October 30, 2020

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Beirut Rescue Team Pauses Search for Possible Survivor One Month After Explosion

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BEIRUT—The search for a possible survivor of the Beirut port explosion was paused Friday night more than a day after it began, as hope faded that someone would be found alive a month after the massive blast.

The Chilean rescue team leading the search will resume Saturday morning, but signs of life under the rubble are no longer being identified. Several attempts Friday to detect a pulse under the rubble of the collapsed building using a life sensor came up empty.

The detection of a pulse Thursday morning had prompted the frenetic search, transfixing a country desperate for a glimmer of optimism after the Aug. 4 explosion, which killed at least 190 people, injured thousands and displaced many more from devastated neighborhoods.

The explosion was caused by a fire that ignited some 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate that were abandoned in a warehouse nearly seven years ago. On Thursday, the Lebanese army said it found another four tons of the chemical near Beirut’s port, which abuts the capital’s business district.

Friday marked the one-month anniversary of the blast, and a candlelight vigil was held at the port. Some brought the vigil to the rescue site Friday night, lighting candles and sticking them along the barriers with hot wax.

“Maybe others will pray,” a woman said as she lit a candle and walked away.

A sniffer dog had first alerted rescue workers Thursday morning that someone might be under the rubble of a collapsed building. A life sensor and thermal camera indicated a pulse and a possible survivor, said Akram Nehme, a member of Achrafieh 2020, a local organization that helped the team when it arrived in Lebanon from Chile. Since then, the team has been digging through the unstable rubble, Mr. Nehme said.

The 14-member crew arrived on Sunday along with a sniffer dog and three tons of equipment, and has been working in the hardest-hit neighborhoods. It hasn’t been allowed to aid in rescue efforts at the port, Mr. Nehme said.

The rescue operation has struck frayed nerves among the city’s residents, encapsulating their frustration with a Lebanese government that has been largely absent through one of the country’s biggest tragedies. “We are ashamed of ourselves,” said Joseph Daccache, the owner of a nearby shop. “Anywhere in the world the local teams lead the effort, except Lebanon.”

His wife, Marie Daccache, was sitting next to him in front of the battered storefront of their shop, meters away from the site of the dig. She muttered prayers for the safety of the civil-defense rescue workers.

Since the explosion, ordinary Lebanese and grass-roots organizations have stepped up to deliver food and other aid, inspect and rebuild homes and provide shelters. They have filled the vacuum left by state institutions, which have been criticized for years of neglect before the blast and for inadequate assistance since.

Days after a massive explosion rocked the city of Beirut, WSJ’s Dion Nissenbaum visits the blast site. Photo: Dion Nissenbaum for the Wall Street Journal

Dozens of activists camped overnight Thursday around the recovery site, monitoring the work and occasionally confronting army soldiers who tried to pause the rescue.

The Lebanese army said in a statement that the excavation was briefly suspended late Thursday to secure the area and make it safe for rescuers to continue. The search resumed two hours later, officials said.

Activists said that the army wanted to stop the search overnight and resume in the morning, in part because of a lack of equipment. Citizens with one grass-roots organization, called Base Camp, said they were able to secure a crane at their own expense, which arrived at 3 a.m. Friday. A private contracting company, Al Janoub, also donated a machine to suck up dust released by the moving of concrete debris.

Those at the site accused the government and army of getting in the way. “The army is now harassing the Chileans and telling them to stop work because they can’t find a body,” said Stephanie Bou Chedid, an activist with Base Camp. “The Chileans are insisting on doing their job.”

Write to Raja Abdulrahim at raja.abdulrahim@wsj.com

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2020-09-04 16:46:00

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