When How You React Makes a Difference -- Paul Barney's Story

by Al Siebert, PhD

THRIVEnet Story of the Month - March 1997

The evening before we taped the Oprah Winfrey show about survivors, I had dinner with Paul Barney. He is a survivor of the ferry that sank in the Baltic Sea in September, 1994. Only 137 people survived out of the 989 on board the Estonia, making it the worst European Maritime disaster since WWII.

Paul told me that when he was paying for his passage home he found out that a small sea-cabin had come available. He almost rented it so that he could sleep in a bed during the overnight trip between Estonia and Stockholm. The price was a little to high, however, so he decided to pay the lowest fare and spend the night on a bench in the cafeteria.

Paul is a soft-spoken, gentle man in his late 30s. He smiled in a warm, boyish way as he explained that he works as a landscape architect for a few months, saves his money, and then travels to different countries. He says he has traveled all over the world at minimum expense, so sleeping on a bench to save a few pounds is consistent with his way of traveling.

Sometime after 1 a.m. the Estonia started listing over. Paul says he saw over a hundred people in the cafeteria. Most were confused and bewildered. No crew members were present to tell people what was happening or what they should do. As the boat rolled onto its side. Paul thought to himself "I could die here!" He was scrambling, at times disoriented, trhing to get outside onto the hull of the ship when moonlight appeared between a broken cloud and showed him which way to go.

Paul says the cafeteria was on the upper deck and the cabins were in the lower decks. If he had been in a cabin he probably would not have survived because the boat sank very quickly. Almost no one from the lower decks survived. The point here is that anyone can be killed if they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. One never knows. What can determine survival is how you react IF there are moments when what you do makes a difference. It is at such moments that people who read situations rapidly and know how to take independent action have a predictably better chance than others.

Unfortunately, the large majority of people are bewildered when confronted with an unexpected, dangerous situation. No crew members from the Estonia came to the cafeteria to tell the passengers what to do. Paul says that after the ship sank there were empty life rafts floating on the ocean.

Paul was with a small group that crawled on top of an overturned life raft. Here is where most of the accounts of his survival pick up. Paul and the others were splashed by freezing cold waves and chilled further by cold winds. Paul says he'd taken some classes on Yoga breathing used to reduce the symptoms of shock.

His ordeal lasted about 5 1/2 hours.Ten people on the raft died of drowning and hypothermia before a rescue helicopter found them. Paul's great will to live kept him alive and conscious. Television footage taken from the rescue helicopter shows Paul smiling in the helicopter. What the cameras did not record is that as soon as he was aboard the helicopter and wrapped in a blanket, he consciously decided to "let go." Because his body temperature had dropped to 28C (about 84F), his muscles went into extreme, painful, spasm. He says a crewman massaged his arms and legs for the one hour flight to the hospital.

Survivors of life and death experiences can never be the same again. They must assimilate and integrate what happened into their life story and self-concept. Paul, who lives near London, says he attended group therapy sessions with survivors of similar experiences and went to counseling for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Smiling, he says that for the first time in over two years he is beginning to feel like himself again.

I expect that this will not be the end of Paul's story. He is allowing the full range of his three survival experiences to process very deeply. He survived the crisis of being in a sinking ship, survived many hours in freezing waters, and has overcome his PTSD. As he allows the process to continue, some unexpected "gifts" will come to him and he may disover an important new life purpose.

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