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Searchers Find No Sign of Survivor in Beirut Rubble

2020-09-05 23:05:47
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BEIRUT, Lebanon — Rescue workers who had spent days searching for a possible survivor in a building destroyed by a huge explosion last month all but gave up hope on Saturday, saying they had no new indications that anyone was alive under the rubble.

The search had captivated Lebanon since a sniffer dog named Flash drew rescue workers to the building, providing a dramatic glimmer of hope a month after the blast tore through Beirut, devastating residential neighborhoods and killing more than 190 people.

But that hope has since faded, as rescue workers dug day and night through piles of rubble in a historic house destroyed by the blast, finding nothing.

“Technically speaking, there are no signs of life,” Francisco Lermanda, the coordinator of Topos, a rescue group from Chile, told reporters Sunday night.

A French technician produced three-dimensional computer scans of the building to help guide the search, and rescue workers dug with shovels and their bare hands, so as not to harm a possible survivor or damage any human remains.

The Chilean team occasionally asked everyone in the area to silence their phones so that their equipment could get a clear reading, and Flash the dog became a local celebrity, commemorated by a local artist and celebrated in montages on TV.

But by Sunday, most of the building had been searched in vain, and Mr. Lermanda, the Chilean coordinator, acknowledged that the previously detected signs of life had been the breathing of rescue workers inside the building.

On Saturday night, the only remaining area to be checked was under the rubble piled on a sidewalk near the building.

The wider anger at the Lebanese government simmered at the rescue site, where many residents and volunteers accused the state of having failed to live up to its responsibilities since the blast, including by coordinating a comprehensive search for survivors and human remains.

“This dog gave us hope, but it also made fun of the whole system,” said Riyadh al-Assad, a Lebanese engineer assisting with the rescue effort. “This building should have been excavated weeks ago.”

Flash arrived in Beirut with Topos, meaning “moles” in Spanish, less than a week ago to help find victims missing after the explosion. The group was modeled on a Mexican rescue team with the same name that was born out of the spontaneous efforts of Mexican civilians to help emergency workers after a devastating earthquake in 1985.

Similar volunteer groups have formed in Bulgaria, New Zealand and France. Topos Chile has assisted in search and rescue efforts in Iran, Turkey, Haiti and Mexico, among others. At home, it assisted emergency workers after the 8.8 earthquake and tsunami in the central-south part of the country in 2010, and later that year in the rescue of 33 miners trapped half a mile underground for 68 days. Topos from Mexico joined it for both missions.

Mr. Lermanda said in a 2016 interview that the group’s members, who include kindergarten teachers, business owners, students and prison guards, share a WhatsApp group to build teams when disasters strike.

As soon as an earthquake is reported somewhere, he said, his phone fills with messages from other members reading, “available.”

Reporting was contributed by Kareem Chehayeb in Beirut and Pascale Bonnefoy in Santiago, Chile.

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