Eight o’clock has not yet struck and the heat is already unbearable. The slightest movement of air is caught in the three large black sheets hung, one next to the other, from the windows of the Bachoura fire station in central Beirut. On the outside walls are pinned photos of the sappers who died as martyrs – the formula consecrated here.
On the evening of August 4, when a fire broke out in the port of the capital, nine firefighters and a nurse flocked there. In the minutes that followed, some 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded right next to them, creating a gigantic orange mushroom that looked like atomic. Since then, firefighters from here and elsewhere have tirelessly searched the rubble. “But we did not find any survivors,” sighs Josef Moufarreg, taking the road in his truck.
Every day, this head of the team responsible for the aquatic excavations leaves the Bachoura barracks to go to ” ground zero », Where an immense lake took the place of the quay and the warehouses which were there until the last second preceding the immense explosion.
“Do you smell the smell of death?” »He says, passing the army checkpoint erected at the entrance to the port. All around, overturned trucks, shattered containers, piles of tin, mineral wool coming out of what were once walls. And in the center, a path hastily traced in the hours following the tragedy to transport equipment and men and thus attempt the impossible: find the missing colleagues.
Since the announcement of the end of the search to root out survivors, the hundreds of members of the international rescue teams who had flocked to Beirut have left. Only the French are still alongside the Lebanese. “The remains of seven firefighters were found. But three are still missing, ”explains Jean-Marc Chesnet, head of mission for two French voluntary organizations, Aides actions international pompiers and Pompiers humanitarian missions.
The research is mainly concentrated near the huge gutted silos – which have become symbols of this catastrophe. This is where the steering wheel of the fire truck that was used to drive the deceased sappers was found. A steering wheel that now lies right there, next to it, on a pile of rubble near mountains formed by the twisted metal wires that once supported the structure of the silos.
“Tuesday, we found a foot and a hand”, specifies Jean-Marc Chesnet accompanying The duty during a rare foray into the research site. Of the two rows of silos containing the country’s grain reserves, only one remains standing. Metal wires, torn from the concrete which did not hold up, soar towards the ground for tens of meters. At times, blocks stand out from these huge columns that threaten to collapse.
At their feet, a gigantic golden dune formed by tons of spread corn is searched by backhoe loaders in the hope of finding a piece of clothing or even human remains that could be returned to families.
“We will continue until we find them. They are our children, our brothers ”, assures, moved, Michel El Murr, lieutenant firefighter who supervises the site. “I stay on the site 24 hours a day,” he slips his eyes visibly tired.
Teams take turns day and night. But Thursday, the four projectors which were used to illuminate once the sun had set had been withdrawn by the army, which now ensures a greater presence in the port.
A few meters further on is the exact place of impact. Where the ground has given way under the earth 43 meters deep and 210 meters long. A huge lake, bordered by debris, formed from which bubbles escaped Thursday accompanied by a strong smell of fermentation. “There is a meter and a half depth of corn under the water”, indicates Michel El Murr by way of explanation.
Around, everything is gray, brown, dull. As we leave the site, we see pieces of green and turquoise fabric stuck in the earth that recall the life there was in the port not so long ago.
On the viaduct overlooking the port of Beirut, many passers-by still stop. From a distance, you can see the ocher smoke rising from the corn dunes stirred by mechanical shovels. Several Beirutis take selfies. A lady is seated on the wall, a cigarette in her hand, thoughtful.
Walid Al-Homsi came with his son to show him the immensity of the desolation. The man was on a Total boat in the port of Beirut two hours before everything exploded. “Two of my friends died on another boat,” he said, showing pictures of the deceased on his phone.
Further on, Elie Haddad stops by moped. “My cousin died here. The young man in his thirties was providing security in the harbor. “Do you want to see his picture? Two days before I was at his house drinking. I’m also going to show you a picture we took of that evening. In his eyes, infinite sadness. In the distance, the Mediterranean. “This is my third time coming here. It’s hard for me to watch this. They are killing us here. Our government loves money, it doesn’t love us. I want to go. Take me with you. ”
This report was funded with support from the Transat International Journalism FundThe duty.
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