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Odds dire for victims trapped in rubble

A week after the earthquake in Haiti, rescue workers fear that time is running out for survivors still trapped in the rubble.

Most have been without water and food and may be so dehydrated that their kidneys are failing. Open wounds likely have become infected. And chances are the victims have been confined to cramped air pockets and unable to move for days, the lack of circulation placing even more strain on muscles and kidneys.

"They develop what is called 'crush syndrome,' from not being able to get up and move around," said Broward Sheriff Fire Rescue Capt. Mike Nugent, 52, a member of one of South Florida's urban search and rescue teams.

Crush syndrome is seen most often after earthquakes, where people are pinned under heavy debris or confined to a tight space for hours or days at a time. A person's muscles start to break down, in response to the traumatic injury; the person goes into shock.

Rescuers still hold out hope, but they realize their chances of finding survivors are slim, Nugent said.


Doctors say, in general, a healthy person can survive six to eight days without any water.

Earlier in the week, though, search teams said they did not expect to find survivors 72 hours after the quake. But days later, they were still making dramatic rescues.

On Sunday morning, a South Florida rescue team pulled Mireille Dittmer, 50, of Pembroke Pines, from the remains of a collapsed Port-au-Prince supermarket. She had been hunched over and on her knees in a cramped air pocket for 108 hours, unable to move her limbs. She had no food or water.

When she was rescued, she had some scratches, bruises and complained of soreness, but was otherwise OK.

Rescuers say Dittmer was lucky to be near a set of steel support beams that shielded her from crushing slabs of concrete and metal.

Davie Fire Rescue Capt. Robert Belizaire, 42, was part of a rescue team that he said found four survivors over the weekend. In a few of the cases, people were able to hand the trapped survivors food and water until they could be pulled out from under the debris. In the other cases, the trapped were isolated and alone, in the dark without food or water, rescuers said.

"For the most part, it's mainly digging, cutting," he said. "I didn't think we'd find as many."

Nonetheless, the search — and the hope — continues.


Some rescue teams make use of K-9 dogs specially trained to sniff for survivors. They also have a laser that they can aim into the dark voids of a crumbled building to detect the faintest of sound waves, sensitive enough to find someone who may be unconscious but breathing.

Other teams don't have such hi-tech equipment and have been relying on people on the street to point the way to where help may be needed. And, with little time to waste, the rescue teams must perform a gruesome form of disaster triage.

"We screamed in French and in English, and if we didn't hear anything back, we moved on," Belizaire said.


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