Survivor search grips a grieving Beirut a month after blast

Published 10:40 am Friday, September 4, 2020

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By HUSSEIN MALLA Associated Press
BEIRUT (AP) — Rescue workers on Friday used cranes, shovels and their bare hands to search the rubble of a building that collapsed in last month’s catastrophic explosion in Beirut, hoping to find a survivor after a pulsing sound was detected.
The search took place 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. A march and a vigil were planned Friday as well as a moment of silence at 6:08 p.m., the moment that marked the most destructive single incident in Lebanon’s history. 
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 idea, however unlikely, that a survivor could be found a month later gave hope to people who followed the live images on television, wishing for a miracle. 
Search operations first 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. Images of the black-and-white 5-year-old dog named Flash, wearing red shoes to protect its paws, circulated on social media. 
The episode revealed the raw anger and grief that persists in Beirut a month later. 
“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, adding that they are using a big vacuum machine, excavators and more rescue workers.
After hours of searching, the work was suspended briefly before midnight Thursday, apparently to find a crane. That sparked outrage among protesters at the scene who claimed the Lebanese army had asked the Chilean team to stop the search. In a reflection of the staggering distrust of the authorities, some protesters donned helmets and started searching themselves 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. fearing a wall might collapse on them. It added that army experts inspected the site and two cranes were brought in to remove the wall, after which the search resumed.
It was extremely unlikely that any survivors would be found a month after the blast that tore through Beirut when nearly 3,000 tons of improperly stored ammonium nitrate ignited at the city’s port. In addition to the dead and injured, thousands of homes were damaged by the blast, which smashed glass and blasted 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 about it. 
On Friday morning, rescue workers slowly removed debris with their hands and shovels. The more they dug, the more careful the work became to protect anyone beneath the rubble. Later, they brought a 360-degree camera placed at the end of a long stick and pushed it 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 detection equipment for 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 comments made by a Chilean volunteer to local TV station Al Jadeed. 
“Ninety-nine percent there isn’t anything, but even if there is less than 1% hope, we should keep on looking,” Youssef Malah, a civil defense worker, said Thursday.
A Chilean volunteer, however, said their equipment identifies breathing and heartbeat from humans, not animals, and it detected a sign of a human. The worker, who identified himself as Francisco Lermanda, said it is rare, but not unheard of, for someone to survive in rubble for a month.
Recent weeks have been extremely hot in Lebanon, including a current heatwave with high humidity.
Every now and then, the Chilean team called for people on the streets, including a crowd of journalists, to turn off their mobile phones and stay 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 left at the site.

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