THE BLOG

Playing Dead: How to Survive Like the Hero in the Binghamton Massacre

The massacre in Binghamton boggles the mind and breaks the heart. The sadness is only matched by the lunacy of the rampage. What happened inside the American Civic Association is also a reminder that in the most terrifying and tragic situations, ordinary people are capable of the most extraordinary things.

Shirley DeLucia was the 61-year-old receptionist on Friday morning when Jiverly Wong walked through the door. "Hello, how can I help you," DeLucia asked. The killer pulled his weapon and opened fire, hitting DeLucia in the abdomen. She dropped to the ground while Wong shot the other receptionist. DeLucia played dead while the attacker shot his way through the building. At 10:31 a.m., DeLucia somehow managed to call 911. Police responded within two minutes and found 13 people dead, including the other receptionist.

The Binghamton police chief believes DeLucia's quick thinking and action made a big difference. "She's a heroine and I believe she saved some lives," says Chief Joseph Zikusky. Thirty-seven people managed to escape. DeLucia is in critical condition now and will make a full recovery. Her brother says she rolls her eyes when she's hailed as a hero. She's a strong woman who made it through the loss of her husband Christopher to cancer three years ago. A friend and neighbor of 26 years adds: "Most people's first instinct would have been to get down and stay quiet - but not Shirley's."

The Theory of 10-80-10

It's true: DeLucia's response was remarkable. In a crisis, survival experts say that only 10 percent of us do the right thing with clear, quick thinking and decisive action. Most of us - around 80 percent - freeze in fear or bewilderment or fall into a stupor. The remaining 10 percent of us do the wrong thing and engage in self-destructive or counterproductive behavior.

What did DeLucia do right? Some combination of thought and instinct told her to play dead. In the animal kingdom, it's known as thanatosis - an animal feigns death in order to evade predators or unwelcome mating attention. Opossums are best known for playing dead. Many other species - mammals, birds, lizards, insects -- do the same. (One study of young fire ant workers under attack from neighboring colonies showed that playing dead increased survival chances four times compared to older worker ants who fight back).

In April 2007, Clay Violand was in French class at Virginia Tech when a shooter barged into Room 211, spraying the room with bullets. The shooter left the room briefly and Clay quieted his friends and and told them: "Pretend you're dead." The shooter returned, fired some more rounds and took his own life. Twelve students and the teacher died in that classroom. Clay was the only one who wasn't killed or injured. Why? Violand remembers"I think it's just simply because he either honestly thought I was dead already -- I really didn't move or talk at all -- he never saw me like move I don't think."

Of course, playing dead offers no guarantee. Without question, some of the victims in Binghamton and Blacksburg did everything right (and possible) and yet they perished. Still, survival is a learnable mindset - a way of approaching virtually any crisis. While nothing is ever certain, experts insist that you can improve your chances if you're ready to take action.

Survival Strategies for an "Active Shooter"

It's a sad reflection of our society, but many people wonder: What can you do if you end up in one of these terrible, terrifying situations? At the University of California, Davis, veteran Police Lieutenant Matt Carmichael teaches workshops on how to survive what he calls an "active shooter." Among the recommendations:

1. Escape (if you can).
2. Cover (find protection behind an object that will stop a bullet; look for chances to escape, especially during reloading).
3. Hide (then look for opportunities to escape.
4. Play dead (and look for ways to escape).
5. Attack the attacker (as a last resort, catching him by surprise or from behind).

These suggestions may seem obvious, but remember: In a crisis, 80 percent of us freeze and don't know (or remember) what to do. It's easy to dismiss a list of safety ideas. After all, 60 percent of us pay no attention to flight safety briefings or information cards on airplanes. But planning ahead can make all the difference - on a burning jet or in any crisis - especially if you're like most people and don't have Shirley DeLucia's incredible instincts.