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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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,
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
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-
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
Within a millisecond or so, fear set in at full intensity --
i.e., the pucker -- as my center of gravity passed the point of
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.
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
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 . . .