SAN FRANCISCO -- Rha Kyung Rhan experienced the best and worst of humanity during the crash of Asiana Flight 214: One man helped her with an extended hand and another hurt her when he yelled "Move!" then climbed over her and her teenage daughter in a panic to flee the smoking wreckage.
If you survived a plane crash, how would you behave?
We'd all like to think we would be brave, courageous, compassionate. But would we be?
The answer is almost impossible to predict. There are clues in our personalities and chemical makeup that can foreshadow how we might react in a disaster, experts say, but depending on the circumstances, we can surprise ourselves, for better or worse.
A week after the Korean airliner tumbled across a San Francisco runway, resulting in the death of three passengers, a remarkable 304 passengers and crew members are reflecting on how they coped with one of the defining moments of their lives, when character, courage and community did battle with confusion and chaos.
Ben Levy, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist who helped Rha, her daughter and dozens of others escape from the back of the plane, had often wondered how he might behave in a disaster: What would he do if the Bay Bridge buckled beneath him in an earthquake?
"You ask yourself: What kind of person would I be? Would I be scared? Would I run away? Would I crumble?" he said in an interview Saturday.
He was able to answer that question in the midst of chaos on the runway when he said "gut instinct" kicked in. He thrust open the emergency exit door next to his seat, called for his fellow passengers and pulled them toward the inflated slide.
"I could have opened the door and jumped first," he said. "I wasn't fully realizing the danger we were in."
Two flight attendants, Yoon Hye Lee and Ji Youn Kim, lugged injured passengers on their backs off the burning hulk of the Boeing 777. Veteran San Francisco police Officer Jim Cunningham charged up the escape chute without a respirator to search for survivors. Coolheaded strangers, such as Levy, assisted others off the doomed airliner.
At the same time, however, some panicked passengers shoved their way out.
"They were pushing, screaming, lots of screaming. They were looking for things, getting bags out of their cubbies," a 13-year-old San Carlos girl who escaped near the front of the plane with her mother told this newspaper a day after the crash. At the same time, she said, "a couple of people were helping one of the workers who got smashed" between a wall and an escape chute that inflated inside the plane.
Rha Kyung Rhan, already bruised and aching as she crouched protectively over her own daughter in row 32, got smacked in the back and stepped on.
"I don't know who it was. It was so crazy. He tried to get out of the plane, maybe afraid of fire, right after the plane stopped and everybody tried to escape," said Rha, a dentist in Santa Clara. "I tried to cover my daughter. He just passed by, he hit me, I don't know who."
Minutes later, Levy grabbed her hand and helped her and her daughter out the exit door and down the slide.
But Levy says he might have behaved differently if he had been traveling with his wife and young children, or if he had realized at the time that jet fuel was running up the airplane wings. "I thought the danger was behind me," he said.
Coincidentally, he also had just watched the in-flight movie "Love 911," a Korean action flick about firefighters rescuing people. "I was in the mindset of the movie," he said.
Research shows humans have a natural instinct to want to help others in distress, said Emma Seppala, associate director at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford. However, "when you are in a high state of stress or anxiety, that can make you very self-focused," she said. "The whole idea of 'let me get out of here,' a focus on yourself, is an instinct just to survive."
Past disasters reveal interesting patterns of behavior. During the Colorado shooting rampage a year ago at the midnight screening of "The Dark Knight Rises," three men, including two with military training, were killed while shielding their girlfriends.
Experts often point to the stark contrast among survivors after the Titanic struck an iceberg in 1912 and the Lusitania was hit by a German torpedo three years later. Both ships had similar numbers of passengers and crew with a similar range of ages, genders and backgrounds. But more women and children survived the Titanic, while more people in the prime age group -- from 16 to 49 -- survived the Lusitania. Why? The Titanic took two hours and 40 minutes to sink, researchers note; the Lusitania, just 18 minutes.
"In the Titanic, the slow sinking allowed our default social nature to override our animalistic self-preservation," said Ron Gantt, a safety consultant from San Ramon who co-authored a "Disaster Psychology" article in the American Society of Engineers magazine. "In the Lusitania, the sinking was so fast, there wasn't time for that. So the self-preservation took over and it was basically survival of the fittest."
In the crash of Asiana Flight 214 last week, if passengers feared "the fire was spreading quickly, they'd be much more likely to panic," Gantt said. "If they felt it was easy to get out and didn't see much fire -- regardless of their personality traits -- that would have determined whether people will be selfish or altruistic."
Alice Hoagland, of Los Gatos, a retired flight attendant whose son, Mark Bingham, died on Sept. 11, 2001, while charging the cockpit of hijacked United Flight 93, said the flight attendants on Asiana 214 were truly "remarkable." Not only did they take control of the evacuation when the pilots initially ordered the cabin to remain seated, but at least two of them carried injured passengers on their backs to safety.
"Some people are going to rise to the occasion and challenge themselves and truly help each other," Hoagland said. "Others will run to save their skin and their luggage."
Levy cautions that people on the flight who panicked or pushed shouldn't be judged; they may have perceived more of a threat than he did. Besides, he said, while much of the evacuation is still a blur, he is certain that many more people helped than hurt. The desire to help others, he said, seems innate.
When he got home after the crash, he pulled out a pair of toy fire engines he bought on his trip for his young children and managed to save. He didn't tell them what had happened that day -- he didn't want to frighten them -- so he was surprised by what one of them said as he played with the new truck:
"Let's go save some people, Daddy."
Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at 408-278-3409. Follow her at Twitter.com/juliasulek.