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In a plane crash, who will be the hero?

How you'll react during a traumatic event depends on your personality, coping style and if you've experienced a similar incident.

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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.

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?

The Asiana Airlines airplane lies burned near the runway after it crash-landed at San Francisco International Airport on July 6.

The Asiana Airlines airplane lies burned near the runway after it crash-landed at San Francisco International Airport on July 6. Photo: EZRA SHAW

"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.

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 realising the danger we were in."

Evacuated passengers are seen on the tarmac as Asiana Airlines flight 214 burns on the runaway. Reports suggest not all were graceful under the great pressure of the evacuation.

Evacuated passengers are seen on the tarmac as Asiana Airlines flight 214 burns on the runaway. Reports suggest not all were graceful under the great pressure of the evacuation.

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. Cool-headed strangers like Levy helped others off the plane.

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 said 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 travelling with his wife and young children, or if he had realised 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 Centre 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 behaviour. During the shooting rampage in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theatre a year ago, 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."

San Jose Mercury News