On Saturday evening, locals applauded the rescue workers, led by a Chilean search and rescue team, after they announced that the search was 95% complete and that they were ruling out signs of life. “Unfortunately, today, we can say there’s no sign of life inside of the building,” Francisco Lermanda, the head of Topos, a Chilean rescue team, told reporters at a news conference.
For three days, people across Lebanon were glued to their TV screens, anticipating news of a possible survivor in the Mar Mikhaeal near the epicenter of the August 4 blast. The Chilean team, Topos, on Thursday said their search dog and sensors had detected signs of life in the rubble of a destroyed building in eastern Beirut. It was an announcement that drew crowds of volunteers, solidarity demonstrators as well as local and international press coverage.
Many said it was not the happy ending they were hoping for, but others argued that the outcome was ideal. “It was a happy ending,” said Melissa Fathallah, an activist and founder of Baytna Baytak, an initiative to house Lebanese health workers during the Covid-19 crisis. “Did we really want to add another name to the list of people who unfortunately died in this? I look at it as a positive thing because we didn’t have to add one more name. We didn’t have to find another missing person.”
Fathallah initially went to the site of the search operation on Thursday to protest against a Lebanese military decision to temporarily suspend the mission. She later became a volunteer in the rescue effort after the military later retracted the decision and invited some of the protesters, including Fathallah, to join the operation.
“We didn’t stop until we exhausted every single option, and there wasn’t even a 0.01% chance of anyone being down there,” said Fathallah.
Early on in the mission, a Lebanese Civil Defense team expressed pessimism that the search and rescue would find a survivor, or even a dead body. “There’s a 99% chance that we won’t find anything,” George Abu Musa, head of operations at the civil defense, told CNN on Thursday night.
But Topos and local rescuers, including the Civil Defense, slowly worked through the rubble, digging tunnels and excavating through layers of limestone and debris. The Chilean team’s sensors continued to detect respiratory cycles, which they dubbed “signs of life,” emanating from the destroyed building. Those signals, the Topos team now says, could have come from the rescuers themselves, or from interference from outside phones.
“We detected breathing around 3 a.m., an exhalation. But after checking the area we realized that that exhalation was from our own rescue workers that had entered the first floor hours earlier. The device is very sensitive, therefore the minimal exhalation will be detected,” Lermanda said on Saturday evening.
It was an emotionally charged three days where hopes rested primarily on a search dog named Flash and a sensory machine, and ignored the low expectations set by local authorities. Trust in state officials has faded since a popular uprising that began last October against government corruption gripped the country. The August 4 explosion has fanned flames of public disgruntlement.
The blast of nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate tore through the Lebanese capital on August 4, killing 190 people, injuring more than 6,000, and leaving more than 300,000 displaced from their homes. The blast destroyed much of Beirut’s eastern coastal area.
The Topos Chile rescue team said they will conduct other operations in Beirut if the Lebanese government asks them to.
“We would like to go everywhere, but we are respectful of the governments and of the people,” Lermanda said. “If they ask us to go anywhere, to ground zero (the port) or to a building where someone disappeared, that’s where we’re going.”
Tension at the site
The operation unleashed an emotional rollercoaster for locals involved in the mission. When Thursday’s search was temporarily suspended over concerns that a wall could collapse and endanger the lives of the rescue team, a protest of around 100 people erupted outside the site.
“That breath is our last breath. It’s our last hope. You should all be ashamed,” yelled Fathallah on Thursday night. One woman was heard saying: “We have been here for a month, can’t you stay up for one night?”
Scores poured into the site of the rescue effort after the Chilean team had left, demanding the immediate resumption of the operation. One woman said she ordered a crane, while other protesters climbed up the wreckage offering to search for the body themselves.
Tension continued to grow until soldiers told the protesters that the team and its equipment would be returning to the site imminently. The next day, many of those protesters joined the rescue effort under the coordination of the military. The mood shifted. Protesters and members of the military who had previously been on opposite sides of an army cordon were now working together.
And after the mission ended, volunteers reported there was a moment of reflection about the relative absence of faith in the Civil Defense’s initial assessment, with one prominent Civil Defense worker, Youssef Mallah, berating activists for their lack of trust in local rescue workers.
“I love what the Chileans did. I have the utmost respect for them,” said Fathallah. “But we need to give the Civil Defense more credit. We’re forgetting that these people are actually volunteers and that if someone is going to take their time to do what they do and sacrifice themselves for the rest of us, hats off.
“If there ever was a reason for me not to leave the country – because I have been thinking about it – it’s because of people like Youssef Mallah.”
CNN’s Sharif Paget contributed to this report.