BEIRUT: The fireman, cursing, gestures at the shattered shops and glass shards lining the road, as he steals a brief respite from the carnage in Downtown. “Is there worse criminality than this?” he asks.
He had rushed along with a team from the Karantina brigade nearby, close enough to hear the blast that rocked the neighborhood and claimed the life of former Finance Minister Mohammad Shatah.
They saved a few of the wounded, he says, bearing burns and scars.
“We managed to get a good number out to the hospitals,” he adds.
A civil defense volunteer patrolling the perimeter of the blast site says the attack was “vicious.”
His description is apt. The force of the explosion was uncontained, the open space around the site allowing a shockwave to rip through the surrounding buildings.
“It was a catastrophic scene, corpses on the ground, wounded people,” he says, describing the chaos of the first moments after the attack. The Civil Defense teams had rushed in within minutes of hearing the explosion.
Workers in the area lament the broken peace they say long blessed their largely business-oriented neighborhood. They note that security officers often patrolled the area with police dogs because caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati has a residence nearby.
They tell stories of blood, flames and twisted steel.
Firas al-Shaikh, a local waiter, was sleeping at his home not far from the site of the explosion when he was awakened by a noise so loud that he thought a rocket had been launched nearby.
“We got up like madmen,” he says.
He had rushed to the scene. People were still emerging from nearby shops, wounded, and bodies were strewn about. When asked what else he saw, “Blood,” he replies.
“This was the best neighborhood,” he says, looking over at the scene.
The Army’s security cordon expands slowly to cover a large perimeter around the bombing site.
Over a hundred officers, soldiers, investigators, and forensic experts comb the scene of the bombing, itself covered with debris.
One mangled car stands out: Nothing remaining of it but a blackened knot of twisted metal.
A line of trees near the charred husk of the car has lost its green leaves, the life snuffed out of them, and a lone car headrest lies abandoned nearby.
The windows of shops lining the street are blown out, debris and glass blanketing the street.
The sight is more akin to a modern dystopia with scenes of urban ruin – broken glass and wooden boards next to a photograph of a glamour couple lying on the ground, chairs and posters overturned in a darkened hair salon, an upside down picture of President Michel Sleiman in an empty government office overlooking the crime scene.
The facades of the two Starco buildings stand shattered in the explosions, pieces of ceiling teetering and occasionally falling to the ground below.
Maintenance workers are already back to work, futilely trying to clear out the scars of a wound that has yet to stop bleeding.
Workers at a shop in the building sweep the floor of glass, but the shattered panes and debris blanket the ground so thickly it almost seems part of the decor.
The building is full of stories of minor miracles of survival – people who didn’t show up to work that day, or who overslept and missed the explosion, or who were not at their desk when a massive pane of glass fell where they were supposed to be plugging away at office computers.
But the faces are grim as office workers tear down metal curtains and glass sheets that could come crashing down. A trail of blood drops runs down the staircase of the building, whose offices now lie mostly empty.
Hisham, a 38-year-old accountant who was working in his office in one of the Starco buildings when the bomb went off, was taken to the American University Hospital to receive stitches in his head and hand after broken glass fell on him from above.
“We always hear about explosions; it was the first time something happens so close,” he says, after returning from hospital with his bandages.
He points to his neck as he describes the grisly wounds he saw there, and even some bodies.
“My injury was lighter compared to the others,” he says. “The nurses would come to help me but someone with a severe injury would come in and they would leave me.”
Hisham says he believes the main reason he and his co-workers escaped with light injuries is that the glass in their office is made of a special material that shatters in an explosion, instead of cracking and breaking off into larger shards.
Meanwhile, Samer, who works at a pharmacy in Starco that sits on a side street full of broken glass panes and damaged cars, describes a scene of what he says was “fear and panic” after the blast blew out the display windows.
“The glass shattered inward and we heard the explosion,” he says, as passing neighbors inquire about his health.
Running out, Samer recalls, he saw the burning cars.
By 1 p.m., the final death toll is announced at the scene, still cordoned off by the Army. Staff Maj Gen Mohammad Kheir declares that Shatah has been “martyred,” along with five others. There are 70 wounded, and seven in critical condition.
He leaves after reporters ask when Lebanon will move from unraveling the aftermath of car bombings to preventing them.