Turkey, Syria earthquake: Thousands buried under rubble, how long can they survive?

The 7.8 magnitude earthquake and the aftershocks that followed knocked down hundreds of buildings in Turkey and Syria. Rescuers are working round the clock to search for survivors. There’s hope for some miracle, but it all depends on access to oxygen, water, and food

FP Explainers February 07, 2023 12:23:10 IST
Turkey, Syria earthquake: Thousands buried under rubble, how long can they survive?

A man searches for people in a destroyed building in Adana, Turkey. A powerful quake has knocked down multiple buildings in southeast Turkey and Syria and many casualties are feared. AP

It’s one of the worst catastrophes that West Asia has seen in more than a century. At least 4,300 are killed after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Turkey and Syria. The death toll is likely to go up as aftershock after powerful aftershock continues to jolt the border region – over 70 so far.

Roads split open and thousands of buildings were flattened because of the series of violent tremors. Turkish and Syrian disaster response teams report more than 5,600 buildings have been flattened across several cities, including many multi-storey apartment blocks that housed sleeping residents when the first quake struck in the early hours of Monday.

Rescuers have been working round the clock, hunting for survivors under mountains of rubble. The image of a toddler being pulled from under the debris in Azaz in Syria has been widely shared. So how long can people survive in such circumstances?

There is no definite answer but there is a whole lot of science in play. That said miracles do happen.

Also read: Can earthquakes be predicted? What Dutch researcher said about Turkey, Syria on 3 February

It comes down to oxygen, water

The United Nations usually calls off search and rescue attempts between five to seven days after a calamity. The decision is taken after no survivors are found for a day or two, according to a report by the BBC.

A person who hasn’t suffered head trauma or other injuries and has some room to breathe and move around has a longer chance of survival under earthquake rubble. But someone with injuries and losing blood has a poor chance of making it beyond 24 hours. But after 48 hours, even the survival chances of someone who has not been injured wane.

Food, water, and oxygen make all the difference. The access to air and water, if any, of course, improves the chances of survival. If a survivor is trapped in an area which has some sort of oxygen and water from the outside world, they can make it if rescued on time.

Turkey Syria earthquake Thousands buried under rubble how long can they survive

A rescuer carries an injured child away from the rubble of a building following an earthquake in rebel-held Azaz, Syria. Reuters

The chances of having food or water are little in case of a building collapse, where people are trapped under the rubble. How long can someone go without them? This depends on several factors like a person’s metabolism, the extra fat a person has stored in the body and the temperature. A healthy person can reportedly go without food for eight days. But as time goes by, the organs shut one by one until the body can no longer function properly, according to a report by NBC News.

It’s the lack of water that makes surviving difficult. A healthy person can go without water for at least three to five days.

But then the kidneys are hit. The body begins to dehydrate as there is no replacement for the water that is lost through breathing, sweating, passing urine and absorption of the gut. Dehydration causes the blood to thicken. As a result, the kidney retains the water and concentrates the urine it produces.

This results in a fall in blood pressure, which means less blood passes through the kidneys. Eventually, no urine is produced, leading to kidney failure. A person might become confused and lapse into coma, according to a report by news24.

Also read: Turkey, Syria jolted by over 70 aftershocks after 7.8-earthquake: What are they and how destructive can they be?

Many who are trapped under rubble become breathless. Often in confined spaces, the temperature rises and there is an increase in the level of carbon dioxide, leading to suffocation.

The injuries make survival difficult. Many suffer from crush syndrome, which makes them unable to move.

Turkey Syria earthquake Thousands buried under rubble how long can they survive

People and emergency teams rescue a person on a stretcher from a collapsed building in Adana, Turkey. More than 4,300 are feared dead in the disaster. AP

The mindset and the will

Many experts say that the mental will to live also matters.

“If they hear the rescuers out there working. If they’ve got loved ones that they’re hanging on for. Heck, even if they got someone they’re pissed off at, and they want to just survive because they don’t want them to get the upper hand in an argument — any of those factors [can] just keep them hanging on,” survivalist Mike Hawke told Insider after a condominium collapse in Florida in June 2021 killed 98 people. “And [if] they got a little bit of air, a little bit of space, a little bit of water … there’s still a chance that they could survive.”

Survival comes down to sheer determination.“It’s the will… Some people just accept they are trapped and it is fate. Others just keep going,” Graham Payne, chairman and founder of rescue charity Rapid, previously told the BBC.

Turkey Syria earthquake Thousands buried under rubble how long can they survive

Rescuers search through the rubble of a collapsed building for victims and survivors following a deadly earthquake that shook Syria in Aleppo’s Salaheddine district. AFP

The tales of survival

In November 2020, a three-year-old girl was pulled from under the debris, 91 hours after a powerful earthquake hit western Turkey, killing more than 100 people. Rescuers were working in the Aegean resort city of Izmir when they found Ayda Gezgin. However, her mother died.

“We have witnessed a miracle in the 91st hour,” Izmir mayor Tunc Soyer tweeted. “The miracle’s name is Ayda,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan tweeted moments later.

Also read: Turkey earthquake: Why temblors in the West Asian country are so deadly

In May 2013, a woman was pulled out from the ruins of a factory building 17 days after it crashed. She was crying for help, which workers heard. Using video and audio detection equipment they located her.

After the Haiti earthquake in January 2010, Evan Monsignac was rescued after 27 days. He survived almost four weeks in rubble and later said he had taken to drinking sewage water. Another man survived under debris in Haiti for 14 days and reportedly rationed a jug of water he found while buried under the destruction.

After a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit the Philippines in 1990, a man who was trapped in the ruins of a hotel was rescued after 14 days.

Even as the death toll in Turkey and Syria earthquake mounts, there’s always hope. It’s the silver lining in the time of darkness.

With inputs from agencies

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