They’re pushing 40, but in Mexico they will always be the “miracle babies.” After the 1985 earthquake devastated Mexico City, 14 infants survived the collapse of the Hospital Juárez. The last of them was pulled alive from the rubble more than a week after the quake. For Mexicans reeling after a disaster that killed at least 10,000 and left many more homeless, the miracle babies were a symbol of resilience and hope.
They are also a reminder of a strange fact of earthquakes: Many, perhaps most, people survive the building collapses that characterize the worst of them, such as the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria on Monday morning. So far, more than 5,000 people are dead across the two countries and the World Health Organization expects the toll to rise by “thousands.”
This helps explain why death tolls cannot be quickly surmised from the number of missing people—and underscores the urgency of the search for survivors in the days afterward. A 2017 review of case studies by engineers at UNAM in Mexico City concluded that on average, more than half of people trapped in building collapses ultimately survive.
That number should not be taken as cause for optimism. For one thing, the buildings in the study, which ranged from Mexico to China to Haiti, had all been the subject of previous analysis—a kind of built-in bias toward significant structures and stories with media attention.
More importantly, the analysis shows how much that survival depends on conditions—and in the case of Turkey and Syria, many, many factors are working against rescuers.
First is the weather: It was 21 degrees Farenheit last night in Gaziantep, Turkey, the big city closest to the epicenter. The cold impedes rescue work, decreases the chances for survivors in the rubble, and increases the need to focus on other types of relief, such as taking care of the homeless.
Second is the state of civil society: War-torn Syria, in particular, will have trouble mobilizing rescue forces in the same way as Japan or Taiwan. When services are stretched thin, even hospital staff may wind up taking care of friends and family instead of going to work.
Third is the quality of the buildings: Poor construction quality has been a recurring issue in Turkey. You might expect older buildings to be more dangerous in an earthquake; that was the case with the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan, where most fatalities occurred in traditional wood-framed buildings. But during subsequent quakes in Turkey, more recent buildings bore the brunt of the damage—possibly because of a failure to follow seismic codes.
After the 2011 earthquakes in eastern Turkey killed more than 600 people, for example, President Recep Erdoğan said the country had not heeded lessons from previous quakes: “We see that people pay the price for concrete that virtually turned to sand, or for weakened concrete blocks on the ground floors. Municipalities, constructors, and supervisors should now see that their negligence amounts to murder.”
Gaziantep would be a particularly worrisome test case for the Turkish construction industry, since the city has been under unprecedented pressure to build new homes to accommodate Syrian refugees. Long a sister city to Aleppo, 80 miles to the south, Gaziantep has grown by 20 to 30 percent in the last decade alone with the arrival of 500,000 Syrians. The city made special efforts to help Syrians find permanent homes in the city, including in new buildings, rather than keeping them in refugee camps.
All of that makes the earthquake doubly tragic: Gaziantep was a rare happy story to emerge from the Syrian civil war. Once known for pistachios, it had become newly famous as a model for settling and integrating refugees. This time, the tragedy is on both sides of the border.