Rescue dog and hopes of a miracle captivate ravaged Beirut

By Ben Hubbard and Kareen Chehayeb

The sudden glimmer of hope in a devastated Beirut neighborhood came from a dog named Flash with a shaggy black coat, a white snout and red bootees to protect his paws from shattered glass.

One month after an enormous explosion in Beirut’s port killed 190 people and ravaged the Lebanese capital, the dog smelled something in the rubble of a destroyed historic building, and a technician working with a Chilean rescue team deployed a sensor that picked up a slow pulse underneath that could have been a heartbeat.

In the hours since the dog’s discovery Thursday evening, the Lebanese have been glued to their televisions, watching live coverage of rescue crews in yellow vests sifting through debris and wondering if, after a string of bruising traumas, they dared hope for a miracle.

Had someone survived under the rubble all this time?

But by Friday evening, the rescue crews had yet to find anything with a pulse, and the leader of the Chilean team declined to tell reporters when it had last picked up any sign of possible life. The Chilean rescuers suspended their search and said they would resume Saturday morning.

The Aug. 4 explosion, caused by the combustion of thousands of tons of hazardous chemicals stored improperly in the Beirut port since 2014, was the most recent in a series of crises that have fueled deep anger at the country’s political elite over decades of mismanagement and corruption.

Since last fall, the economy has been in free fall, the currency has been shedding value and frequent anti-government protests have trashed much of downtown. Many Lebanese are furious that their leaders let the country deteriorate to this point and that the politicians have failed to take any meaningful steps.

Across Lebanon, people observed a moment of silence at 6:08 p.m. to mark the one-month anniversary of the blast as the time it had shattered the capital.

A group of firefighters drove the route from their station toward the port in memory of 10 of their colleagues who had gone to fight the warehouse fire believed to have caused the blast and were all killed in the explosion.

Near the port, where a deep crater marks the blast spot next to towering grain silos shredded by the explosion, soldiers fired a salute and white roses were laid on a memorial — one for each of the blast’s known victims.

Anger at the country’s politicians coursed through the commemorations, and among the residents and volunteers who had gathered near the collapsed building on Friday to await updates on the search for the possible survivor. Many blamed the government not only for having failed to prevent the blast but also for having failed to help people in the aftermath.

“What can we say other than shame on the government?” said Nour Hassan, a university student who came to the site with a volunteer cleaning crew. “This is so upsetting.”

She wondered, how could there even be a question of whether anyone remained under the rubble from the Aug. 4 explosion?

“The state should have verified all this,” she said. “Now we don’t know if there are other bodies in other buildings, alive or dead.”

It appeared extremely unlikely that anyone had survived under the rubble for a month, especially since daily temperatures in Beirut have been sweltering, with high humidity.

But on Thursday, after Flash drew rescue workers to the destroyed building, the rescue crew’s equipment picked up a pulse of 18 beats per minute. Suspecting that it could be a heartbeat, the crew started digging.

Francesco Lermonda, a Chilean volunteer, told The Associated Press that his team’s equipment identified breathing and heartbeats from humans, not animals. He said it was rare, but not unheard-of, for someone to survive in such conditions for a month.

Tensions flared overnight Thursday when volunteers accused the Lebanese Army of calling off the search. Hours later, a Civil Defense team brought heavy machinery to help clear the rubble, and work resumed.

The army released a statement saying it was the search teams who had stopped working, fearing that walls could collapse on them.

On Friday, teams of workers in hard hats and yellow vests dug carefully through the rubble with shovels and bare hands, so as not to wound any possible survivors or damage any remains found underneath.

The Chilean search team occasionally called for silence on the nearby street to allow the sensors to pick up sounds from under the wreckage, and rescuers created 3D images of the ruins to try to identify where survivors or bodies might be hidden.

On Friday morning, a member of the Chilean search team told a local television station that the latest test has detected only seven beats per minute.

After sunset Friday, another member of the Chilean team declined to say when the team had last picked up any sign of life and insisted they would keep searching as long as there was even a one percent chance of saving someone.

An artist, Ivan Debs, created an image of Flash bravely standing on a pile of rubble, his heart connecting with a heart underground.

“We have lot to learn from him,” the artist wrote on Twitter.

The area, in the predominantly Christian neighborhood of Gemmayze, was once home to some of the city’s most vibrant nightlife, its main street lined with restaurants and bars where patrons regularly spilled out on the sidewalk late into the night. The destroyed building where the crews searched had been part of a row containing a Chinese restaurant, a photo studio and a grocery story called Twenty-Four Seven.

Now, those businesses have been erased, most residents have left their damaged apartments and nearby shops and eateries are closed. At night, the area is almost entirely dark.

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