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Survival of quake victims depends on many factors

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[May 17, 2008]  NEW YORK (AP) -- A nurse survived eight days in the wreckage of a Turkish hospital destroyed by an earthquake in 1992. A newborn was rescued after more than a week in the rubble of Mexico City's 1985 quake. Now, in China, rescuers are pulling out victims days after they were buried by a powerful earthquake.

DonutsHow long can people survive trapped under piles of rubble?

A week or more under the best circumstances, some experts say. That means the victim isn't seriously hurt, was in good condition to begin with and the weather isn't too hot or too cold.

Survival can depend on all of those things.

"The stronger the person was prior to being trapped or injured, the better the chances for survival," said Dr. Paul Auerbach, who teaches emergency medicine at Stanford School of Medicine and is the editor of a book on wilderness medicine.

On Friday, four days after a powerful quake struck central China, rescuers freed a nurse from the debris of a clinic in Beichuan county, the official Xinhua news agency reported.


"It really depends on the condition of the patient," said Dr. Irving "Jake" Jacoby of the University of California, San Diego. He heads a medical team that responded to the 1989 Loma Prieta quake in California, Hurricane Katrina and other disasters.

Those who are trapped but relatively uninjured could survive for a week or even 10 days, and in extreme circumstances two weeks or more, he said. However, the vast majority of rescues usually occur in the first 24 hours after a disaster, he said. After that, the chances of survival drop as each day passes.

Infants and the elderly are the most vulnerable, Jacoby said. Even so, there were several newborns pulled from the rubble days after Mexico's 1985 quake.

In China, the situation is getting more dire as time passes.


"Now that we're days after the earthquake, people who sustained serious injuries that caused severe organ damage or bleeding would not survive," Auerbach said.

Access to water is more important than food for those trapped for days.

"People can survive for weeks without food - that's really not the issue," said Auerbach. "But dehydration can be severe."

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How long people can live without water can depend on the temperature, how much fluid they lose, and how well they can tolerate being dehydrated, he said. A reasonable range is anywhere from three to seven days, he said.

Trapped victims could have access to some water from broken plumbing in high-rise buildings, or water that accumulates in the wreckage, noted Battalion Chief Edward Brinkley of the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department in Virginia. He's gone to Turkey and Taiwan with the department's rescue team to help out after earthquakes there.

The weather after the earthquake can also affect survival. Soon after Monday's quake in China, it rained heavily and the temperatures dropped to around 50 degrees.

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Bad weather can slow rescue efforts, said Lt. Arnold Piedrahita, a rescue specialist and spokesman for the Miami-Dade County Fire Rescue Department. If dogs are used to search for victims, the wind can make it hard to pick up a scent, he said.

On Friday, the first international rescue crews arrived in the disaster area. There had been some discussion of sending the Virginia team, Brinkley said, but they probably won't be dispatched because of the distance.

"The frustrating thing for us is to watch what's going on and not be able to help," he said.

[Associated Press; By STEPHANIE NANO]

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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