By Clark Staten, EMT-P I/C
     Asst. Chief Paramedic, Chicago Fire Dept. (ret.)
     Former Chairman, National Society of EMS Administrators
     Former Chairman, Emergency Management Committee, National Assn. of EMTs

Numerous recent disasters, in several parts of the world, should alert us to the fact that people are going to be trapped under buildings and other structures in the foreseeable future. The very nature of our technologically sophisticated and "growing taller" society continually increases the likelihood that this sort of calamity will occur. Current construction trends and population increases seem to continually expand the risks as people move further up from the ground. With the advent of the "High-Rise" buildings comes the very real concern of a "building collapse".

Each year the buildings seem to get taller and taller and "Mother Nature" or her creations seem to take their toll of more and more of them. Earthquakes, hurricanes, tornados, and other weather phenomenon have shown a far greater capacity for destruction, than society has for building structures that will withstand the weather or earth disruptions. Both weather and ground patterns have the potential for mass destruction of both structures and the people that they contain. Manmade destructive forces also play a major role in the cause of building collapses.


Israel (January, 1991)
Events in the Middle East, that took place during the Persian Gulf Conflict, should also remind us that man's inhumanity to man can also cause building collapses to occur. With the exception of certain specially "hardened" structures, most buildings can not withstand any kind of bombardment or missile impact. The television scenes from Israel were most frightening as they illustrated the military and civilian rescue forces attempting to rescue people from buildings that had been hit by Saddam Hussein's "SCUD" missiles. The likelihood of continued military conflict in that region should bring additional pause for concern.

Turkey (February, 1992)
Avalanches, caused by record snowfalls in the Western Asia, also took their toll during the past year. One such occurance took the lives of more than one hundred (100) "Gendarmes" who were sent to the area of Southern Turkey to protect the Kurds, who were fleeing Iraqi devastation. Reportedly, a total of as many as four hundred (400) people lost their lives when "massive walls of snow" engulfed several villages.

Rescue efforts were reported to have been hampered by additional snowfall, poor roads, and a lack of the proper equipment (cranes, endloaders) to perform the rescue. Yet, people where found alive in collapsed buildings after more than 48 hours, even though outside temperatures stayed well below freezing during the rescue.

Turkey (March, 1992)
Twin earthquakes have also struck Turkey in recent months, possibly killing as many 4,000 people. They followed the devastating avalanches by about one month. Rescue efforts were again described by eyewitnesses as "erratic and disheartening". Correspondants from the Associated Press (AP) and United Press International (UPI), and Rueters News service, described the scene as "disorganized".

A T.V. news reporter was said to have walked into the rubble of a major Turkish city, during a live telecast, and shouted to trapped victims. Reportedly, a victim answered him and was eventually rescued by bystanders. A nurse, who was buried under what once was the region's only medical school and hospital, was extricated after eight (8) days by persistent rescuers and family members...even though "official" rescue efforts had been terminated several days before.

Israel (March, 1992)
In Jerusalem, Israel, mudslides, caused by some of the same unusual weather that caused "blizzards" and "floods" in the Middle East, slithered through an ancient graveyard and collapsed a popular cafe' and coffee house. The building, in an area immediately adjacent to Jerusalem's "Old City", crumbled like a "house of cards". More than twenty (20) people were immediately killed by the collapse and several dozen others were pulled from the wreckage alive.

Live and delayed pictures from the Cable News Network (CNN) showed Israeli and Palestinian rescue workers working "below grade" to attempt to extricate the trapped people. Unfortunately, they also showed that the exposed sides of the collapse had not been "shored" to prevent a further collapse. Several rescuers were reportedly injuried when a section collapsed further and dragged them into the buidling basement.

Argentina (March, 1992)
Later in March, the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina was destroyed by a car bomb, suspected of being detonated by a supporter of the "Islamic Jihad" and/or "Hezbollah". The blast destroyed the embassy, a chuch and school across the street and damaged several other building. More than 110 people were reportedly in the structure at the time of detonation. Many people were rescued almost immediately by hundreds of bystanders and Buenos Aires police and fire department members. More than twenty-seven (27) died as the result of the explosion and being buried in the building collapse. Complaints were published, quoting rescuers, that efforts were hampered by a lack of "heavy equipment" to help to remove the vast amounts of debris that entrapped the victims.

(Author's Note) These reports are offered as constructive criticism, and not meant to diminsh the courage, determination, or "almost superhuman" efforts on the part of the rescuers that participated in every one of the incidents mentioned. These observations are presented, however, for the purpose of learning about the dangers, problems, tactics, strategies, and equipment that is needed to effectively perform this kind of rescue. This information is also presented to demonstrate the inevitability of additional building collapses in the coming months and years.


Building collapse rescue is an often complex and confusing situation. It will frequently involve large numbers of specialized rescue personnel and equipment that might not be generally be recognized as being part of a normal rescue organization. It should also require a combination of a variety of technical rescue skills and an advanced knowledge of building structures and materials.

When a building collapses, it generally does so in one of two ways. The building can be thought of as having "exploded" or "imploded". The primary difference between the two types of collapse is the direction of force as it applies to the materials contained in the structure. It will also assist in a determination of the density of the debris that is involved in the rubble.

With implosion, the building will collapse into itself. It is a technique that is used by demolition specialists to minimize the spread of debris when purposely demolishing buildings. This type of collapse is likely to be caused when interior weight bearing structures lose their integrity and subsequently "pull" exterior walls into the center of the mass. The density, and generally the depth, of debris is greater when a building is said to have imploded.

In the case of explosion, either caused by an outward rush of force caused by natural, mechanical, or chemical forces, the building will collapse in an "outward" direction. It is likely that the debris will be more wide spread in the vicinity of the collapse, and that it could be of lesser density and depth. A tornado or hurricane can "scatter" building parts for several hundred feet or even farther, when it causes a building(s) to collapse. It is possible that victims could be "buried" under debris a greater distance from the center of mass.


Most rescue experts agree that building collapse extrication must be a process of vertical removal, rather than horizontal movement or reduction. The safest way to remove debris from someone that is buried should involve carefully lifting the debris from above the victim and continually "shoring" the sides of the entrance hole or excavation to ensure against additional collapse. This is a method that is consistent with common practices used for "trench rescue".

In the case of building collapses, the magnitude of the shoring efforts and the type of equipment necessary to perform the rescue may be very different from normal extrication. In order to facilitate vertical removal of debris, it may be essential to quickly locate and utilize various types of "cranes" and other types of "overhead lift" capabilities. It is strongly suggested that every rescue system have previous knowledge of and training for the use of heavy construction equipment. Emergency dispatchers should have access to a list of construction companies and other businesses that could provide this type of equipment on a 24 hour a day-seven day a week basis.

The importance of careful overhead lifting of debris, rather than vertical movement, can not be emphasized enough. As many as one third of all building collapse victims, that are rescued, are found in spaces created by the way that building materials generally fall. Most of the collapse configurations that occur (lean-to, A-Frame, tent, pancake) create "voids" in which people may be trapped and remain alive. Vertical movement of debris will normally further collapse the sides of these "protective spaces" and can result in additional deaths of those that might have been rescued.



One of the most difficult, emotionally draining, and technically complex types of rescue can be a building collapse incident. The keys to a successful rescue are pre- planning, practice, and perseverance. By learning more about this increasing commonplace event, we can be better prepared to save lives and alleviate the suffering of it's victims.

Original article by Clark Staten, EMT-P, I/C

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Original printed copyright - Emergency Medical Services Magazine, 1992
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