Beirut has endured many horrors in its 5,000-year history, but nothing like the massive explosion that ripped through the ancient Mediterranean port city on Tuesday, leaving thousands of casualties, 300,000 homeless, and over $10 billion in damage in its wake. Now the indomitable Lebanese are digging themselves out from the rumble and demanding answers from their political elites.
Lebanon’s capital city confronted a scene of utter devastation Wednesday, with smoke still rising from the port. The blast tore out a crater 200 yards across that filled with seawater, as if the Mediterranean had taken a bite out of the port and swallowed buildings with it.
Much of downtown was littered with damaged cars and debris. The elegant stone buildings, fashionable shopping districts, and long stretches of the famed seaside promenade were reduced to rubble in the blast.
The death toll continued to rise Wednesday, with at least 135 confirmed deaths and more than 5,000 wounded. But with hundreds still missing, those numbers are likely to rise as the rubble is cleared.
Losses from the explosion are estimated to be between $10 billion to $15 billion, Beirut Gov. Marwan Abboud told Saudi-owned TV station Al-Hadath, adding that nearly 300,000 people are homeless due the destruction to the city’s residential areas.
Beirutis spent Wednesday searching for missing relatives and bandaging their wounds. They surveyed damaged homes, assessing if they could stay in them, retrieving what possessions they could and searching out places to stay.
“We don’t deserve this,” said Riwa Baltagi, a 23-year-old who was helping friends retrieve valuables from their demolished homes.
Others grabbed brooms and began the slow process of cleaning up.
The sound of ambulance sirens and the crunching of broken glass could be heard everywhere. Furniture and cushions were strewn along streets covered with wreckage. Elevators were dislocated from their shafts. Cars were crushed under the weight of debris.
Some of the worst damage was in the leafy neighborhoods of Mar Mikhael and Gemayzeh in east Beirut, where the blast damaged some of the few historic buildings that survived the 1975-1990 civil war. Balconies had dropped to street level, where bars and restaurants were buried and chairs and tables turned upside down.
The city’s churches and mosque were also damaged by the explosion. The faithful cleared away the rubble.
“Beirut as we know it is gone and people won’t be able to rebuild their lives,” said Amy, a woman who swept glass from a small alley beside by a tall building that served as a showroom for a famous Lebanese designer and was a neighborhood landmark.
“This is hell. How are they (people) going to survive. What are they going to do?” she said, blaming officials for lack of responsibility and “stupidity.”
“I have nowhere to go,” a woman said as she wept in what remained of her home in Gemayzeh. “What am I supposed to do?” she screamed into her mobile phone.
Throughout the night, radio presenters read the names of missing or wounded people. An Instagram page called “Locating Victims Beirut” sprung up with photos of missing people. Another account helped to connect the newly displaced with hotels and homeowners who were willing to host them.
The government also said public schools and some hotels will be opened for the homeless and promised unspecified compensation for the victims.
Hospitals, already struggling with the financial crisis and coronavirus pandemic, were overwhelmed by the wave of injured. Many patients had to be treated in hallways and parking lots once the wards filled up.
The Hospital of the Sisters of Rosaries was knocked out of service by the blast, with one of the nuns killed and three others badly injured.
“In a moment, there was no longer a hospital. It is all gone,” said one of the nuns, who suffered a leg injury.
The New York Times reports:
At least four large hospitals in Beirut were so severely damaged by the explosion that they were unable to admit patients, doctors said. Health care workers were injured and killed in the blast, and a warehouse storing much of the country’s vaccine supply was believed to have been razed.
An official at American University Hospital in Beirut, a big and prestigious private hospital, said they were sending noncritical patients to hospitals outside the capital.
At least four nurses died and five doctors were wounded at St. George Hospital, one of the hardest hit, according to Dr. Joseph Haddad, the director of the intensive care unit there.
One nurse scooped up three premature infants from the neonatal intensive care unit, where the ceiling had partially collapsed and glass had shattered, to carry them to safety. A photojournalist, Bilal Jawich, captured a photograph of the nurse, who has not been publicly identified.
In a post accompanying the photograph, he described how the nurse had rushed to the phone to call for help with the tiny babies clutched in her arms. “16 years of photojournalism and a lot of wars. I can say I have never seen what I saw today,” he wrote.
Videos on social media captured the horror of the blast and the sadness of its aftermath.
A video circulated of a Catholic priest celebrating mass on Tuesday right when the blast struck.
— Rayane Moussallem (@RioMoussallem) August 4, 2020
Another viral video showed a bride posing for photos right before the explosion.
Video of bride on wedding day in Beirut captures moment massive warehouse explosion ripped through the city pic.twitter.com/ZsH20S4TGt
— Reuters (@Reuters) August 5, 2020
Another video showed an elderly Lebanese woman playing her piano Wednesday in the rumble that was her home.
Video of elderly Lebanese woman at her home playing the piano while surrounded by broken glass and rubble, captures the spirit or #Beirut.
This city doesn’t give up and keeps rising from the ashes: pic.twitter.com/FUp1fuTGQK
— Joyce Karam (@Joyce_Karam) August 5, 2020
But with the sadness also came anger and a demand for answers about how this horror befell them.
The investigation into an explosion is focusing on how the 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive chemical used in fertilizers which caused the Beirut explosion, came to be stored at the port facility for six years, and why nothing was done about it.
The public’s anger has focused on the chromic mismanagement and corruption of the country’s ruling elites whose carelessness appears to have led to the disaster. The Port of Beirut and customs office is notorious for being one of the most corrupt and lucrative institutions in Lebanon where various factions and politicians, including Hezbollah, hold sway.
Fueling speculation that negligence was to blame for the accident, an official letter circulating online showed the head of the customs department had warned repeatedly over the years that the huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate stored in the port was a danger and had asked judicial officials for a ruling on a way to remove it.
The 2,750-ton cargo of ammonium nitrate had been stored at the port since it was confiscated from a ship in 2013, and on Tuesday it is believed to have detonated after a fire broke out nearby.
In the letter, the customs chief warned of the “dangers if the materials remain where they are, affecting the safety of (port) employees” and asked the judge for guidance. He said five similar letters were sent in 2014, 2015 and 2016. The letter proposes the material be exported or sold to a Lebanese explosives company. It is not known if there was a response.
Badri Daher, the head of the customs department, confirmed to the local LBC TV channel that there were five or six such letters to the judiciary. He said his predecessor also pleaded with the judiciary to issue orders to export the explosive materials “because of how dangerous they are” to the port and staff there.
Daher said it was his duty to “alert” authorities of the dangers but that is the most he could do. “I am not a technical expert.”
President Michael Aoun vowed before a Cabinet meeting that the investigation would be transparent and that those responsible will be punished.
“There are no words to describe the catastrophe that hit Beirut last night,” he said.
After the meeting, the Cabinet ordered an unspecified number of Beirut port officials put under house arrest pending the investigation.
This is unlikely to quell the long-simmering populist anger which has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and the country’s financial crisis.
Unlike the civil war days, this anger is non-sectarian. The Lebanese are united in their contempt for their entrenched and venal ruling class. Political factions have divided control of public institutions, including the port, using them to benefit their supporters, with little actual development. That has translated into crumbling infrastructure, power outages, and poor services.
“May the Virgin Mary destroy them and their families,” Joseph Qiyameh, a 79-year-old grocery store owner, said of the leadership. The blast damaged his store, his wife was hospitalized with injuries she suffered at home next door, and his arm was hurt. He doesn’t have the money to fix his business, with his savings locked up in banks by controls imposed during the financial crisis.
The country’s immediate concern is economic. A potential food crisis is looming before the devastated country, as the giant grain silo that stored 95 percent of the country’s grain was destroyed in the blast.
Economy and Trade Minister Raoul Nehme said all the wheat was contaminated and unusable. But he insisted Lebanon had enough for its immediate needs and would import more, according to the state news agency.
With the Port of Beirut destroyed, the government said imports and exports will be secured elsewhere, mostly in the northern city of Tripoli and the southern port of Tyre.
In the meantime, the world community has come to the small country’s aid, starting with France, which has been stalwart ally of the Mediterranean nation from the days when Lebanon was under the French Mandate.
Two planeloads of French rescue workers and aid headed to Beirut on Wednesday, and France’s President Emmanuel Macron is to arrive Thursday to offer support for the former French protectorate.
The countries retain close political and economic ties, and Lebanon proudly maintains an attachment to French culture and the French language as one of its official languages. In fact, over 32,000 Lebanese signed an online petition Wednesday calling for the country to return to the days of the French Mandate.
“Lebanon’s officials have clearly shown a total inability to secure and manage the country,” the petition reads. “With a failing system, corruption, terrorism and militia the country just reached it’s last breath. We believe Lebanon should go back under the French mandate in order to establish a clean and durable governance.”
Aid from other nations, including the United States, is expected in the days ahead. Several planes of medical equipment and supplies from Greece, Kuwait, Qatar, and elsewhere arrived at Beirut’s international airport. Turkey sent search-and-rescue teams, humanitarian aid, medical equipment and a field hospital, its Foreign Ministry said. The EU planned to send firefighters with vehicles, dogs, and equipment designed to find people trapped in debris.
Israel has also offered assistance. Tel Aviv’s city hall was lit with the image of Lebanon’s flag Wednesday night in a rare show of solidarity between the two nations which are still formally in a state of war with each other.
— ABC News (@ABC) August 6, 2020
Lebanon’s diaspora, estimated at nearly three times the size of the tiny country’s population of five million, has stepped up to provide assistance. Lebanese ex-pats around the world rushed to wire money to loved ones who lost their homes or were injured. Others worked to create special funds to address the tragedy.
“I’ve been on the phone all morning with … our partners in order to put together an alliance for an emergency fund in light of the explosion,” said George Akiki, co-founder and CEO of LebNet, a non-profit based in California’s Silicon Valley that helps Lebanese professionals in the United States and Canada. “Everyone, both Lebanese and non-Lebanese, wants to help.”
Rebecca Mansour is a Senior Editor-at-Large for Breitbart News. Follow her on Twitter at @RAMansour.
The Associated Press and AFP contributed to this report.