The Best Books On Disaster & Survival That Will Have Your Heart Pounding

John Barylick Author Of Killer Show: The Station Nightclub Fire, America's Deadliest Rock Concert
By John Barylick

The Books I Picked & Why

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster

By Jon Krakauer

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster

Why this book?

Did you ever consider saving up for an Everest expedition? Think again. In May 1996 one such expedition was trapped by severe weather in the death zone (altitude above which most humans cannot survive without supplemental oxygen) and found themselves completely dependent on other climbers for their rescue. You meet them all. Some survive; some don’t. I’d prefer to learn the harsh lessons of their tragedy from the comfort of my armchair, thank you.


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In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

By Nathaniel Philbrick

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

Why this book?

By the early 1800s, whalers from Nantucket, Massachusetts had largely decimated the local whale population, so they resorted to sailing around the tip of South America to chase prey in the Pacific Ocean during year-long voyages. One such ship, the Essex, tangled with a whale that resented the new visitors in a big way, butting holes in the vessel until it was reduced to kindling.  (This voyage is believed to be Herman Melville’s inspiration for Moby Dick.) Crew members escaped in two lifeboats, but that was only the beginning of their ordeal. In the Heart of the Sea follows their struggle to survive, exploring, inter alia, the many uses for sea turtle, and the ethical quandaries of deciding who among the survivors should become lunch. (Hint: Racism isn’t confined to land.) You’ll never again chafe at a delayed restaurant meal after reading this National Book Award-winning narrative.


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Into the Raging Sea: Thirty-Three Mariners, One Megastorm, and the Sinking of El Faro

By Rachel Slade

Into the Raging Sea: Thirty-Three Mariners, One Megastorm, and the Sinking of El Faro

Why this book?

In most nautical disaster stories, we’re left to speculate what went through the minds of the victims as their fates unfolded. However, when the container ship El Faro steamed into the teeth of a hurricane in 2015, the voices of its crew were captured for posterity on a shipboard “black box” which was later recovered by divers. Author Rachel Slade was able to accurately reconstruct the fatal combination of bad luck, outdated technology, and outright hubris that brought this huge ship and its crew to their terrible end. A fascinating account of maritime disaster in the modern age. 


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102 Minutes: The Unforgettable Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers

By Kevin Flynn, Jim Dwyer

102 Minutes: The Unforgettable Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers

Why this book?

102 Minutes chronicles the critical moments of the 9/11 attack on New York’s World Trade Center, introducing us to characters whose survival, as often as not, turn on simple luck-of-location and early decisions made by them. Authors Dwyer and Flynn know that it’s necessary to occasionally “press the pause button” between chapters of stomach-tightening tension. They understand that the reader simply cannot sustain this story’s relentless pace without some relief. (It’s a technique that I borrowed for Killer Show, interspersing “lesson chapters” about the economics of rock tours, the science of pyrotechnics, and developments in burn medicine with the narrative of the nightclub fire, itself.)


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Shadow Divers: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II

By Robert Kurson

Shadow Divers: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II

Why this book?

In the early 1990s, two recreational scuba divers became fascinated with identifying a WWII-era German submarine that had sunk off the New Jersey coast. Shadow Divers is a well-written account of their quest to solve the mystery of that sub’s identity by venturing into the dangerous, obstacle-strewn inner reaches of its hull to recover some object that might identify the sub with certainty and help memorialize its crew. These were the early days of sophisticated saturation and mixed-gas diving, so these amateur explorers literally risked their lives with every descent to the wreck. As the book’s heroes doffed their scuba gear to breath-hold and squeeze through impossibly tangled cables inside the sub, I found myself literally holding my own breath. It is just that intense. As a recreational diver, myself, I could only murmur, “Oh, heck, no,” as the book drew me into its depths.


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