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How long can people survive in the rubble of an earthquake?

Feb 7, 2023, 10:26 PM | Updated: Feb 8, 2023, 4:21 pm

Emergency workers and medics rescue a woman out of the debris of a collapsed building in Elbistan, ...

Emergency workers and medics rescue a woman out of the debris of a collapsed building in Elbistan, Kahramanmaras, in southern Turkey, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023. Rescuers raced Tuesday to find survivors in the rubble of thousands of buildings brought down by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake and multiple aftershocks that struck eastern Turkey and neighboring Syria. (Ismail Coskun/IHA via AP)

(Ismail Coskun/IHA via AP)

How long can trapped people survive in the rubble of an earthquake?

Up to a week or more, experts say, but it depends on their injuries, how they are trapped and weather conditions.

Search teams from around the world have joined local emergency personnel in Turkey and Syria to look for victims from this week’s devastating earthquake that has killed thousands.

Most rescues occur in the first 24 hours after a disaster. After that, survival chances drop as each day passes, experts say. Many victims are badly injured or buried by falling stones or other debris.

Access to water and air to breathe are crucial factors, along with weather. Wintry conditions in Syria and Turkey have hampered rescue efforts and temperatures have dipped well below freezing.

“Typically, it is rare to find survivors after the fifth to seventh days, and most search and rescue teams will consider stopping by then,” said Dr. Jarone Lee, an emergency and disaster medicine expert at Massachusetts General Hospital. “But, there are many stories of people surviving well past the seven-day mark. Unfortunately, these are usually rare and extraordinary cases.”

People with traumatic injuries, including crush injuries and limb amputations, face the most critical survival window, said Dr. George Chiampas, an emergency medicine specialist at Northwestern University’s Feinberg medical school.

“If you don’t pull them out in one hour, in that golden hour, there’s really a very low chance of survival,” he said.

Those with other illnesses, whose health depends on medications, also face grim chances, Chiampas said.

Age, physical and mental condition are all critical.

“You see a lot of different scenarios where we’ve had some some really miraculous saves and people have survived under horrible conditions.,” said Dr. Christopher Colwell, an emergency medicine specialists at the University of California, San Francisco. “They tend to be younger people and and have been fortunate enough to find either a pocket in the rubble or some way to access needed elements like air and water.”

After the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami, a teenager and his 80-year-old grandmother were found alive after nine days trapped in their flattened home. The year before, a 16-year-old Haitian girl was rescued from earthquake rubble in Port-Au-Prince after 15 days.

Mental state can also affect survival. People trapped next to bodies, who have no contact with other survivors or rescuers, may give up hope, Chiampas noted.

“If you have someone who is alive, you’re leaning on each other to keep fighting,” he said.

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AP video journalist Angie Wang contributed to this story.

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Follow AP Medical Writer Lindsey Tanner at @LindseyTanner

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Educational Media Group. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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How long can people survive in the rubble of an earthquake?