Amanda Ripley has argued that in many disasters, it is not the well-trained “first responders” who matter most for the outcome, but those who happen to be close to the scene. The problem is that often the “first responders” do not arrive soon enough to save lives or head off the crisis. The story sketched in the passages quoted below, seems to be another example for her thesis.
(p. B1) “We had a one-minute warning,” recalled Dr. Lax, a mathematician who was the director of the university’s computer center at the time. “The son of a friend ran in” and shouted that the demonstrators were coming for the computer, he said. “It was too late to call the police and fortify.”
. . .
Jürgen Moser, a mathematician who was the director of the Courant Institute, the university’s prestigious math research center, tried to stop the demonstrators when they swarmed into Warren Weaver Hall. According to a chapter in a biography of Dr. Lax by Reuben Hersh, Dr. Moser, who died in 1999, said he was “pushed and shoved around, and was unable to deter them.”
. . .
After a two-day occupation, the protesters decided to end the takeover. But they did not carry out everything they had taken in, as two assistant professors, Frederick P. Greenleaf and Emile C. Chi, discovered when they ran in.
“We thought, ‘Let’s go take a look before the place gets locked down,’ ” Dr. Greenleaf recalled last week. “They had knocked the doorknobs off the door so you couldn’t open it.”
But there was a small window, high up in the door, and they peered in. “We could see there was an improvised toilet paper fuse,” he said. “It was slowly burning its way to a bunch of containers, bigger than gallon jugs. They were sitting on the top of the computer.”
. . .
Already, he said, smoke was curling under the door.
He and Professor Chi grabbed a fire extinguisher in the stairwell.
The only way to douse the fuse was to aim the fire extinguisher under the door. The only way to know where to aim it was to look through the window in the door, which was too high for whoever was operating the fire extinguisher to look through and aim at the same time.
So one functioned as the eyes for the pair, sighting through the window and directing the other to point the fire extinguisher up or down or left or right. “In a minute, we had managed to spritz the fuse,” Dr. Greenleaf said.
For the full story, see:
JAMES BARRON. “Grace Notes; The Mathematicians Who Saved a Kidnapped N.Y.U. Computer.” The New York Times (Mon., DEC. 7, 2015): A17.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date DEC. 6, 2015, and has the title “Grace Notes; The Mathematicians Who Ended the Kidnapping of an N.Y.U. Computer.”)
The Ripley book mentioned above, is:
Ripley, Amanda. The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why. New York: Crown Publishers, 2008.