Fact Check

Triangle of Life - Earthquake Survival Tips

Does a 'Triangle of Life' article provide good advice about earthquake safety?

Published Sep 15, 2004


Claim:   Rescue expert's 'Triangle of Life' article provides good advice about earthquake safety.


Example:   [Collected via e-mail, December 2009]

Critical Earthquake Safety Information

Interesting perspective.

Please read this and pass it on — it could save your life!!

* * * * EXTRACT FROM DOUG COPP'S ARTICLE ON THE "TRIANGLE OF LIFE", Edited by Larry Linn for MAA Safety Committee brief on 4/13/04.

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 (UNX051 - UNIENET) for two years. I have worked at every major disaster in the world since 1985, except for simultaneous disasters.

In 1996 we made a film which proved my survival methodology to be correct. The Turkish Federal Government, City of Istanbul, University of Istanbul, Case Productions and ARTI cooperated to film this practical, scientific test. We collapsed a school and a home with 20 mannequins inside. Ten mannequins did "duck and cover," and ten mannequins I used in my "triangle of life" survival method. After the simulated earthquake collapse we crawled through the rubble and entered the building to film and

document the results. The film, in which I practiced my survival techniques under directly observable, scientific conditions, relevant to building collapse, showed there would have been zero percent survival for those doing duck and cover. There would likely have been 100 percent survivability for people using my method of the "triangle of life." This film has been seen by millions of viewers on television in Turkey and the rest of Europe, and it was seen in the USA, Canada and Latin America on the TV program Real TV.

The first building I ever crawled inside of was a school in Mexico City during the 1985 earthquake. Every child was under their 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 and I wondered why the children were not in the aisles. I didn't at the time know that the children were told to hide under something.

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. 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. They are everywhere. I trained the Fire Department of Trujillo (population 750,000) in how to survive, take care of their families, and to rescue others in earthquakes.

The chief of rescue in the Trujillo Fire Department is a professor at Trujillo University. He accompanied me everywhere. He gave personal testimony: "My name is Roberto Rosales. I am Chief of Rescue in Trujillo. When I was 11 years old, I was trapped inside of a collapsed building. My entrapment occurred during the earthquake of 1972 that killed 70,000 people. I survived in the "triangle of life" that existed next to my brother's motorcycle. My friends who got under the bed and under desks were crushed to death [he gives more details, names, addresses etc.]...I am the living example of the "triangle of life". My dead friends are the example of "duck and cover".


1) Everyone who simply "ducks and covers" WHEN BUILDINGS COLLAPSE is crushed to death — Every time, without exception. People who get under objects, like desks or cars, are always crushed.

2) Cats, dogs and babies all naturally often 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 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. The reason is simple: the 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 while you are watching television 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) Everybody 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 jam 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. They are 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 screaming, 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, says the author. 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.


Origins:   We can't say that every single point mentioned in the above article about earthquake safety by controversial "rescue expert" Doug Copp is wrong or bad advice, but there are some pretty substantial reasons why readers might want to take the article (particularly its advice that everyone who uses the "duck and cover" technique in an earthquake ends up crushed to death) with some very large grains of salt.

1) Disaster preparedness experts with groups such as the American Red Cross have disputed that findings based on earthquake experiences in other countries (e.g., Turkey) are applicable to earthquake situations that might occur in the United States, where building codes are substantially different:

We at the American Red Cross have studied the research on the topic of earthquake safety for many years. We have benefited from extensive research done by the California Office of Emergency Services, California Seismic Safety Commission, professional and academic research organizations, and emergency management agencies, who have also studied the recommendation to "drop, cover, and hold on!" during the shaking of an earthquake. Personally, I have also benefited from those who preceded me in doing earthquake education in California since the Field Act was passed in 1933.

What the claims made by Mr. Copp of ARTI, Inc., does not seem to distinguish is that the recommendation to "drop, cover, and hold on!" is a U.S.-based recommendation based on U.S. Building Codes and construction standards. Much research in the United States has confirmed that "Drop, Cover, and Hold On!" has saved lives in the United States. Engineering researchers have demonstrated that very few buildings collapse or "pancake" in the U.S. as they might do in other countries. Using a web site to show one picture of one U.S. building that had a partial collapse after a major quake in an area with thousands of buildings that did not collapse during the same quake is inappropriate and misleading.

2) The validity of the research methodology and conclusions expressed in the article quoted above has been criticized by other disaster preparedness experts, who have noted that the event on which the article was based was a rescue exercise and not an experiment which simulated an earthquake:

Copp likes to base his evidence on the Turkish "experiment" that he was involved with. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to all involved, this was not an experiment at all, but rather a voluntary organization's search and rescue exercise. My colleagues in Turkey corroborate that a building scheduled for demolition was used as a search and rescue training opportunity. They did decide to put mannequins in different spots to see what would happen. And indeed they reported finding mannequins unharmed next to large and heavy objects.

What is the problem with this? Simply this: To collapse the building, they rammed the columns, causing the building to pancake. They did NOT simulate an earthquake. Earthquakes come in waves. They cause lateral shaking. They cause a variety of different kinds of damage. Since this experiment didn't produce anything resembling shaking it really doesn't tell us anything at all about what would happen during an earthquake.

3) Doug Copp's claim that he performed rescue work at the World Trade Center (for which he was paid $650,000 in compensation for injuries he supposedly sustained there) has been challenged in a series of articles published in the Albuquerque Journal which described him as a self-serving opportunist rather than a true rescue expert, reporting that:

Self-proclaimed rescue guru Doug Copp's mission to ground zero was considered so important that he had clearance to be flown to New York even though all civilian air traffic in the United States had been grounded. Once there, he says he assumed a pivotal role and sustained devastating injuries while wading through the "toxic soup" in search of survivors and victims, and was awarded nearly $650,000 for his injuries. But there is little evidence Copp performed real rescue work, and it is doubtful that he deserves compensation.

Doug Copp was awarded $649,000, tax free, from the fund set up to compensate victims of 9/11. He says it's not enough. But it's doubtful he deserves anything. A Journal investigation found little evidence that Copp did real rescue work in New York. His forays into the rubble were to shoot video, some of which he tried to sell. His claim of seeking medical care within the time frame appears false. All typical of Copp's years as a self-proclaimed rescue guru.

No one who worked with Copp said he did real rescue work in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. Instead, they said, he took videotape at the site, tried to get on TV, hung around a hotel and promoted himself.

Everyone who went to New York with Copp disputed his claims about what he did there.

Doctors questioned Copp's claims that he is seriously and terminally ill.

The doctor Copp says he sought care from within the fund's time requirement said the encounter never happened.

And Copp's body-finding machine, which he said he invented, turned out to be a commercially available gas detector.

The Associated Press also reported that:

John Norman, a New York City fire chief who led the rescue and recovery effort at ground zero, said Copp's claim to have been first to search collapsed subway tunnels and only one of four people to go underground is "a fraud."

"I didn't authorize him to do anything," said Norman, who added that he probably would have had Copp arrested had he known he was at the site.

(Other entries in the Albuquerque Journal's series of articles relayed complaints from numerous people who dealt with Mr. Copp and noted that he was under investigation by a U.S. Department of Justice fraud unit.)

We'd recommend sticking with safety information prepared by established earthquake safety experts, such as the American Red Cross, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and Earthquake Country Alliance.

Last updated:   31 March 2014


    Linthicum, Leslie.   "New Mexican's Claims of Ground Zero Rescue Work Called Into Question."

    Albuquerque Journal.   11 July 2004.

    Linthicum, Leslie.   "'Bombero' Arrives at Ground Zero."

    Albuquerque Journal.   12 July 2004.

    Linthicum, Leslie.   "Striking Out at Ground Zero."

    Albuquerque Journal.   13 July 2004.

    Linthicum, Leslie.   "'Knucklehead' or Hero?"

    Albuquerque Journal.   14 July 2004.

    Linthicum, Leslie.   "Widow Tells of Copp Ordeal."

    Albuquerque Journal.   18 July 2004.

    Linthicum, Leslie.   "Feds Investigate 9/11 Injury Claim."

    Albuquerque Journal.   18 July 2004.

    Associated Press.   "Sept. 11 Hero's Story Questioned."

    CBSNews.com.   12 July 2004.

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.