Search for Survivor in Beirut Rubble Grips Grieving Nation

September 4, 2020 Updated: September 4, 2020

BEIRUT—Rescue workers used cranes, shovels, and their bare hands in search operations that resumed early Friday in the rubble of a building that collapsed last month in Beirut’s catastrophic explosion, hoping to find a survivor after a pulsing signal was detected.

The search was taking place exactly a month since the massive blast that killed and wounded thousands of people and traumatized a country that had already been suffering for months 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 on Aug. 4.

The search operation unfolding in Beirut’s 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 afternoon after a sniffer dog belonging to a Chilean search and rescue team called TOPOS detected something while the team was touring 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 his feet, have circulated on social media with people describing him as a hero.

Rescue workers in the rubble
Lebanese and Chilean rescuers search in the rubble of a collapsed building after getting signals there may be a survivor, in Beirut, Lebanon, on Sept. 4, 2020. (Hussein Malla/AP Photo)

The episode lay bare the raw anger and grief still there, a month later.

After hours of searching, the work was suspended briefly before midnight, apparently to search for a crane. That sparked outrage among protesters who arrived at the scene claiming the Lebanese army had asked the Chilean team to stop the search. In a reflection of the staggering divide and people’s lack of trust in authorities, some protesters donned helmets and started searching the rubble themselves while others made calls to try 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 an hour after midnight and resumed work.

The army issued a statement Friday in response to the criticism, saying the Chilean team stopped work half an hour before midnight fearing that 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 August blast that tore through Beirut when nearly 3,000 tons of improperly stored ammonium nitrate ignited at the port. The explosion killed 191 people and injured 6,000 others and is considered to be one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded. Thousands of homes were damaged in the explosion, which smashed glass and blasted windows and doors for several miles around and was felt on the neighboring island of Cyprus.

A Chilean rescuer holds a signal detected machine
A Chilean rescuer holds a signal detected machine, as he helps his team who are searching in the rubble of a building that was collapsed in last month’s massive explosion that hit the seaport in Beirut, Lebanon, on Sept. 4, 2020. (Hussein Malla/AP Photo)

It still wasn’t clear what caused the fire that ignited the ammonium nitrate, but the public blames the corruption and negligence of Lebanon’s politicians, security, and judicial officials, many of whom knew about the chemicals’ existence and did nothing about it.

On Friday morning, rescue workers were slowly removing debris with their hands and shovels, digging holes in the building’s debris pile in Mar Mikhail. The more they dug, the more careful the work became to protect any possible survivors under 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.

A scan from the camera did not turn up any trace of humans from that particular section.

On Thursday, the team used audio detection equipment for signals or heartbeat and detected what could be a pulse of 18 to 19 beats per minute. The origin of the pulsing signal was not immediately known but it was enough to set off the frantic search and raised new hope.

On Friday morning, the beats dropped to seven per minute, according to comments made by a Chilean volunteer to local TV station Al Jadeed.

A Chilean rescue dog
A Chilean rescue dog sits near the site of a collapsed building after getting signals there may be a survivor under the rubble, in Beirut, Lebanon, on Sept. 4, 2020. (Hussein Malla/AP Photo)

“Ninety-nine percent there isn’t anything, but even if there is less than 1 percent hope, we should keep on looking,” Youssef Malah, a civil defense worker, said Thursday. He said the work was extremely sensitive.

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 under the rubble for a month.

The past few weeks have been extremely hot in Lebanon, including a current heatwave with high levels of humidity.

Every now and then, the Chilean team asked people on the streets, including a crowd of journalists watching the operation, to turn off their mobiles and stay quiet for five minutes so as not to interfere with the sounds being detected by their instruments.

Two days after the explosion, a French rescue team and Lebanese civil defense volunteers had looked into the rubble of the same building, where the ground floor used to be a bar. At the time, they had no reason to believe there were any bodies or survivors left at the site.

By Hussein Malla