Beirut blast: rescuers report signs of life as they resume search for survivors

Team from Chile working on new rescue plan at building destroyed by port explosion one month ago

Rescuers in Beirut on Friday resumed the search for possible survivors buried under the rubble of the Beirut port blast exactly one month earlier, with signs of life still detected in debris of a building in the Lebanese capital's Gemmayzeh district.

Civil defence volunteer Qassem Khater said sensors belonging to the Chilean rescue team leading the search had detected a pulse five times on Friday morning, but they had not been able to pinpoint the location the body.

The pulse was weaker than on Thursday night at seven heartbeats per minute, said Mr Khater, who has been working at the site for 20 hours straight in sweltering heat.

The Chilean rescuers were working on a new plan of action, he said.

Search teams believe there could be one person, possibly a child, who is still alive despite being trapped in the collapsed building since the explosion. on August 4.

The search for a survivor has riveted the public, for whom the port blast added to the misery of the coronavirus pandemic and Lebanon's worst economic crisis in decades. The explosion killed more than 190 people, injured more than 6,000 people injured and destroyed large areas of the capital.

Oscar-nominated Lebanese film director Nadine Labaki said that finding a survivor would bring hope to the country.

"I still want to believe in this even though I know that the chances are slim," she told The National. "We are attached to this small glimmer of hope. We all need to believe that better days are ahead of us."

Ms Labaki said she had been at the rescue site since 5pm on Thursday, pressuring the authorities to keep digging.

A crane was brought to the site to help the rescue effort on Thursday night. The Chilean team was later forced to pause its work because of dangerous conditions. Shortly before 11pm, Lt Michel El Murr of the Beirut fire department told Reuters that the rescue mission would be suspended until morning because a wall threatened to collapse.

But the civil defence team returned to the painstaking work of removing debris after intense pressure from an angry crowd of onlookers who berated the Lebanese army for stopping the rescue mission.

They worked by hand, sifting through the rubble on the second floor of the damaged building in Beirut’s Gemmayzeh area and throwing rocks and debris to the ground.

Lawyer Melhem Khalaf, head of the Lebanese bar association, told The National that he was worried about the lack of expertise among the civil defence workers.

"Solidarity is not enough. A rescue mission can't be spontaneous," he said, shortly after discussing the ongoing rescue efforts with members of the Lebanese army and the head of the civil defence team on site.

Signs of life

The search began after rescue workers detected signs that people could still be alive in the rubble.

Rescue worker Eddie Bitar said on Thursday that there was evidence of breathing and a pulse, with a temperature sensor indicating the presence of a survivor buried in the ruin.

Another member of the rescue team told The National that they found indications of two bodies on the second floor of the building in Beirut's Gemmayzeh area.

The worker said that there could be a “triangle of life” if someone had been protected by a supporting wall when the building fell.

He said that in Haiti, the team had found someone alive after 28 days under the rubble.

“If they are strong enough, then anything is possible," he said.

The army and civil defence closed the road and brought in equipment and floodlights to assist the searchers who worked into the night.

“They found another body and they say it’s still alive, still breathing, but nothing is assumed for sure so we are waiting to start work again,” Lt El Murr said.

He said the Chilean team, who had experience in earthquakes and mining disasters, had found survivors after the same amount of time, but the possibility was low.

“Even if it’s 1 per cent we hope it is good for us,” he said.