The wounds from the tragedy in Lebanon remain open, and hopes of finding survivors of last Tuesday’s explosion in the port of Beirut have buried.
“After five consecutive days of rescue operations, we can say that we have completed the first phase of searching for survivors,” Lebanese Army Engineering Battalion Chief Colonel Roger Khoury said on Sunday during a press conference at the Ministry of Defense.
Some words that have fallen like a blow on the families of the disappeared that the Ministry of Health figures at 21, although in the pages created on social networks by those who desperately seek their own it is estimated that there are more than 100, including dozens of migrant workers.
Attentive to any slightest signal from the 13 international teams that have participated in the rescue efforts, many Lebanese are still clinging to hope, others are reluctant to believe that the few bodies found are those of their relatives and others fear the worst.
This is the case of Mona, who every day goes to the last military checkpoint set up in the port of Beirut, the epicentre of the explosion of a warehouse of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that left 171 dead, more than 6,000 injured and 300,000 homeless, one-sixth of the 2.2 million inhabitants of the Lebanese capital.
She is looking for news of her husband and son, port workers, of whom she has not heard from since. She breaks down in tears and begs the soldiers to find “at least some bodies to bury.”
“It is very difficult, almost impossible, that there are already buried survivors due to various clinical causes such as hemorrhages, suffocation or dehydration,” says Jaime Parejo, Head of Operations of the GERCC Arcon Method Organization, in the zero zone of the explosion an official system of intervention of canine search, detection and rescue teams) who, together with firefighters Jair Pereira Rodríguez, David Cabrera Jiménez, Pedro Luque Cruz and Javier Luque Sánchez, all Andalusians, have travelled to the Lebanese capital to participate in rescue work.
They have extensive experience having worked on several of the worst natural catastrophes, including the earthquakes in Guatemala and Haiti in 2010. This Monday, another five dead bodies were unearthed by international rescue teams.
“Thanks to the Arcón Method, the dogs (which locate people alive by the gases that human respiration gives off) are autonomous in their search,” says Pereira. In contrast, Maya, a white dog, searches for signs of life among the rubble of a hangar burned, stepping on luxurious blackened Gucci bags.
“The extreme concentration allows them in a matter of minutes to comb large areas and immediately mark the place where someone is alive,” he says. The zero zones of the deflagration resemble the daunting scenario left by the bombings in war with hundreds of buildings reduced to nothing. Some spots continue to smoke, while the toxic gases dissipate although they are still noticeable in the air.
After several hours touring the plot assigned to them by the Lebanese Army at point Delta 7 of the port, the search for the Spanish team is unsuccessful.
The rest of the international organisations on the ground, up to 12, have also had no luck. “We have not been able to find anyone alive after 48 hours of uninterrupted search.
Tissier says they were confident that the eight or nine workers who were in an underground operating room of a silo at the time of the explosion would have survived. “We recovered five dead bodies in two different locations,” adds the French colonel.
One of them is that of Joe Andon, whom his friend Myra Saadeh had been looking for relentlessly in the previous days. “We buried him yesterday. At least we have a body to bury,” the young woman says over the phone.
The LocateVictimsBeirut Instagram account amassed 110,000 followers in the first hours after the explosion and photographs of 29 people still unaccounted for are even posted on its page.
Among the missing are four Lebanese firefighters. Another six died when the unit went to put out the first fire in the port and was surprised by a second explosion that raised an impressive mushroom of red smoke and unleashed the violent shock wave that ran through half the city and caused material damage estimated between 8,000 and 10,000 millions of euros.
France led an international donor conference last Sunday where more than 250 million euros were promised in reconstruction programs, health support and food distribution that will be channelled through the UN.
After completing the mission in the port of Beirut, the Spanish team travels to the Gemeyze neighbourhood, one of the most affected by the detonation.
There, Ziad Eieteni, the Lebanese civil defence liaison, awaits them, whose volunteers have been working tirelessly for days. One of the stops is Oum Nazih, one of the busiest traditional Lebanese food outlets in this traditional Christian neighbourhood of Beirut that is home to many bars and restaurants. Maya, Gollum, Rasty and Heavy, the four dogs that accompany the firefighters are the true heroes, say their trainers.
Neighbours crowd on the balconies of the houses, waiting to hear a barking signal that there is still living under the pile of stones and rickety windows. Nothing. Silence. Sighs
The firefighters leave the point for another destination and do so amidst the applause that echoes from some glassless windows. Firefighter Parejo does not hide his frustration: “The first 24 hours are critical and every minute counts for rescues.” And they have lost many minutes because of the restrictions of a pandemic that not only has claimed the lives of 83 people and infected more than 6,800 in Lebanon but has also delayed the work of this team for 48 hours.
First, they had to readjust flights because they could not transit in France with the dogs. Once they managed to land in Beirut, at dawn last Friday, the four firefighters quarantined for an interminable 24 hours until the negative results of the test they underwent obtained. Spanish dogs trained to rescue living people, while the French and Russians have managed to recover 26 corpses and human remains.
On Sunday afternoon, the Lebanese Army ended the rescue searches and with it the mission of the Spanish and the rest of the teams. Only those of France, Russia and Turkey will continue the works to remove debris and search for bodies in the port.
“I am concerned about the damaged structures that we have seen during the intervention in the neighborhoods,” says Parejo, already packing his bags to return to Spain.
Hundreds of young volunteers continue to use shovels and brooms to remove debris from the streets, and international teams have warned of the need to cordon off certain areas to avoid further tragedies due to possible landslides.