A border collie dog working with Chilean rescuers discovered a potential survivor of the Beirut port explosion on Thursday night, nearly a month after the blast.
The trained rescue dog detected signs of life beneath the rubble of a destroyed building in the district of Gemmayzeh, sparking an intensive search.
Up to two bodies were subsequently potentially detected by thermal imaging cameras, trapped below the rubble: one small curled up body and a larger one. The smaller body showed some vital signs, registering 18 breaths per minute, while a faint pulse could also be detected, the team said.
Francisco Lermanda, the head of the Chilean Rescue team, told The Telegraph that he suspected whoever was trapped was in a coma. He predicted a long night ahead to reach the possible victim.
The discovery was made 29 days after the huge explosion in Beirut's port, triggered when a huge quantity of ammonium nitrate stored for six years in a warehouse was ignited by a fire.
The resulting blast killed nearly 200 people, injured 6,000, and caused a huge swathe of devastation across the city.
The chances of anyone surviving for such a long period under the rubble were 'very small' said an NGO worker involved in the rescue, but not completely unprecedented – the Topos Chile team that made the discovery reportedly rescued a severely dehydrated and malnourished man in Haiti who had been buried 27 days after a devastating earthquake there.
The rescue team worked through 40 degree heat to clear enough rubble for a female member of the team to try to explore beneath the collapsed buliding.
As dusk fell they installed strong lamps in order to continue their investigations.
As a crowd gathered to await news of a “miracle”, Beirutis took to social media to criticise their own government, as it had taken a foreign rescue team to find any signs of life so long after the August 4 explosion.
Francisco Lermanda, the head of the Chilean Rescue team, told The Telegraph: “The team arrived 10 days ago. Yesterday walking in this street with the dog, and the dog said ‘what?!’”
“This life-locating equipment detected breathing. It was detecting 15 breaths per minutes. I think it’s a person in a coma state, breathing slowly.”
“It’s not another animal, it’s the breath of a human.”
He predicted a long night. “It’s waiting, it’s hoping.”
“We need the team to penetrate in three holes,” he said, with each hole needing to move through several metres of rubble.
“We’re moving 10cm an hour,” he said.
Edward Bitar, a volunteer with Live Love Beirut, a community engagement organisation, said at the scene: "We're just making sure there's no one there alive. We're taking all the steps needed.
"At any second the house, the building could collapse. So we need to work in small team without heavy equipment to try to retrieve whoever is there.
"We don't want to get anyone's hopes up. We just want to make sure there's no one inside the house.
"Even if there's a 99 percent chance there's no one alive, we need to make sure of that one percent chance.
"Even if there's one percent probability we still have to do our work properly."
Local resident Reine Abbas, said she was near the destroyed building two weeks ago when she “smelled old blood” and urged authorities to search the rubble.
She said they didn’t respond to her pleas: “If they had checked back then, then the body may have been alive today… but this is Lebanon,” she said.
Meanwhile, the Lebanese Army also reported yesterday it had discovered and was dealing with another 4 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored at Beirut's port. A total of 2,750 tonnes of the volatile chemical were ignited by a fire to cause last month's explosion.