fear aside, the experience is different from having gone into outright terror.

In 1981 I was involved in a toxic waste cleanup of a contaminated office building in Binghamton, New York. The building was the Binghamton State Office Building, or BSOB, the tallest building in town.

The BSOB had been contaminated with polychorinated biphenyls (PCBs) when a large electrical transformer in the basement had exploded and burned. Oily, black soot containing measurable amounts of dioxin had got distributed throughout the building's 18 floors.

My job was to help minimize the potential liability that the State of New York would encounter after the building was cleaned and people returned to work; i.e., since at least a quarter of the people would eventually get cancer (that being the general cancer rate), some of them would blame the state of New York for their cancer, due to exposure to dioxin. My job was to make it difficult for litigants to make a plausible exposure argument by giving the building a "state of the art" cleaning -- in effect, a "technological exorcism," given the minute amounts of dioxin.

Early on in the cleanup/exorcism, however, some local people were concerned that the building was venting dioxin to the city. Accordingly ventilation fans and filters were designed and built to draw air out of the building in a controlled way, the object being to maintain the inside of the building in a slight negative pressure and thus minimize uncontrolled dioxin release to the community. Part of my job was to oversee the design, construction and installation of two electric-powered "air handlers" on the roof of the building.

The air handlers were built in North Carolina and, on a fall day in 1981, they were delivered by truck to a grassy park near the base of the BSOB. The next day, a heavy-lift helicopter flew in from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

The helicopter arrived late because of light rain. It landed in the grassy park near the two air handlers that were on a flatbed truck from which they would be lifted, one at a time, to the roof of the BSOB.

Because of the contamination in the building, the health & safety experts had established rules whereby no one was allowed inside without being enrolled in a medical monitoring program that included an initial physical examination and monthly blood testing for PCBs. And everyone who entered the building had to wear full protective gear -- i.e., white Tyvec "moon suits," boots, and full-face respirators.

I was excited by the helicopter lifting operation because it combined my interest in flying machines with the installation of machines I had designed. Naturally I wanted to be on the top of the building to see the helicopter lifting operation.

I was wearing full protective gear and I carried three cameras (which had to be specially bagged in disposable containers as I carried them through the building to the roof) to record the event for the local press and as part of the official history of the cleanup process.

My rubber boots were slippery on the rain-wetted tar roof. A parapet, about a meter high and half a meter wide, ran around the roof's perimeter. It had a painted sheet-metal covering. At the center of the roof was the elevator "shed," to the outside of which would be attached the air handlers, so as to draw air from the building, filter it, and then release it to the outside.

About a dozen of us were on the roof, technicians, electricians, and analytical people to take samples of the air and test its purity.

In what followed, I got to the pucker but I didn't reach terror. Had I got that far, I'd not be writing this.


The drizzle was slight but constant. The air would have felt cold, except for the multiple layers of protective clothing.

The parked helicopter's rotor began turning and was soon spinning at high speed. The helicopter lifted off and then hovered while cables were attached to the first air handler. It rose high over the building and then descended slowly to place the first air handler on its installation pad. I was taking pictures of the approaching helicopter, with the air handler dangling below.

As the helicopter descended, the force of the air from its blades became increasingly powerful. At the same time, I was backing away from the "put-down site" to get as wide a camera view as possible. I backed up without thinking of the edge of the building, and I kept backing up, looking through the camera and taking photos of the helicopter. Then I backed into the parapet -- but I still needed a few feet.

I placed one of the three cameras, the cheapest one, on the top of the parapet, the other two were hanging around my neck. Rain was splattering against my face. I placed my hands behind me on the wet top of the parapet, my intention being to use my hands and feet to "lurch" myself up onto the low wall so I could get the extra foot of distance I wanted. That is, I wanted to sit on the top of the parapet with the 18-story drop behind me, which didn't bother me because of my foolish confidence.

Maybe I hadn't taken into account the slipperiness of my rubber boots on the wet tar-covered roof, and the weight of the protective clothing I was wearing. The backwash of the helicopter was also pushing against me -- in fact it blew the camera I'd placed on the parapet over the edge, which was a breach of the rules regarding materials that had been inside the BSOB -- i.e., that camera was to have been buried in a hazardous waste landfill when I had finished with it; instead the wind from the helicopter blew it over the side of the building. (I searched for it later but never found it.)

So, with my hands behind me on top of the parapet, I jumped upwards and backwards, intending to land squarely on the parapet, which is how I did land -- but with an excess of backwards momentum. That is, I had jumped high enough to get onto the parapet, but momentum was carrying me backwards over the edge.

Within a millisecond or so, fear set in at full intensity -- i.e., the pucker -- as my center of gravity passed the point of no return.

I hadn't got far enough over the edge to accept that this was the end of my life, which would have happened by the time I reached the 17th floor. Instead, a fellow standing near me saw my feet rising and he grabbed my leg.

When I got a solid footing on the building's roof, perhaps two seconds passed and then I began shaking violently in a way I'd never experienced.

I had been arrested in the interval just before extreme fear yields to calm terror. If I'd fallen I'm sure I'd have accepted within milliseconds that I was a goner accelerating toward oblivion. But because the process was arrested before fear yielded to terror, I was stuck with the residues of extreme fear, the result being the violently shaking. I hadn't even reached the slow-motion phase of the experience; it all happened at high speed, whereas terror happens in slow-motion.


These three accounts of terror describe what happens in the first seconds of potentially fatal situations. But what happens when the lead in to sudden death lasts more than a second, like when the Challenger exploded and the astronauts fell for a minute or so, presumably alive and conscious, into the ocean? Or when the central fuel tank of Flight 800 exploded and the two halves of the Boeing 747 took about a minute to reach the sea? Or the people who jumped out of the World Trade Center, what did they experience during that kind of protracted sudden death?

I can't comment on that. But accounts of others who've survived such things report tranquil acceptance, which I have experienced only briefly.


Final Comments

My idea of an ideal death is the sort had by the Challenger astronauts when they died doing their work, in full view of the world, crossing the boundary between the earth and space, recapitulating the crossing, 500-million years ago, of life from the sea onto the dry land. I was envious to the point of tears each time I saw the replays of the explosion.

A breakup of an airplane would be a good way to die, too, as I see it. Or a situation like the high-jacked airplane that crashed in Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, where the passengers knew they were as good as dead and, unobstructed, did what was needed in a state of cool terror. Truly a glorious way to die. What fascinating stories the dead might tell . . .

The only downside in such situations is that momentary fear, the pucker and the whole reflexive muscle tension when you initially see death coming. Even if it lasts only a few tens of milliseconds, it's rough. On the other hand, during terror, one feels no pain -- at least I've not felt physical pain when I've been injured.

Also I have this question: How does natural selection select for this amazing terror state of mind?

Bottom line: It's impossible to arrange an unexpected sudden death. One can only hope, as it is the best way to go . . .