As passengers fled a burning plane in Moscow, some stopped to get their luggage. Don't be too quick to judge writes Eric Nagourney of The New York Times.

Imagine trying to get out of a plane, but the passenger ahead of you is blocking the aisle as he tries to wrestle his carry-on free. Frustrating, right? And, oh — did we mention that the plane is on fire?

After an Aeroflot jetliner burst into flames during an emergency landing in Moscow recently, some passengers who had just escaped were seen walking across the tarmac luggage in hand. It raised a rather basic question about human behaviour: Why would anyone evacuating a plane waste precious moments retrieving his Sudoku book and suitcase?

The online hate was instant, if based on sketchy information. The carry-on grabbers were accused of having hindered the escape of fellow passengers, dozens of whom died in the flames.

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No one may ever know how true that is, but the passengers did violate one of the most basic rules of air safety. As a headline in the Travel section of The New York Times put it after the accident, In the Event of an Emergency, Leave Your Luggage on the Plane. Really.

Psychologists caution, though, against being too quick to judge. That guy in front of you who enters the subway — then stops dead and looks at his phone? He probably is a jerk. That passenger reaching for the bag with his favourite sweater or maybe a present for his kid? He's probably just acting human.

Decisions made in moments of intense emotion are often the least rational, said Debra Borys, a forensic and clinical psychologist in Los Angeles. And it surely does not get more intense than it was for the passengers on Aeroflot Flight 1492 the Sunday before last.

"They're feeling so utterly terrified and powerless," Borys said.

The Aeroflot jetliner burst into flames during an emergency landing. Photo / AP
The Aeroflot jetliner burst into flames during an emergency landing. Photo / AP

It may also not be quite accurate, she said, to view the passengers' actions as a conscious choice. "I don't think we should think of it as a decision when they grab their stuff," she said. "I think we should think about it as an impulse." The goal may not have been safeguarding possessions; they may simply have been seeking a little emotional comfort.

A newly minted expert on how people on a burning plane behave made a similar point.

"I don't know how the mind works in these situations," Mikhail Savchenko, an Aeroflot passenger who took video after escaping the plane that showed people carrying luggage, wrote on Facebook. "It's a question for experts. It's possible that many simply snap, and go on automatic. I don't know."

Watching from the safety of your phone, as an armchair disaster observer, it's easy to think you would never act so unwisely, but grabbing for possessions is more common than one might think. Passengers who have just deplaned via an escape slide have often been seen wheeling luggage away from the scene — as if their aircraft had just sidled into the gate and their only concern was finding the nearest Starbucks.

"We have in the past publicly commented on the need for passengers to leave carry-on items behind during an emergency," said Christopher O'Neil, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board. "Seconds count during an emergency evacuation. The seconds wasted looking for and carrying items could be the difference between life and death."

In an advisory several years ago, the Federal Aviation Administration put it bluntly: "Passengers are expected to evacuate an airplane within 90 seconds. You do not have time to grab your luggage or personal items."

The wreckage of Sukhoi SSJ100 aircraft of Aeroflot Airlines is seen in Sheremetyevo airport outside Moscow. Photo / AP
The wreckage of Sukhoi SSJ100 aircraft of Aeroflot Airlines is seen in Sheremetyevo airport outside Moscow. Photo / AP

Unpredictable behaviour in traumatic situations is hardly limited to air disasters.

Dr. Metin Basoglu, a psychiatrist at the Istanbul Center for Behavior Research and Therapy, has seen it in victims of earthquakes and trauma. One man was so afraid during an interrogation that he did not understand the question when the police asked his name, and so did not answer. That earned him a beating.

"Such can be the extent of cognitive disorientation during extreme fear," Basoglu said in an email. "I would guess that the people in the airplane who took their bags were simply engaging in automatic or habitual behavior — the only type of behavior available to execute in a state of confusion."

Lee Clarke, a professor of sociology at Rutgers University, said that people often acted irrationally in emergency situations, but that it was the exception. "By and large," he said, "people do the sensible thing." And more often than not, he noted, as when earthquakes hit, people put their own safety at risk to help strangers.

For his part, Savchenko declined to condemn his fellow passengers.

"God is their judge," he wrote on Facebook. "But I really don't want to ask anyone to persecute them. I'm sure that this is very difficult for them now. I don't think that even one person is burning in hell for taking out a suitcase deliberately, in cold blood."