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How to survive an earthquake

How to survive an earthquake

Trying to manoeuvre to a space that allows unrestricted breathing and staying as calm as possible can be lifesavers, say experts
The most common reasons for deaths during earthquakes are suffocation, heart attack and multiple injuries.
Rescuers evacuate a woman saved from rubbles in Hatay on February 12, 2023, after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the border region of Turkey and Syria. (Photo by BULENT KILIC / AFP)

On February 13, a two-month-old boy was rescued from under the rubble in Turkey’s Hatay, 128 hours after a deadly earthquake. It’s a miracle no doubt — but with proper planning and by keeping your wits about (and loads of luck!), it is possible to triumph over such tragedies.

Most fatalities in quakes are caused by suffocation, heart attack, multiple injuries and panic attack. Turkey’s ‘hero baby’ — two of whose photos went viral: one where he was covered in grime when rescued and then later when he was washed and fed — is proof that not panicking and breathing could be the key to surviving natural disasters.

Earthquake survival: willpower is the key

“It is important for one to stay calm and not panic as that solves half of the problem,” says Mohammed Aslam, assistant commandant, 10th battalion, National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), whose team is currently marked in his unit on standby to be dispatched to Turkey and Syria following the February 6 earthquake there. At least 34,000 people died in the disaster.

Aslam says that earthquakes can be quite traumatic, but one needs to reassure themselves that there is a rescue team coming for them. “People must not lose their willpower as that is what keeps them alive,” he says. “Whenever there is a natural disaster, it is the community and the people around who act as the first responders and help each other to evacuate.”

Aslam says that once the rescue teams arrive, they access the scene and act immediately to find those who are stuck. “NDRF teams have been dispatched from India and we are on standby for additional forces,” he says. “The rescue teams are trained medically, and people need to put their trust in us and keep their hope until we rescue them.”

A person can live without food and water for more than 48 hours, but not without oxygen, says Dr Vishwa Reddy, a consultant emergency physician with Apollo Hospitals, Hyderabad, and a member of the Association of Emergency Physicians of India. “It is important to keep this in mind while taking shelter during earthquakes. One should not choose a closed space where there are possibilities of suffocation,” she says. 

The hero of the day: A toddler who was rescued in Hatay, Turkey, 128 hours after the earthquake.
The hero of the day: A toddler who was rescued in Hatay, Turkey, 128 hours after the earthquake. Photo: @Doranimated/Twitter

Earthquake survival guide

Dr Reddy lists out some key points to keep in mind following an earthquake:

  • Drop down under a table, hold on to a sturdy object and make sure that the place is ventilated.
  • Make sure you are away from windows and side walls.
  • Stay away from electronic objects and electrical wires.
  • Reassure oneself and others.
  • If anyone faints, those around must check for the pulse and perform CPR since the person could have sustained a sudden cardiac arrest due to a heart attack.
  • If there are injuries, one needs to stop bleeding with occlusion (blockage of a blood vessels) and pressure packing on the wound. And if there is a suspected fracture, the affected part should be immobilised until the rescue team arrives. 

Rescue and the mental aspect

Disasters don’t inflict just physical damage on survivors. “Earthquakes would have shattered their homes, properties and lives, and this would have left them in shock, confusion, uncertainty and displacement,” says Dr Jayakumar C, associate professor, psychosocial support in disaster management, NIMHANS, Bengaluru, who has earlier worked with survivors of the Gujarat (2001) and Sikkim (2011) earthquakes. “People would have lot of questions, would want answers and would want to talk all about it. We need to listen to them and provide support and reassurance.”

According to Dr Jayakumar, earthquake survivors need more than two weeks to come to terms with their losses and accept them. The affected people have both short- and long-term issues such as confusion, loss of memory, hopelessness, outbursts, withdrawal, restless, irritability, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.


According to experts, the following must be kept in mind during an earthquake:

  • If stuck inside a building, take shelter under a sturdy table and in a ventilated area. Avoid closed spaces.
  • If outside, stay in an open area — that is, away from buildings, electric poles, etc.
  • Be prepared for aftershocks, which can be even more devastating.
  • And while it sounds difficult, it is important for those who are stuck in debris not to panic. They must try to make a noise (by calling for help or by using an object) to alert the rescuers.
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CPR or cardiopulmonary resuscitation is an emergency lifesaving procedure performed when the heart stops beating. According to American Heart Association, immediate CPR can double or triple chances of survival after cardiac arrest. Keeping the blood flow active, even partially, extends the opportunity for a successful resuscitation once trained medical staff arrive on site. It is an important lifesaving first-aid tool that can be performed by anyone.
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