At Beirut’s ‘ground zero’, race to find survivors

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A rescue team surveys the site of this week's massive explosion in the port of Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, Aug. 7, 2020. (AP)
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A dog of the French rescue team searches for survivors at the scene of this week's massive explosion in the port of Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, Aug. 7, 2020. (AP)
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A rescue team watch diggers tackle the removal of debris from this week's massive explosion in the port of Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, Aug. 7, 2020. (AP)
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Updated 07 August 2020

At Beirut’s ‘ground zero’, race to find survivors

  • Rescuers worked shifts to try to find an entrance to a control room buried under meters (yards) of rubble
  • The death toll for the disaster stood at 154 on Friday but dozens of people were still reported missing

BEIRUT: Ankle-deep in corn spilling from a huge gutted silo, rescuers guide an excavator to clear access to a room where they believe Beirut port employees could still be alive.
Three days after the monster explosion that disfigured the city in a matter of seconds, the clock was already ticking down Friday on any potential survivors’ chances.
Rescuers from Lebanon, France, Germany, Russia and other countries worked shifts to try to find an entrance to a control room buried under meters (yards) of rubble.
Beirut’s “ground zero,” a term describing the point closest to a detonation that was first used for the 1945 atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, filled up with teams working together in a desperate push to find survivors.
“Let’s not kid ourselves, the chances are quite low,” said Lt. Andrea, a member of a 55-stong French contingent at the forefront of the rescue effort.
“But it’s been done before, three days later, four days later,” survivors have been found, he said, the charred silos behind him cutting a ghostly figure against Beirut’s ravaged skyline.
The death toll for the disaster, one of the worst of its kind in modern history, stood at 154 on Friday but dozens of people were still reported missing.
Andrea explained that the effort at the port was focused on the control room because a significant number of people would have been working there at the time of the explosion.
He said some smaller primary explosions in the port, however, might have led the staff to flee the room.
“The four bodies we uncovered in the search area... were found next to a safety exit staircase at the foot of the silos,” Andrea explained.
Thousands of tons of corn, wheat and barley scattered from the silos by the explosion carpeted the port car parks and quays.
An eerie calm filled the unrecognizable docks, usually bustling with traffic, workers and traders.
Rescuers stood silently above a gap in the ground as a sniffer dog paced around a forest of mangled containers thrown around the port like sugar cubes.
The cargo pouring out of them gave a sample of the goods that had just entered the country: French-language school books, luxury handbags, crates of imported beer.
Three Red Cross volunteers looked dazed as they walked around the site of the blast and stopped by the waterfront to stare at their devastated city.
“It looks so quiet, but bad quiet. Something in this city died and will not rise again,” said one of them, standing with his arms akimbo and his gaze lost in the destruction before him.
The only sounds were those of massive excavators smashing a path through the rubble, rotary saws cutting iron rods and jackhammers breaking blocks of concrete into smaller pieces.
Col. Tissier, leader of the French rescue team who briefed France’s President Emmanuel Macron during his visit on Thursday, has worked on many disaster sites.
“The specificity here is that the epicenter is just here, a few meters away from us, whereas usually with earthquakes it is several hundred meters below ground level,” he said.
“With quakes, things usually collapse in layers... here everything was just pulverised,” he said.
That means the growing fleet of heavy machinery converging on Beirut port Friday had to dig into solid mounds of rubble before reaching whatever is buried under it.
“When it comes to the actual center of the impact, it is quite reminiscent of September 11 ‘ground zero’,” Andrea said of the 2001 US attacks on the Twin Towers in New York.
“The extent of the destruction will also remind some members of our team of the earthquake in Haiti in 2010,” he said.
“The difference here is that it’s not an earthquake. Humans did this.”


Israel returns to virus lockdown as cases mount

Updated 58 sec ago

Israel returns to virus lockdown as cases mount

JERUSALEM: Israel is set to go back into a full lockdown later Friday to try to contain a coronavirus outbreak that has steadily worsened for months as its government has been plagued by indecision and infighting.
The three-week lockdown beginning at 2 p.m. (1100 GMT) will include the closure of many businesses, strict limits on public gatherings, and will largely confine people to within a kilometer (0.6 miles) of their homes. The closures coincide with the Jewish High Holidays, when people typically visit their families and gather for large prayer services.
In an address late Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that even stricter measures may be needed to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed. There are currently more than 46,000 active cases, with at least 577 hospitalized in serious condition.
“It could be that we will have no choice but to make the directives more stringent,” Netanyahu said. “I will not impose a lockdown on the citizens of Israel for no reason, and I will not hesitate to add further restrictions if it is necessary.”
Israel has reported a total of more than 175,000 cases since the outbreak began, including at least 1,169 deaths. It is now reporting around 5,000 new cases a day, one of the highest per capita infection rates in the world.
Israel was among the first countries to impose sweeping lockdowns this spring, sealing its borders and forcing most businesses to close. That succeeded in bringing the number of new cases to only a few dozen per day in May.
But then the economy abruptly reopened, and a new government was sworn in that was paralyzed by infighting. In recent months authorities have announced various restrictions only to see them ignored or reversed even as new cases soared to record levels.
The occupied West Bank has followed a similar trajectory, with a spring lockdown largely containing its outbreak followed by a rise of cases that forced the Palestinian Authority to impose a 10-day lockdown in July. The PA has reported more than 30,000 cases in the West Bank and around 240 deaths.
The Gaza Strip, which has been under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade since the Islamic militant group Hamas seized power from rival Palestinian forces in 2007, was initially insulated from the pandemic. But authorities detected community spread last month, and there are now more than 1,700 active cases in the impoverished territory of 2 million, straining its already fragile health system. At least 16 people have died.
In Israel, the government has come under withering criticism for its response to the virus and the economic crisis triggered by the earlier lockdown. Netanyahu, who is also on trial for corruption, has been the target of weekly protests outside his official residence. Israel’s insular ultra-Orthodox community, which has a high rate of infection, has also been up in arms about the restrictions, especially those targeting religious gatherings.
In Tel Aviv, hundreds of people protested the renewed lockdown on Thursday, including doctors and scientists who said it would be ineffective.
Dr. Amir Shahar, head of an emergency department in the city of Netanya and one of the organizers of the demonstration, said the lockdown is “disastrous” and would do “more harm than good.”