Academic journal article Administrative Science Quarterly

The Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations: The Mann Gulch Disaster

Academic journal article Administrative Science Quarterly

The Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations: The Mann Gulch Disaster

Article excerpt

King, Jonathan B. 1989 "Confronting chaos." Journal of Business Ethics, 8: 39-50.

Klein, Gary A. 1993 "A recognition-primed decision (RPD) model of rapid decision making." In Gary A. Klein, Judith Orasanu, Roberta Calderwood, and Caroline E. Zsambok (eds.), Decision Making in Action: Models and Methods: 138-147. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Lanir, Zvi 1989 "The reasonable choice of disaster: The shooting down of the Libyan airliner on 21 February 1973." Journal of Strategic Studies, 12: 479-493. The purpose of this article is to reanalyze the Mann Gulch fire disaster in Montana described in Norman Maclean's (1992) award-winning book Young Men and Fire to illustrate a gap in our current understanding of organizations. I want to focus on two questions: Why do organizations unravel? And how can organizations be made more resilient? Before doing so, however, I want to strip Maclean's elegant prose away from the events in Mann Gulch and simply review them to provide a context for the analysis.


As Maclean puts it, at its heart, the Mann Gulch disaster is a story of a race. The smokejumpers in the race (excluding foreman "Wag" Wagner Dodge and ranger Jim Harrison) were ages 17-28, unmarried, seven of them were forestry students, and 12 of them had seen military service. They were a highly select group and often described themselves as professional adventurers.

A lightning storm passed over the Mann Gulch area at 4PM on August 4, 1949 and is believed to have set a small fire in a dead tree. The next day, August 5, 1949, the temperature was 97 degrees and the fire danger rating was 74 out of a possible 100, which means "explosive potential". When the fire was spotted by a forest ranger, the smokejumpers were dispatched to fight it. Sixteen of them flew out of Missoula, Montana at 2:30PM in a C-47 transport. Wind conditions that day were turbulent, and one smokejumper got sick on the airplane, didn't jump, returned to the base with the plane, and resigned from the smokejumpers as soon as he landed ("his repressions had caught up with him,"). The smokejumpers and their cargo were dropped on the south side of Mann Gulch at 4:10PM from 2000 feet rather than the normal 1200 feet, due to the turbulence. The parachute that was connected to their radio failed to open, and the radio was pulverized when it hit the ground. The crew met ranger Jim Harrison who had been fighting the fire alone for four hours, collected their supplies, and ate supper. About 5:10 they started to move along the south side of the gulch to surround the fire. Dodge and Harrison, however, having scouted ahead, were worried that the thick forest near which they had landed might be a "death trap". They told the second in command, William Hellman, to take the crew across to the north side of the gulch and march them toward the river along the side of the hill. While Hellman did this, Dodge and Harrison ate a quick meal. Dodge rejoined the crew at 5:40PM and took his position at the head of the line moving toward the river. He could see flames flapping back and forth on the south slope as he looked to his left. At this point the reader hits the most chilling sentence in the entire book: "Then Dodge saw it!". What he saw was that the fire had crossed the gulch just 200 yards ahead and was moving toward them. Dodge turned the crew around and had them angle up the 76-percent hill toward the ridge at the top. They were soon moving through bunch grass that was two and a half feet tall and were quickly losing ground to the 30-foot-high flames that were soon moving toward them at 610 feet per minute. Dodge yelled at the crew to drop their tools, and then, to everyone's astonishment, he lit a fire in front of them and ordered them to lie down in the area it had burned. No one did, and they all ran for the ridge. Two people, Sallee and Rumsey, made it through a crevice in the ridge unburned, Hellman made it over the ridge burned horribly and died at noon the next day, Dodge lived by lying down in the ashes of his escape fire, and one other person, Joseph Sylvia, lived for a short while and then died. …

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