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The Wrong Way to Take Cover

Don't believe the Triangle of Life: Earthquake survival is far more complex than seeking a small triangular space in the debris.
The Triangle of Life technique. (Photo: whologwhy/Flickr)

The Triangle of Life technique. (Photo: whologwhy/Flickr)

In 1985, Douglas Copp conceived the most controversial method for surviving earthquakes. By Copp's own account, the self-described "demolition expert" was watching television coverage of that year's Mexico City earthquake when he noticed authorities were bulldozing buildings that might have survivors inside. Copp, who worked for the private organization American Rescue Team International, thought individuals might be hiding in the building's triangular-shaped crevices. Thus began his crusade for a method of survival called the Triangle of Life, which, true to its name, calls for victims to find survival through these voids in the debris.

It's a remarkably resilient theory for one that he only "proved" with his own self-created artificial collapse environment in Turkey. The Triangle method has been the subject of a credulous article in Time, the subject of a study by the University of the West Indies, and fodder for a fiery rebuttal by the American Red Cross. (That latter is due to the threat this geometric method poses to their recommended, more logical tactic—Drop, Cover, and Hold On.)

Copp defends his approach by saying it saves people from buildings that pancake, but some American buildings do not "pancake," which means the theory is by no means universal.

But ultimately, if you're stuck in a shaky scenario, experts say the best place to take cover is under a desk, the reasons being infrastructural as well as scientific. While Copp's Triangle of Life approach purportedly addressed post-quake safety in Turkey, as the American Red Cross pointed out, the United States has different building codes. Copp defends his approach by saying it saves people from buildings that pancake, but some American buildings do not "pancake," which means the theory is by no means universal. "We need different levels of resistance for different classes of structures," Penn State University researchers recommended several years ago.

In 2009, several Iranian seismology researchers compared Drop, Cover, and Hold On with the Triangle of Life. They found that DCH was still the best universal recommendation, though there were pros and cons for each depending on the scenario. (People who live in wood, steel, or concrete structures, for instance, would benefit from seeking out triangular spaces in their homes, as those materials may "pancake.")

Of course, there's a big difference between on-the-ground experience and study environments. "A lot of emergency responders might say triangle of life because they're the ones who see the fatalities in buildings that do collapse," Gary Patterson, a geologist at the Center for Earthquake Research & Information at the University of Memphis, told Time. The American Red Cross has also been wrong before: They once recommended that people caught in an earthquake crouch under doorways, a theory that has been largely disproved except in unreinforced adobe homes.

But even if you do believe Copp's stories, the Triangle of Life is, even by his own account, still a theory—one he proved only with false tremors and mannequins. So it seems only fitting that the Triangle of Life is listed as an "Earthquake Myth" by the USGS. At the end of the day, it's an urban legend.

For now, drop, cover, and hold on. Unless, that is, you believe Doug Copp's blog, which claims him to be "the most experienced and knowledgeable person, in the world; concerning survival from collapsed or destroyed buildings, from any cause."