'THE TRIANGLE OF LIFE' = Earthquake Survival             By Doug  Copp

My name is Doug Copp. I am the Rescue Chief and Disaster Manager of the American Rescue Team International (ARTI ), the world's most experienced rescue team. The information in this article will save lives in an earthquake.

I have crawled inside 875 collapsed buildings, worked with rescue teams from 60 countries, founded rescue teams in several countries, and I am a member of many rescue teams from many countries. I was the United Nations expert in Disaster Mitigation for two years, and have worked at every major disaster
in the world since 1985, except for simultaneous disasters.

The first building I ever crawled inside of was a school in Mexico City during the 1985 earthquake. Every child was under its desk. Every child was crushed to the thickness of their bones. They could have survived by lying down next to their desks in the aisles. It was obscene -- unnecessary.

Simply stated, when buildings collapse, the weight of the ceilings falling upon the objects or furniture inside crushes these objects, leaving a space or void next to them - NOT under them. This space is what I call the 'triangle of life'. The larger the object, the stronger, the less it will compact. The less the object compacts, the larger the void, the greater the probability that the person who is using this void for safety will not be injured. The next time you watch collapsed buildings, on television, count the 'triangles' you see formed. They are everywhere. It is the most common shape, you will see, in a collapsed building.


1) Most everyone who simply 'ducks and covers' when building collapse are crushed to death. People who get under objects, like desks or cars, are crushed.

2) Cats, dogs and babies often naturally curl up in the fetal position. You should too in an earthquake. It is a natural safety/survival instinct. You can survive in a smaller void. Get next to an object, next to a sofa, next to a bed, next to a large bulky object that will compress slightly but leave a void next to it.

3) Wooden buildings are the safest type of construction to be in during an earthquake. Wood is flexible and moves with the force of the earthquake. If the wooden building does collapse, large survival voids are created. Also, the wooden building has less concentrated, crushing weight. Brick buildings will break into individual bricks. Bricks will cause many injuries but less squashed bodies than concrete slabs.

4) If you are in bed during the night and an earthquake occurs, simply roll off the bed. A safe void will exist around the bed. Hotels can achieve a much greater survival rate in earthquakes, simply by posting a sign on the back of the door of every room telling occupants to lie down on the floor, next to the bottom of the bed during an earthquake.

5) If an earthquake happens and you cannot easily escape by getting out the door or window, then lie down and curl up in the fetal position next to a sofa, or large chair.

6) Most everyone who gets under a doorway when buildings collapse is killed.  How? If you stand under a doorway and the doorjamb falls forward or backward you will be crushed by the ceiling above. If the door jamb falls sideways you will be cut in half by the doorway. In either case, you will be killed!

7) Never go to the stairs. The stairs have a different 'moment of frequency (they swing separately from the main part of the building). The stairs and remainder of the building continuously bump into each other until structural failure of the stairs takes place. The people who get on stairs before they fail are chopped up by the stair treads - horribly mutilated. Even if the building doesn't collapse, stay away from the stairs. The stairs are a likely part of the building to be damaged. Even if the stairs are not collapsed by the earthquake, they may collapse later when overloaded by fleeing people. They should always be checked for safety, even when the rest of the building is not damaged.

8) Get near the outer walls of buildings or outside of them if possible – It is much better to be near the outside of the building rather than the interior. The farther inside you are from the outside perimeter of the building the greater the probability that your escape route will be blocked.

9) People inside of their vehicles are crushed when the road above falls in an earthquake and crushes their vehicles; which is exactly what happened with the slabs between the decks of the Nimitz Freeway. The victims of the San Francisco earthquake all stayed inside of their vehicles. They were all killed. They could have easily survived by getting out and sitting or lying next to their vehicles. Everyone killed would have survived if they had been able to get out of their cars and sit or lie next to them. All the crushed cars had voids 3 feet high next to them, except for the cars that had columns fall directly across them.

 10) I discovered, while crawling inside of collapsed newspaper offices and other offices with a lot of paper, that paper does not compact. Large voids are found surrounding stacks of paper. Spread the word and save someone's life...



Earthquakes strike suddenly, violently and without warning. Identifying potential hazards ahead of time and advance planning can reduce the dangers of serious injury or loss of life from an earthquake. Repairing deep plaster cracks in ceilings and foundations, anchoring overhead lighting fixtures to the ceiling, and following local seismic building standards, will help reduce the impact of earthquakes.



Be prepared for aftershocks, and plan where you will take cover when they occur. Check for injuries. Give first aid, as necessary. These secondary shock waves are usually less violent than the main quake but can be strong enough to do additional damage to weakened structures and can occur in the first hours, days, weeks, or even months after the quake.

Stay informed. Listen to a battery-operated radio or television. Listen for the latest emergency information. Tune to the emergency broadcast station on radio or television. Listen for emergency bulletins.

Open cabinets cautiously. Beware of objects that can fall off shelves.

Stay away from damaged areas. Stay away unless police, fire, or relief organizations have specifically requested your assistance. Return home only when authorities say it is safe.

Be aware of possible tsunamis if you live in coastal areas. These are also known as seismic sea waves (mistakenly called "tidal waves"). When local authorities issue a tsunami warning, assume that a series of dangerous waves is on the way. Stay away from the beach.

Help injured or trapped persons. Remember to help your neighbors who may require special assistance such as infants, the elderly, and people with disabilities. Give first aid where appropriate. Do not move seriously injured persons unless they are in immediate danger of further injury. Call for help.

Clean up spilled medicines, bleaches, gasoline or other flammable liquids immediately. Leave the area if you smell gas or fumes from other chemicals.

Inspect the entire length of chimneys for damage. Unnoticed damage could lead to a fire. Avoid broken glass.



Immediately after an earthquake, your phones will probably not work. Most of our normal methods of communication will be interrupted. Telephones will be out, the mail won't be delivered (you may not have a home to deliver it to), or you may be isolated at work and unable to travel to your family. This could be because of damage to switching centers, local phone lines, and trunk lines. It could be that power to operate the phone system itself is unavailable.

The number one cause of phone failures is too many phones off the hook at one time. A number will be off the hook because they were knocked over in the shock, but a larger number will be because everyone is trying to call friends and family. This overload can damage the phone companies switching system. To prevent this damage, whole sections will shut down automatically when a certain percentage of phones are off the hook.

It's normal, after trouble, to want to check on your family, or let family know you're OK. But, we need to limit our calls if we want the system to work at all. Use the telephone only for emergency calls. The solution to this problem is to have out-of-state contact for all your family members. This way all your relatives and friends will not be tying up the phone lines trying to get you, and you them. Long distance lines do not go down from too many calls or phones falling off the hook. Another advantage is that if an earthquake shuts down the long distance lines, these lines will be one of the first lines returned to service. You will be able to reach someone out of state before you could reach someone next door.

We also recommend that you go to a pay phone to make your calls. These lines will be put in service before residential phone lines. The load on phone lines is less very late at night or early in the morning. The combination of a pay phone, calling long distance, and early morning calling is your best chance for communicating with your family.

When you reach your out-of-state contact KEEP IT SHORT, and quick. The phone system may go out again at any time. Give your condition and the condition of the family members you know about. Get information on members who are not with you. Tell them you'll call them to chat in a few days. Then say good-by, and hang up.

Out-Of-State Contact Cards should be carried by all family members and friends. The use of Out-of-State Contacts has helped many families ensure each other's safety following previous California earthquakes.



Check gas, water and electric lines. If damaged, shut off service. If gas is leaking, don't use matches, flashlights, appliances or electric switches. Open windows, leave building and report to Gas Company. TURN OFF YOUR GAS METER at the main/shut off valve.

If your building has suffered extensive damage, such as large cracks in the walls or in the concrete slab floors, etc. AND you suspect the gas lines may have been damaged. If you smell gas don't turn on or off any switches. Don't use any open flame to check for leaks. Don't turn on any battery-operated flashlights, unless they are safety rated waterproof lights. Chemical light sticks are a safe source of light in the event of a gas leak. It is very dangerous, and therefore not recommended that you go searching for gas leaks inside any damaged building. After an earthquake, aftershocks will continue to occur, possibly causing additional damage (or even first damage) to your building(s). Do not turn the gas valve back on after an earthquake, unless a qualified person has checked extensively for gas leaks. A qualified person or gas company employee will have to relight all the pilot lights.

GAS SHUT OFF: Locate main gas shut-off (usually outside the house) at the gas meter. The valve is usually on a pipe coming out of the ground, going into the gas meter. Turn the valve crosswise to the pipe (see the large example on the "Utilities" page under "Before the Earthquake." All the pilot lights in and around your home (stove, furnace, clothes dryer, swimming pool/spa heater, water heater, etc.) will go out when you turn the valve off. You will need to have the gas company, or another qualified individual, relight every pilot when the gas is turned back on. Forgetting to relight all the pilot lights could result in a dangerous gas buildup in your home. If you are concerned about your ability to turn off the main gas shut-off valve or unsure if it is in proper working order (indication of rust, etc.), or do not know how to relight your pilot lights, contact your local gas company. They can send a service representative to your house to show you the proper procedure and check the valve and pilot lights to be sure they operate properly. Clear the area around the main gas shutoff valve for quick and easy access in case of an emergency. A gas shut-off wrench for turning off the gas, should be attached to a pipe next to the shut-off valve or in another easily accessible location. Remember, if you don't smell gas or have severe damage to your home, you should not have to shut the gas off. It's your decision. Automatic gas shut off valves are an excellent way to ensure that your gas is shut off in case of a major earthquake. With an automatic shut off valve, your gas will be off even if you aren't home at the time. For installation, contact Secure-It a General Contracting Firm.

ELECTRICAL SHUT-OFF: Locate the main electrical shut-off.
Your house may be equipped with fuses or circuit breakers. If your house has fuses, you will find a knife switch handle or pullout fuse that should be marked "MAIN." If your house has circuit breakers, you may need to open the metal door of the breaker box to reveal the circuit breakers (never remove the metal cover). The main circuit breaker should be clearly marked showing on and off positions. Turn off all the small breakers first, then turn off the "main". If you have any sub panels adjacent to the main fuse or breaker panel, or in other parts of the house, in an emergency be safe and shut them off too. Shorts can sometimes develop to cause a circuit to bypass the breaker or fuse. Look for electrical system damage. If you see sparks or broken or frayed wires, or if you smell hot insulation, turn off the electricity at the main fuse box or circuit breaker. If you have to step in water to get to the fuse box or circuit breaker, call an electrician first for advice.

WATER SHUT OFF: Locate the main water service pipe into your house (probably in the front at the basement level). You will see a gate valve on the pipe. If you know you have leaks after an earthquake, you can shut off all water in your house with this valve. You may wish to paint the valve so it is easy to find in an emergency. You can shut off all water to your property by finding the water meter box (usually at the street or sidewalk). Open the cover with a 4-in-1 Tool. If this box is inaccessible or you cannot find it, call your local water department. Be sure to identify this box and the water valve inside before the need to use them arises. Inside the water meter box, you will see a valve that is similar to the valve on your gas meter. Turn it just the same as your gas valve. Check for sewage and water lines damage. If you suspect sewage lines are damaged, avoid using the toilets and call a plumber. If water pipes are damaged, contact the water company and avoid using water from the tap.


Having just experienced the shock and pain of a disaster, you will be very busy for the next few days or weeks. Caring for your immediate needs, perhaps finding a new place to stay, planning for clean up and repairs, and filing claim forms may occupy the majority of your time. As the immediate shock wears off, you will start to rebuild and put your life back together. There are some normal reactions we may all experience as a result of a disaster. Generally, these feelings don't last long, but it is common to feel let down and resentful many months after the event. Some feelings or responses may not appear until weeks or even months after the disaster.

Some common responses after an earthquake include:

Many victims of disaster will have at least one of these responses. Acknowledging your feelings and stress is the first step in feeling better.

Other helpful things to do to cope after an earthquake include:



Children may be especially upset and exhibit exaggerated emotions following the disaster. These reactions are normal and usually will not last long.

Some problems that you may experience with your children after an earthquake:

Some things that will help your child feel better after an earthquake:

Usually a child's emotional response to a disaster will not last long. But some problems may be present or recur many months afterward. Your community mental health center is staffed by counselors skilled in talking with people experiencing disaster-related problems.