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

Who am I?

I have a passion for this type of book because I have always craved truly immersive reading experiences.  Ever since cutting my teeth on Hardy Boys adventures, I've loved well-told stories of peril and derring-do.  And I find narrative non-fiction to be the most engrossing because, in the reader's mind, they know that "this really HAPPENED"!  After the Station Nightclub Fire occurred in 2003, and after I spent seven years as an attorney working on its legal aftermath, I knew that someone had to tell its definitive story, casting blame where deserved, and lavishing praise where earned.  It had to read like a novel, but inspire and educate in the process.  To judge from its reception in reader communities as diverse as heavy metal fans and fire service professionals, it seems to have achieved that goal.

I wrote...

Killer Show: The Station Nightclub Fire, America's Deadliest Rock Concert

By John Barylick,

Book cover of Killer Show: The Station Nightclub Fire, America's Deadliest Rock Concert

What is my book about?

On February 20, 2003, in the few minutes it takes to play a hard-rock standard, the fate of 462 unsuspecting nightclub patrons was determined with awful certainty. That night, the fourth-deadliest club fire in U.S. history occurred at a roadhouse in West Warwick, Rhode Island, called “The Station.” The blaze was ignited when pyrotechnics set off by Great White, an 80’s heavy-metal band, lit flammable polyurethane “egg-crate” foam sound insulation on the club’s walls. In less than five minutes, 96 people were burned alive and 200 more were injured, many catastrophically. The final death toll topped out, three months later, at the eerily unlikely round number of 100.

The story of the fire, its causes, and its legal and human-tragedy aftermath, is one of human lives put at risk by petty economic decisions – by a band, club owners, promoters, building inspectors, and product manufacturers. Any one of those decisions could have potentially avoided the tragedy. Together, however, they formed a fatal critical mass.

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The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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.

By Jon Krakauer,

Why should I read it?

13 authors picked Into Thin Air as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

#1 NATIONAL BESTSELLER • The epic account of the storm on the summit of Mt. Everest that claimed five lives and left countless more—including Krakauer's—in guilt-ridden disarray. 

"A harrowing tale of the perils of high-altitude climbing, a story of bad luck and worse judgment and of heartbreaking heroism." —PEOPLE

A bank of clouds was assembling on the not-so-distant horizon, but journalist-mountaineer Jon Krakauer, standing on the summit of Mt. Everest, saw nothing that "suggested that a murderous storm was bearing down." He was wrong. 

By writing Into Thin Air, Krakauer may have hoped to exorcise some of his own demons…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Nathaniel Philbrick,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked In the Heart of the Sea as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The epic true-life story of one of the most notorious maritime disasters of the nineteenth century - and inspiration for `Moby-Dick' - reissued to accompany a major motion picture due for release in December 2015, directed by Ron Howard and starring Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker and Cillian Murphy.

When the whaleship Essex set sail from Nantucket in 1819, the unthinkable happened. A mere speck in the vast Pacific ocean - and powerless against the forces of nature - Essex was rammed and sunk by an enraged sperm whale, and her twenty crewmen were forced to take to the open sea…

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

Why did I love 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. 

By Rachel Slade,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Into the Raging Sea as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the tradition of The Perfect Storm and Into Thin Air, Rachel Slade's Into the Raging Sea is a nail-biting account of the sinking of the container ship El Faro, the crew of thirty-three who perished onboard, and the destructive forces of globalisation that put the ship in harm's way.

On 1 October 2015, Hurricane Joaquin barreled into the Bermuda Triangle and swallowed the container ship El Faro whole, resulting in one of the worst shipping disasters in decades. No one could fathom how a vessel equipped with satellite communications, a sophisticated navigation system, and cutting-edge weather forecasting could suddenly…

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

Why did I love 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.)

By Kevin Flynn, Jim Dwyer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked 102 Minutes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

At 8:46 a.m. that morning, fourteen thousand people were inside the World Trade Centre just starting their workdays, but over the next 102 minutes, each would become part of a drama for the ages. Of the millions of words written about this wrenching day, most were told from the outside looking in. "New York Times" reporters Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn draw on hundreds of interviews with rescuers and survivors, thousands of pages of oral histories, and countless phone, e-mail, and emergency radio transcripts to tell the story of September 11 from the inside looking out. Dwyer and Flynn have…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Robert Kurson,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Shadow Divers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

New York Times Bestseller 

In the tradition of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm comes a true tale of riveting adventure in which two weekend scuba divers risk everything to solve a great historical mystery–and make history themselves.

For John Chatterton and Richie Kohler, deep wreck diving was more than a sport. Testing themselves against treacherous currents, braving depths that induced hallucinatory effects, navigating through wreckage as perilous as a minefield, they pushed themselves to their limits and beyond, brushing against death more than once in the rusting hulks of sunken ships.
But in the…

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