On the day after the Beirut blast, Kamal Khatib ignored the warnings of Lebanese civil defence to make one more rescue from a crumbling apartment in the Gemmayze neighbourhood.
As he descended the stairs on his way out, he could feel the century-old building shaking, and minutes later, the second floor collapsed. The risk had been worth it, the 48-year-old volunteer said, he had saved a life.
Shortly afterwards at a nearby hospital, a tearful and injured resident was reunited with her beloved siamese cat.
“You don’t feel the danger… it’s complete focus for the animals,” Mr Khatib says later, his lacerated arms a testament to the number of terrified cats he has pulled from the rubble. “It’s not taking risk, it’s rescuing.”
The August 4 explosion of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate at Beirut port destroyed an estimated 50,000 homes in the Lebanese capital, killing at least 178 and wounding some 6,000 people. There is no centralised list of the missing, but the United Nations say at least 30 people remain unaccounted for.
In the confusion after the blast, panicked residents jammed phone lines asking after friends and relatives, and rushed injured neighbours to crowded emergency rooms. For hundreds of Beirut pet-owners, a sickening realisation that their animals were missing came next.
The pressure wave from the blast had flung cats from shattered windows and balconies, while terrified dogs fled through blown-open doors. Fears for their welfare superseded any concern over destroyed homes or lost livelihoods, owners say.
“I was going crazy, I was in the street looking all night, I didn’t sleep,” says Rita Ragavlas, 48, whose cats Luna and Dodo disappeared in the blast.
Within two hours of the explosion, local welfare group Animals Lebanon had volunteers on the ground, looking for injured and frightened animals.
“It’s a system we created overnight,” says Ms Shaarawi, who is wearing a black singlet covered in white cat hair. “I never imagined we’d have 250 volunteers risking their lives to save animals.”
The day after the explosion, Ranwa Mouzanner found her three-year-old Yorkshire terrier via a post shared on the Animals Lebanon Instagram page, and says being reunited with Sake has helped her process the trauma of losing her home and being injured by falling glass.
“I’m with him literally all the time, it’s so comforting, he tries to lick my wounds,” the 26-year-old says from her aunt’s house in the mountains outside Beirut, where she is recuperating with family. “I felt guilty to be sad because people were looking for their children and relatives and I was looking for my dog, but at the same time he’s like my son.”
In the first 10 days after the explosion, Animals Lebanon say they reunited 104 owners like Ms Mouzanner with their pets. They also gave veterinary care to 73 injured animals, distributed over two tonnes of pet food, and are caring for nearly 30 animals without owners.
Some rescues have taken days of perseverance, with volunteers returning to the same damaged building several times every day until they are able to coax a terrified animal out of an elevator shaft or hole in a wall.
After four sleepless nights, Ms Ragavlas was reunited with Dodo. A volunteer spotted his black tail disappearing into a destroyed apartment and climbed through a first floor window to retrieve him.
“Having him it’s like therapy now, there’s something from your life that’s still ticking,” Ms Ragavlas says, clutching the burly black moggie to her chest. “Since they found Dodo I started smiling again.”