The scene on the Beirut waterfront after the devastating explosion last week looks straight out of “Mad Max,” a tortured landscape washed in sepia, littered with the husks of cars. The expanse is dotted with small signs of previous lives: torn fabric, ice-pop boxes, a cookbook somehow still intact and open to a recipe for spaghetti squash with clam-and-mushroom sauce. An unidentified black liquid, perhaps the residue of melted garbage bags, continues to slither down hills of dirt and concrete, sticking to the shoes of search teams.
When 2,750 tons of highly volatile ammonium nitrate exploded in a warehouse, the blast left a crater more than 15 yards deep and destroyed the port’s towering grain silos, spewing torrents of yellow corn that piled up into mountains and spilled into the water. At least 171 people were killed.
“If this had happened a few hours earlier, we would have around 5,000 deaths,” said a civil defense worker, who could not give his name because of tight restrictions placed by the Lebanese army on speaking to the media. Because the explosion occurred shortly after 6 p.m., the port was largely empty, mainly staffed by security personnel at that time, the civil defense worker said.
The shock wave shattered buildings more than a mile from the port. At the site of the blast, the explosion vaporized entire concrete structures and eviscerated a pier that had jutted more than 200 yards into the water.
Search teams, Lebanese and foreign, are combing the port area for the missing. Scuba divers are looking for bodies that might have been flung into the sea. Technical experts are assessing toxic threats, and others are trying to piece together exactly what happened on Aug. 4.
Among the hundreds of foreign rescuers, a 63-member French team was picking Tuesday through the area around the silos. After five days of searching, they despaired of finding survivors. “I think there’s no chance anymore,” said Lt. Andrea, the leader of the French search-and-rescue team. He declined to give his last name in line with French security protocol.
But the searchers were determined to recover bodies. So far, the French team had found seven. They believed there are more. “We have to find them,” the lieutenant said.
Already, workers had cleared the pier of sand nearly five feet deep, blown ashore by the explosion, in hopes of unearthing human remains.
On Monday, the teams had detected a light stench near the silo. The dogs brought in by the French team sniffed around and seemed to pick up a trace. So on Tuesday, three bulldozers raked through the heaps of rubble, pushing aside a tangle of metal and large chunks of concrete in an effort to uncover human remains. Civil defense and rescue teams stepped out of the way to let the machines work.
Lebanese firefighters watched, their faces set in hard expressions. They had lost 10 of their comrades, who had responded to the initial fire at the port. The bodies of six firefighters had been found, two of them identified by DNA testing. Four were still missing.
“It’s like we’re dying a hundred deaths every day. Every day, ” said one of the firefighters, who declined to give his name because of security concerns. “Every time we extract one of our friends, we get sad all over again. Then we go to the funeral. Then we extract another friend. Then we go to another funeral. It’s an indescribable feeling.”
He stared through the plume of dust in front of him.
“We used to say, ‘We hope they’re alive.’ Now we say, ‘We hope we find their fragments. For their families,’ ” he said.
Amid the mounds of sand, dirt, metal and concrete, Lebanese civil defense workers spotted a swarm of flies. The men hustled to a twisted car, hunting through the wreckage in hopes of finding a body — to provide a measure of relief to a family waiting to bury a loved one.
“Keep going, Abu Ziyad. Keep going. Maybe it’s in front of you,” one civil defense member urged another.
The car was empty.
Then the workers noticed the skeleton of another car poking out of a nearby mound and started frantically shoveling the dirt aside. A bulldozer helped remove the mangled metal piece by piece, discarding it to the side as the men searched.
They finally found what had attracted the flies: food.
Correction: Earlier official estimates of the depth of the bomb crater have been revised downward and the story has been corrected to reflect that the blast left a crater of just over 15 yards in depth.
Loveday Morris contributed to this report.