By ANGELINE JANE BERNABE, ABC News
(NEW YORK) — Beirut, Lebanon, is still devastated by the Aug. 4 explosion that ripped through the city, killing 190 people and destroying homes and businesses.
More than a month after the blast, a group at the site of the disaster has been working to reunite residents with their animal companions who were lost or displaced.
At Animals Lebanon, a registered charity that has been organizing rescue operations for animals in Beirut since the explosion, staff and volunteers said they have been searching daily for hundreds of pets at or near the explosion site.
“Most of the pets actually either ran away from their homes or got stranded. Cats were on the edge of balconies or in elevator shafts. We saw horrors,” Maggie Shaarawi, the vice president and co-founder of Animals Lebanon, told ABC News’ Good Morning America. “Our team has been on the ground from the night of the explosion because we’ve been getting phone calls and people hysterically calling us from the hospital saying, ‘Please, my animal is at home. Can you help?'”
The day of
For Shaarawi, the day of the explosion started out like any normal day.
Shaarawi, who was exercising at the gym when the blast occurred, at first thought it was an earthquake. She recalls glass from the staircase and windows shattering in the gym. But in that moment, her immediate instinct, she said, was to run to the animal shelter.
When she arrived, glass from the walls used to separate the cats was shattered, but luckily the animals in the shelter survived the blast’s impact. The team was able to treat the cats who were injured, she said.
Yet the moment was so surreal for Shaarawi that she says she didn’t know what to do first when she saw the shelter.
“There was glass everywhere, blood everywhere, injured cats, so my brain was frozen,” she said.
Searching the streets for stray pets
Rescuing the animals at the shelter took hours, but Shaarawi and her team decided to go into the city and rescue other animals too.
“We went out trying to get as close as possible to the worst-affected areas that night,” said Jason Mier, the director at Animals Lebanon. “We kind of just had a quick conversation and we just agreed, let’s give this a try.”
It wasn’t until the next morning that they were able to see the scope of the blast. Mier recalls streets being blocked and glass from buildings everywhere, making it difficult to even navigate where to go.
According to Shaarawi, one of the hardest-hit areas was the high-end neighborhood of Beirut, where many people lived in buildings with their pets. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, many people with pets were at home that day.
She remembers the unpleasant and distinct smell after the blast, and walking up the stairs to the 16th and 17th floors of buildings to search for stray animals.
Shaarawi said it was easier to locate dogs who were separated from their owners, since they would immediately come to rescue teams — while cats would usually stay hiding.
“They were traumatized,” said Shaarawi. “For each cat to be found, we had to spend hours looking for them under the rubble, looking in areas that you wouldn’t think about, looking from downstairs to see if the balcony had [any] cats.”
Shaarawi recalls one cat that she and her team had been trying to find for three days under the rubble of one of the buildings. The owners — a couple that was injured from the blast — had been searching for their cat in the street. Shaarawi said that a volunteer located the cat among the damaged building, but the animal was so frightened that he buried himself deeper in the rubble.
To help lure the animal out, Shaarawi had the couple get as close to their cat as possible and call out to him. The tactic worked almost immediately, and the powerful reunion was captured on camera.
“[They were] just so happy,” Shaarwi said of the couple’s reunion with their cat. “These are the moments that I will never forget — it’s just bringing this happiness to these people who lost a lot.”
With the help of over 300 volunteers, Animals Lebanon has been able to rescue more than 300 animals — and they continue to reunite more pets with their owners each day.
But Shaarawi says the work is harder now since many people have lost everything, including their homes, and can’t even afford to feed their pets. Since the blast, which also coincided with an economic and financial crisis in the country and a pandemic, Animals Lebanon has amplified its response to help families who were already struggling to care for their pets.
“We’re going door-to-door providing food for pets so owners can keep them,” said Shaarawi, adding that the group has been helping to fund surgery costs for animals that need it. “If we are able to help these people with this … they can at least get back on their feet soon and hopefully find jobs and rebuild their homes.”
Shaarawi said that reuniting animals with their owners has given her and her team motivation to continue their search efforts.
“The reaction of people when they were reunited with their pets was all it took for us and for me personally to get up every day and still do this work despite the stress that we’re going through,” said Shaarawi, who helps update the shelter’s Instagram page with videos of pet rescues and owner reunions.
Currently, Animals Lebanon is working to find forever homes for unclaimed pets that they’ve found. They’re also sending rescued animals to the U.S. for adoption.
Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.