Lebanon News

A week on: The night that changed Beirut forever

A picture shows a destroyed silo at the scene of an explosion at the port in the Lebanese capital Beirut on August 4, 2020. AFP / STR TOPSHOTS

BEIRUT: A week after the Beirut blast, The Daily Star spoke to residents and first responders to piece together their perspectives of the night that rocked the capital, leaving over 160 dead and 6,000 wounded. What follows are their personal accounts.

6 p.m. – Karantina – A call for backup

Commander of the Beirut Fire Brigade Col. Nabil Khinkarli received a call from the operations room at the fire station in Karantina, an industrial area that runs alongside Beirut Port.

A team of nine male firefighters and a female paramedic had been dispatched around five minutes earlier and were attempting to put out a large fire in warehouse 12, next to the grain silo in the port. They tried to open the doors to the warehouse to see the cause of the fire.

They called requesting backup.

6:06 p.m. – Gemmayzeh, by Sandwich w Noss – “I’m going to die.”

The ground shook.

An explosion then ripped through the windows, sending shards of glass flying through Danielle Nahas’ apartment.

In a minute, the world turned upside down. The air whistled in her ears as she was suddenly lifted off her feet and thrown into the back wall of her kitchen.

“I’m going to die,” Nahas, 35, thought to herself. “It felt like it went on forever.”

Moments earlier she had been at her window watching plumes of black smoke rise from Beirut Port. Others had also watched from their balconies facing the Mediterranean Sea.

Now she was on the ground staring at a smashed jar of jam.

An eerie silence filled the hazy air. “Was that jam or blood?” she thought.

The dust and smoke cleared. Her blown-out kitchen door was now a plank of wood resting on a wall in the middle of her narrow hallway.

Something was wrong. Instinctively, she looked down at her leg, asking herself again: “Was that jam or blood?”

A massive piece of glass from her window had lodged itself into her thigh.

Icy shock washed over her and she started screaming, “Help. I need to get to a hospital.”

6:30 p.m. – American University of Beirut Medical Center – “The gates of hell burst open.”

Dr. Bassam Osman, 27, had 10 minutes to process what was coming.

He was in the hospital’s basement with 14 colleagues when he felt the explosion.

The power went out after the blast. A senior doctor guided them up the stairs into the emergency department, which now lay before them in ruins. The cause of the damage before them was not yet known.

The senior doctor told the health care workers to prepare themselves for a lot of injuries.

Osman and his colleagues put on gowns and masks in an attempt to shield patients and themselves from coronavirus, but there was “little space in our head to think about it.”

For 10 minutes the hospital went silent. All he could do to mentally prepare was push aside any fear or uncertainty.

And then Osman saw the “gates of hell burst open.”

People flooded into the hospital. One after the other, injured after injured, people covered in blood poured into the AUBMC entrance. The sound of screams crashed through the entrance as doctors divided patients into mild and severe cases. Some had simple lacerations, others arrived with holes in their hearts.

In the blurred first hour, Osman treated 20 patients. Senior doctors and medical students stood side by side to treat the wounded. Residents, students, nurses, clerks, housekeeping and hospital staff gathered in every empty space to provide aid.

His shift, which had started at 6.a.m that day, didn’t end until Thursday morning.

Osman didn’t know how, but he was relieved that he was still alive. He had to keep pushing through.

8 p.m. Beirut Port – “It looked like a warzone.”

Osama, 42, a firefighter from the Beirut Fire Brigade, used the flashlight of his phone to navigate his surroundings. The underequipped brigade lacked the proper lighting equipment.

In his other hand, Osama gripped his firehose and tried to process the scene in front of him.

He was standing in front of a colossal 43-meter deep crater that the explosion dug into the earth. Fires engulfed nearby warehouses and what was once the grain silo in the port.

A large ship on the crater’s edge had flipped over. Grain from the silo poured down on him and other first responders. The explosion had created massive hills of sand and dirt making it harder to push through to the area where the explosion had taken place.

“We didn’t have lighting equipment; it was a big problem. Other than the light from the fire, all we had were our phones,” he said.

Around him, rescue workers dragged bodies out from underneath the wreckage.

“It looked like a warzone. I lived through the 2006 War and what I saw in front of me didn’t compare,” Osama said.

Trying to put out the fires, all he could think about were the nine firefighters and paramedic who had been sent in before the explosion. All he could think about was getting to where they were.

“How do we get to them? Are they even alive?” he thought.

Osama had worked at the fire station in Karantina alongside the first team of 10 who were sent to put out the fire in warehouse 12.

There was no time for fear. There was only anger as he thought: “Why did no one tell them what was in there? Why weren’t they prepared?”

8:30 p.m. Gemmayzeh – “Ambulance. I need an ambulance.”

Mohamed Soliman, 28, stood on the roof of a car with his dog, Mistika, in a duffle bag. “Ambulance. I need an ambulance,” Soliman screamed into the unfolding chaos.

His friend was lying on a cushion beside the car, blood covering her arms and legs. Most of the vehicles driving by were full.

An ambulance stopped and his friend got in. But the paramedic told Soliman that the ambulance was full and there was no room for him. “We need this for victims,” the paramedic said.

Just after the explosion, Soliman, co-owner of a neighborhood bar called Tenno, went to find his friend after she hadn’t responded to her phone.

Carrying his dog, he limped down the street. Earlier, the blast had slammed the right side of his body into a wall of his now destroyed apartment, also in the Gemmayzeh neighborhood. He could still feel glass in his foot.

Once he reached his friend’s apartment, he climbed six flights of stairs. He called out her name.

She called back, “Moe, I can’t see. I can’t see.”

Soliman found her sitting at the edge of the staircase. She had glass in her knees, shins and hands after crawling to get out of the wreckage.

Using a water bottle he found by the door, Soliman washed her face. That’s when he saw small fragments of glass protruding from her eyelids. Calming her, he told her not to touch her eyes because there was a lot of dust in them.

She nodded.

“We need to get you out of here,” he told her. “I’ll come back for your phone. You need medical attention.”

9 p.m – Vitallia Animal Hospital, Jamhour – “I knew I was doing the right thing.”

Dr. Nidal Hassan, 33, a surgical veterinarian, received his first human patient of the night.

The woman looked like she was dying. “Blood covered everything, she was in really bad shape,” he recalled.

She was driven over to the veterinary clinic by her friend who told Hassan that the bloodied woman had just waited in a hospital for two hours, but medical staff were too overwhelmed to treat her. He knew that if she didn’t receive immediate medical attention she would die.

“I have to stop your bleeding. You have to help me with this and be brave,” he told her.

Hassan immediately put her on an intravenous drip to stabilize her very low blood pressure. The woman had metal and glass in her wounds, some of which were deep.

Hassan had decided to open his clinic to patients when he heard Beirut’s hospitals were at capacity and turning people away. He called in his medical team of eight to help receive any patients that might come through.

In the back of Hassan’s mind was an almost absurd concern – would he, a vet, get arrested for treating a human? But “It didn’t stop me. I knew I was doing the right thing.”

Hassan looked at the woman. “I need you to be brave. Are you going to do this with me?” he asked

She nodded.

10 p.m. Mar Mikhael, Electricite du Liban – “It was so dark. It was so loud.”

Broken glass blanketed every inch of the ground, crunching like ice under Hannan’s feet. Shards glittered in the flashing lights of police sirens.

Breathing heavily, she stared down Gouraud Street toward the entrance of the Gemmayzeh neighborhood, now a black tunnel illuminated only by bumper-to-bumper traffic.

By the Electricite du Liban building a man lay on the ground. He wasn’t moving. Another man pulled a body out of a car that had been smashed by a fallen concrete block.

The towering EDL building stood above her. Every window of the monstrous structure had been blown out.

Screams and sirens pierced the humid night air. “It was so dark. It was so loud.”

Hannan, 29, had been at work in Hazmieh when she felt the explosion. Shortly after, she jumped in her car, racing toward her apartment in Mar Mikhael. She heard news that the blast had come from Beirut’s port. Was it fireworks? A bomb? Both?

After hours of traffic she reached her home and found that it was “completely destroyed.” Her floor had partially collapsed onto the apartment underneath. She didn’t know if her neighbors were alive.

Hannan had managed to retrieve her money, jewelry and guitar, which she carried on her back. “Lebanon, my home, what happened? Who did this to you?” she thought.

Around her, people were also dazedly walking through the streets with suitcases and boxes filled with their belongings. There was so much glass.

Without thinking, she began to walk toward Martyrs’ Square. "I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m going anywhere but here.”





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