Nowhere to hide from horrific gas attack
The victims were found exactly where they had been when the gas hit. Their silent killer had given little warning.
One father had a protective arm around his young wife and baby. An infant in nappies was still holding his older brother's hand. None bore any sign of injury. And they would have looked peaceful in sleep if not for their blushed faces and frothing mouths.
Several families had been seeking shelter in a house in the Syrian town of Douma, in what remains of rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, when what is believed to have been a chemical bomb struck its roof at 8.45pm on Saturday.
Rescuers who reached the house knew immediately this attack was different.
It appeared that the gas, heavier than air, had sunk to the basement. Those on the first floor or above were less affected and were taken to hospital with difficulty breathing, slow heartbeats, corneal burns and shivering, according to Mohammed, a medical student in Douma.
"But none of those underground made it," he said by phone from the hospital. "The gas would have killed them instantly."
The Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations counted more than 70 dead and 500 injured, but expected the toll to rise once they were able to search for bodies.
"After four years in the hospital, I have never seen anything like what happened," said Mohammed, who did not wish to give his surname.
"Most of the infants who initially came died. We could help only three. We have only four oxygen machines and could use them only for the most serious cases.
"Right before they died, the victims were having trouble breathing, choking, with foam coming out of their mouth. We couldn't give them much help because we don't have the capacity to treat this many people."
He said the hospital had been bombed six times in the past two days, and most of the town's medical points and ambulances were out of service.
Medics on the ground reported smelling a chlorine-like substance but said patients' symptoms and the large death toll pointed to a more noxious substance, such as nerve agent sarin.
"The number of casualties is so high and that's not typical for chlorine," said Dr Ahmad Tarakji, the president of the Syrian American Medical Society, which assists hospitals in Eastern Ghouta. "Unfortunately, because of a lack of resources, we can't take blood samples."
Pictures from the scene showed the remains of what experts said was a modified chlorine cylinder, similar to those used in previous regime attacks.
"Frequently, these chlorine cylinders land in open spaces so the casualties are lower but this was a direct hit," said Eliot Higgins, a search research associate at King's College London.
The regime has in the past mixed chemicals such as chlorine and sarin together in an apparent bid to confuse first responders and to pollute potential evidence.
Both Syria and its Russian backer denounced the allegations yesterday as "fabrications", while Iran, another of Bashar al-Assad's patrons, called it a "conspiracy".
Mr Assad's forces had been close to victory in Eastern Ghouta, with only Douma standing in its way.
Facing military defeat, rebel groups in other parts of the Damascus suburb opted for safe passage to other opposition-held areas rather than stay and fight. But Jaish al-Islam rejected this, demanding to stay in Douma.
Saturday's attack pushed the holdout rebels back to the negotiating table. Hours later, they agreed to a Russian evacuation deal, signalling the end of the rebellion in one of the opposition's most important territories.
Reports sparked international outrage. But as Syrians have learned over the years, those responsible are unlikely to ever be held to account.
In 2013, also in Eastern Ghouta, a sarin attack killed more than 1,000 people - an event that prompted Barack Obama, who was the US president at the time, to threaten military action against the Syrian government. However, the US then did nothing.
The regime is thought to have used chemicals more than 100 times since then. (© Daily Telegraph, London)