Do some people use disasters to disappear?

Okay, the header seems like a very dumb question, but hear me out. If someone, either in debt up to his eyeballs or in trouble with the mob or something, sees something like the WTC attacks or Hurricane Katrina happening in their town, might they decide to use said event to vanish from his (or her) current life, and let people assume they died in the disaster? Is there documentation that this may have happened in some cases? What chance do they have to slip out of the country unnoticed? Just an idle thought.

It sounds like it might work. It probably has in some limited (if they are successful, you’re not gonna hear about it! instance, but the downside to the technique is that today (at least in the US) there is quite the paper trail school and employment records - as well as fingerprint data which are fairly widespread (virtually everyone ever having served in the military, government service, like the post office, forest service, park service, etc), and of course anyone arrested for certain offenses - and the issuance of social security numbers, etc. Lurking on the horizon is widespread utilization of DNA database. Disappearing is the easy part, I suppose, but “reappearing” and maintaining an inscrutable new identity would be problematic.

Your question is a good one but a bit a bit ill defined. I have no doubt that of the 6 billion people in the world, some have disappeared and used a disaster as a diversion and cover. People make themselves disappear all the time just through the law of large numbers. They can do it because of mental illness, substance abuse, brainwashing, legal troubles, being with a forbidden love interest, or just a stunt. There is a DSM IV listed mental illness called a Dissociative Fugue where people simply disappear and are found later living somewhere else and claim to have no memory of their former life. The whole illness has been questioned many times but it still gets reported by professionals on occasion. A disaster might even trigger such a state.

I have always had a weird fascination with the subject and have this running mental game where I work out all the details so that the chance of discovery for the disappearance and the new life is as low as it can be. I have two books dedicated to the subject given to me by family oddly enough. The main one is Hide Your Assets and Disappear: A Step-by-Step Guide to Vanishing Without a Trace. If you read everything that is involved, there is a lot to it and you can’t make many mistakes. Most people couldn’t pull it off on such short notice successfully. You could never even use any of your credit or bank accounts again and would have to start over completely and absolutely. Unsolved mysteries taught me that is possible but most of the people in question were criminals and are used to working under the radar. A normal person does not have that.

The problem with your question is that it certainly has happened by the definition of the question itself makes it almost impossible to know how often. The bigger problem however is that disasters of the class that would make this reasonable just don’t happen that often. 9/11 would work but the people in question would have to act extremely fast to come up with a disappearance plan and then get things in place within hours so that they can both disappear and have good long-term odds for not getting caught. Something like the Minneapolis bridge collapse isn’t very good for this type of thing. All of the sunken cars will be identified rather quickly and people won’t be able to come up with a reasonable reason why someone would disappear on a busy bridge without a trace if they weren’t in a known vehicle.

I could have sworn that I did hear of this after 9/11 but some of the stories coming in were not accurate during that time so it could have all been a mistake.

Funny, we were just talking about this at dinner.

I assume you need a death certificate to collect on life insurance, and probably in general you need a dead body to get a death certificate. But there must have been ‘looser’ standards at the WTC and maybe for Katrina. In Minneapolis, I imagine they will want to find a body in order to certify a death.

Now, simply using the occasion as an convenient time to go underground is another matter, and, yes, I imagine it’s done.

The question I have is how would you connect yourself to the disaster?

Check out Richard Wright’s The Outsider, a story about a disenchanted man who takes advantage of a train accident in exactly the way laid out in the OP.