BEIRUT (AP) – When black smoke billowed into the sky, Shiva Karout walked out of her gym with her colleagues and customers to watch. His gym, Barbell House, is located just along the coastal road from the port of Beirut where a fire broke out. They were curious.
Then a first boom shook them, and the curiosity turned to fear to realize how close they were. “We got a little scared and we all went back in,” Karout said. Tense moments passed, waiting inside, and one of his customers panicked and ran out. Karout went after him.
That was when hell broke out. A giant explosion threw up a tall mushroom cloud and sucked out the air and a wave of destructive energy shot over Lebanon̵
The force threw Karout to the ground. He was cut and bruised, his full arm and leg tattoos of the Hindu god Shiva, after whom he is named, punctured with laces and blood clots.
But his gym – and everyone still in it – took the plunge. It shattered the windows, punched holes in the walls. Blood stains now the welcome desk. One of his clients suffered a head injury and is in a coma in a hospital and almost a dozen others received medium to severe injuries.
The flashing moment, when a heavy fire on the horizon turned into an unimaginable burst of megatonnage, united Beirutis in a shared trauma and on Wednesday the next day they were still rolling with it and its aftermath..
In several videos posted on social media, whether shot from high-rise buildings or balconies nearby, it immediately strikes with the same blunt force: Rising black smoke, then a sudden freight train of dust and pink smoke that barrels over the city at the camera and sends it – and anyone who holds it – tumbles amidst wrecks and confusion.
When the initial smoke movement rose on Tuesday afternoon, a team of 10 firefighters competed to the port of Beirut to put out the fire that raged in warehouse 12, a row of warehouses at the water’s edge next to the port’s large grain silo.
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“They went down and thought it was caused by fireworks,” a firefighter named Freddy said of his colleagues who first responded. He asked to be identified only by his first name in order to speak freely with the Associated Press about the events that are still under investigation. Pops and lightning lit up the smoke, and it was reported that the original fire started a stack of fireworks stored there.
The team was on the episode when the giant explosion around 18:05 blew up a crater in the harbor and turned every building into twisted metal. It is under investigation whether the fire affected the cargo of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate – a highly explosive fertilizer component – that had been stored there since 2013.
Freddy and the other team of firefighters arrived about 20 minutes later. They each took part of the port. For the next 24 hours, they pulled out bodies – Freddy said he found 10 – but only one was one of their fellow firefighters, Sahar.
“We were looking for our friends but there were also many people dead,” he said, standing by the main road, covered in soot and his face darkened by dust, smoke and grief. “It’s total destruction inside. Nothing is where it should be. “
His eyes watered with tears at the thought of losing his colleagues and his city. Lebanon is used to destruction, but not like this. “No house on the coast has been damaged,” he said.
At least 130 people were killed and more than 5,000 wounded and elegant stone buildings, fashionable shopping districts and long stretches of the famous promenade were reduced to rubble. in the explosion.
On Wednesday, Beirutis searched for missing relatives and bandaged their wounds. They examined damaged homes, assessed whether they could stay in them, retrieve what property they could and looked for places to live.
“We do not deserve this,” said Riwa Baltagi, a 23-year-old who helped friends retrieve valuables from their demolished homes.
The sound of ambulance sirens and crackling glass shards could be heard everywhere. Furniture and pillows were strewn along streets covered with wrecks. Elevators were moved from their shoulders. Cars were crushed under the weight of debris.
Some of the worst damage was in the leafy neighborhoods of Mar Mikhael and Gemayzeh in eastern Beirut, where the blast damaged some of the few historic buildings that survived the 1975-1990 civil war. Balconies had sunk to street level, where bars and restaurants were buried and chairs and tables turned upside down.
The stench of alcohol from broken bottles filled some narrow alleys, as if the late nights of the neighborhood had gone bad. Nuns toured the churches along the streets, praying and praying for help. Supermarket owners filled plastic bags with the few remaining products in good shape – one that says he will take what is left at home to use before it rots in the summer.
“I have nowhere to go,” said one woman as she cried in the remnants of her home in Gemayzeh. “What should I do?” she shouted into her cell phone.
Throughout the night, radio presenters read the names of missing or injured people. An Instagram page called “Locate the victims in Beirut” filled with photos of missing people. Another account helped connect the displaced to hotels and homeowners who were willing to host them.
Hospitals, which are already struggling with the financial crisis and the coronavirus pandemic, were overwhelmed by the damage. Many patients had to be treated in corridors and parking lots when the wards were filled.
Karout, the gym owner, said a “complete mess” followed the shock of the first explosion. Three hospitals in the area were in orbit of the explosion and were shut down for operation and could not offer treatment. Others could not help. “They are not equipped for such things,” he said. “We are not equipped.”
Now he mourns Barbell’s fate. The blast has destroyed what he said was the fruit of years of “really hard work.”
“Who will pay for this?” he said. “This is not fixable.”
“Beirut is already gone.”
Associated Press author Aya Batrawy contributed to this report from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.