Survivor search grips a grieving Beirut a month after blast
BEIRUT (AP) — People throughout Lebanon observed a moment of silence Friday to mark one month since the devastating Beirut explosion, while rescuers dug through the rubble of a building destroyed in the blast, hoping to find a survivor.
The split-screen images reflected the pain and anguish that persists one month after the Aug. 4 blast that killed 191 people, injured 6,000 others and traumatized Lebanon, which already was suffering under a severe economic crisis and financial collapse.
The search operation in the historic Mar Mikhail district — on a street once filled with crowded bars and restaurants — has gripped the nation for the past 24 hours. The possibility, however unlikely, that a survivor could be found after one month gave hope to people who followed the live images on television, wishing for a miracle.
The operation began Thursday after a dog used by the Chilean search-and-rescue team TOPOS detected something as it toured Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhail streets and rushed toward the rubble. Rescue workers used cranes, shovels and their bare hands in a meticulous search after a pulsing signal was detected.
Images of the black-and-white 5-year-old dog named Flash, wearing red shoes to protect its paws, circulated on social media and was trending on Twitter in Lebanon. People thanked the dog and said it cared more about the Lebanese people than their own government.
Across from Mar Mikhail, near the wreckage of Beirut’s port, a commemoration was held for the victims of the blast in the presence of some of their relatives. Soldiers fired a salute, then laid a white rose for each of the 191 victims at a memorial. The crowd fell silent at 6:08 p.m., the moment of the most destructive explosion in Lebanon’s violent history.
Church bells tolled, mosques made a call for prayers and ambulances blared their sirens simultaneously. Some people wept silently. Others held ropes tied as nooses -- a sign of the grief and raw anger toward officials that persists in the country.
The blast was caused by nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been improperly stored at the port for years. In addition to the dead and injured, thousands of homes were damaged by the blast, which smashed windows and doors for miles and was felt on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus.
It still isn’t clear what caused the fire that ignited the ammonium nitrate. The public blames the corruption and negligence of Lebanon’s politicians, security and judicial officials, many of whom knew about the storage of the chemicals and did nothing.
“We will hold you accountable,” one banner read. A firefighting force drove from headquarters in the direction of the port, marking the route that 10 of their colleagues took when they rushed to put out the fire but were killed instead.
The state still has failed to provide any answers as to how such a thing could happen, the investigation has been slow and ineffective, and no senior official has been detained, although many of them knew the dangers and did not act for six years.
“I know rationally it’s been one month, but at a very visceral level it all just feels like one long bad day, that moment stretches out for what feels like forever,” posted Carmen Geha, an activist and university professor. “I cannot rest, we cannot rest with bodies still under rubble. We need accountability like air.”
At the Mar Mikhail search site, rescue workers slowly removed debris from the building. The more they dug, the more careful the work became to protect anyone buried there. Later, a 360-degree camera at the end of a long pole was pushed into a hole in the building. Images did not turn up any trace of humans in that particular section.
On Thursday, the team used audio equipment to try to hear signals or a heartbeat and detected what could be a pulse of 18 to 19 beats per minute. The origin of the pulsing sound was not immediately known but it was enough to set off the frantic search.
On Friday morning, the beats dropped to seven per minute, according to a Chilean volunteer who spoke to local TV station Al Jadeed. The head of the Chilean team, Francisco Lermanda, said he could not confirm or deny the presence of a person — dead or alive — under the rubble and that the work would continue.
The Chilean group has been part of multiple international rescue efforts, including the earthquakes in 2010 in Chile and in 2017 in Mexico. It is credited with rescuing 14 people found after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, one of them 28 days after it struck.
“As far as I can understand from my Chilean colleagues, the search area is quite narrow,” said a French civil engineer who identified himself only as Emmanuel. He added that the search area is not very deep and is just above the vault of the ground floor.
“What we are searching for at the moment is likely one person” not under much material, he said.
The anger on the street was palpable, especially when the search was suspended briefly before midnight Thursday, apparently to find a crane.
Outraged protesters at the site claimed the Lebanese army had asked the Chileans to stop the search. In a reflection of the staggering distrust of the authorities, some protesters donned helmets and started searching, while others tried to arrange for a crane.
“Where’s your conscience? There’s life under this building and you want to stop the work until tomorrow?” one woman screamed at a soldier.
Members of Lebanon’s Civil Defense team returned after midnight and resumed work.
The army issued a statement Friday in response to the criticism, saying the Chilean team stopped work at 11:30 p.m. because it feared a wall might collapse. It added that army experts inspected the site and two cranes were brought in to remove the wall, after which the search resumed.
Recent weeks have been extremely hot in Lebanon, with high humidity.
The Chilean team occasionally called for people on the streets, including a group of journalists, to turn off their mobile phones and be quiet for five minutes to avoid interfering with their instruments.
Two days after the explosion, a French rescue team and Lebanese civil defense volunteers had searched the same building, which had a bar on the ground floor. At the time, they had no reason to believe there was anyone still at the site.
Associated Press writer Eva Vergara in Santiago, Chile and Hussein Malla and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed reporting.