Search and rescue in Gaza: How long can a person survive under rubble?

Palestinians looking for survivors among rubble.
Palestinians look for survivers in buildings destroyed in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip in Rafah, Sunday, Oct. 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)

This report is part of ongoing coverage of the Israel-Hamas war. Visit our dedicated page for more on this topic.

Scenes of death and destruction have been streaming in from Gaza this week as the Israel-Hamas war rages on. Israeli airstrikes in response to Hamas’ surprise attack on Oct. 7 have resulted in the destruction of Gazan infrastructure, including whole civilian neighborhoods and homes.

Those same images show survivors being pulled from the rubble. It’s a familiar scene, one the world has seen in search-and-rescue operations in response to the Israel-Hamas and Russia-Ukraine wars, as well as to the recent earthquakes in Turkey, northeastern Syria, Morocco and elsewhere.

Headshot of Daniel P. Aldrich
Daniel P. Aldrich, director of the security and resilience studies program and professor in political science and public policy. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

But when it comes to searching for survivors beneath the destruction, the method for extricating people is the same everywhere, says Daniel Aldrich, a Northeastern professor, director of the university’s Security and Resilience Program and co-director at the Global Resilience Institute.

“Digging through rubble by hand — in both industrializing and industrialized countries — is pretty much the norm,” Aldrich says. “You have to do this because you don’t want to destabilize the building and crush people further.”

That’s because buildings brought down by extraordinary forces can entrap people in highly precarious ways. Those who do survive do so because of “void spaces” that are created during the destruction that could cave in and kill a person if rescuers attempted to manipulate the debris with a bulldozer or other equipment. 

“Pancaking” is one way a building — rocked by an earthquake or struck by artillery — can become damaged. It describes a scenario when the top floors collapse downward one by one, compressing the building into a flattened debris heap, Aldrich says. Another way is when a structure is literally split in half, resulting in one portion of the building falling on its side — or “overturning.”

“Both industrialized and industrializing countries face the same challenges — of course, the reasons they face them are often quite different,” Aldrich says. “But the process of trying to get people out of the rubble is the same.”

Having studied the search-and-rescue efforts in the aftermath of the Kobe Earthquake in Japan in 1995 and the Miami condominium tower collapse in 2021, Aldrich says often the first people to arrive on scene and jump into action are neighbors.    

Headshot of Jerome Hajjar
Northeastern CDM Smith professor and chair Jerome Hajjar. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

“They come over and know who is or was living in that house, and more importantly they know how to find the bodies because they know how the house was built and oriented; so they know which bedrooms were occupied,” he says. 

Aldrich says that roughly two-thirds of those pulled alive from the rubble after the Kobe Earthquake were pulled out by neighbors.

“The neighbors are more successful for two reasons — one is they knew who the people were; it’s not just a faceless person that they’ve been sent in to save,” Aldrich says. “And neighbors know where the bodies might be.”

The social ties that bind communities together prove lifesaving in dire circumstances, he says. 

“That’s really important because if someone is under rubble for too long, their organs start to shut down,” Aldrich says. “There are a variety of medical conditions that can develop.”

It’s well documented that human beings can survive for some time without water — and many days without food; but Aldrich says the major issue facing survivors is crush trauma, with deaths often linked to traumatic asphyxia (prolonged compression of the upper torso) or head injuries. 

“Crush injuries shut off organ function,” he says.

“There’s a whole medical literature developed in Israel because of rocket attacks on buildings, where again people were trapped underneath the rubble of a building, and Israeli doctors worked very hard to figure out the best techniques for responding,” he adds.

“Right now, by and large, most structures are not designed to withstand weapons like bombs,” says Jerome Hajjar, the CDM Smith Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Northeastern. “Whereas in many parts of the world, either in theory or in practice, they will design structures to withstand earthquakes.”

But Hajjar says that, in general, urban search and rescue teams may consider building codes and stress loads when responding to a situation involving civilians trapped beneath debris.  

“The severity of the collapse can be influenced by how the structure was designed,” he says.

Tanner Stening is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on X/Twitter @tstening90.