In A Horrific Instant, A Burst of Power that Ravaged Beirut

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The scene of the explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut is seen through a damaged apartment in Beirut, Lebanon, on Wednesday. Prime Minister Hassan Diab, in a short televised speech, has appealed to all countries and friends of Lebanon to extend help to the small nation, saying: “We are witnessing a real catastrophe.” — AP

Sarah El Deeb and Bassem Mroue

BEIRUT  — As black smoke billowed into the sky, Shiva Karout stepped out of his gym with his colleagues and customers to watch. His gym, Barbell House, sits just across the coastal highway from Beirut’s port where a fire raged. They were curious.

Then a first boom shook them, and curiosity turned to fear realising how close they were. “We got a bit scared, and we all went back in,” Karout recounted. Tense moments passed, waiting inside, and one of his customers panicked and ran out. Karout went after him.

That was when hell erupted. A gigantic explosion threw up a towering mushroom cloud and sucked out the air, and a wave of destructive energy shot across Lebanon’s capital.

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, were punctured with lacerations and clotted blood.

A survivor is taken out of the rubble after a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon on Wednesday. The explosion flattened much of a port and damaged buildings across Beirut, sending a giant mushroom cloud into the sky. In addition to those who died, more than 3,000 other people were injured, with bodies buried in the rubble, officials said. — AP

But his gym — and everyone still in it — took the brunt of the blast. It smashed out the windows, knocked holes in the walls. Blood now stains the welcome counter. One of his clients took a major head injury and lies in a coma in a hospital and nearly a dozen others sustained medium to serious injuries.

That flashing instant, when a heavy fire on the horizon turned into an unimaginable burst of megatonnage, united Beirutis in a shared trauma and on Wednesday, the day after, they were still reeling with it and its aftermath.

In multiple videos posted on social media, whether shot from high-rise balconies or nearby streets, that instant hits with the same blunt force: Rising black smoke, then a sudden freight train of dust and pink smoke that barrels across the city at the camera and sends it — and whoever holds it — tumbling amid wreckage and confusion.

As the initial pall of smoke rose on Tuesday afternoon, a team of 10 firefighters raced to the Port of Beirut to put out the fire raging in Warehouse 12, one a row of warehouses by the water’s edge next to the port’s large grain silo.

People remove debris from a damaged mosque a day after an explosion hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon on Wednesday. Residents of Beirut confronted a scene of utter devastation on Wednesday, a day after a massive explosion at the port rippled across the Lebanese capital, killing at least 100 people, wounding thousands and leaving entire city blocks flooded with glass and rubble. — AP

“They went down, thinking it was caused by fireworks,” one firefighter named Freddy said of his colleagues who first responded. He asked to be identified only by his first name to speak freely to the Associated Press about the events still under investigation. Pops and flashes lit up the smoke, and it was reported the initial fire set off a stash of fireworks stored there.

The team was at the epicenter when, at around 6:05 p.m., the giant explosion blasted a crater into the port and turned every building around to twisted metal. It is under investigation whether the fire touched off the cargo of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate — a highly explosive component of fertilizers — that had been stored there since 2013.

Freddy and the second team of firefighters arrived about 20 minutes later. They each took a section of the port. For the next 24 hours, they pulled out bodies — Freddy said he found 10 — but only one was of their fellow firefighters, Sahar.

“We were looking for our friends but there were also lots of people dead,” he said, standing at the main road, covered in soot and his face darkened with dust, smoke and sorrow. “It is total destruction inside. Nothing is where it should be.”

His eyes welled with tears at the thought of losing his colleagues and his city. Lebanon is used to destruction, but not like this. “Not a house on the coast has not 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 famed seaside promenade were reduced to rubble in the blast.

Citizens ride their scooters and motorcycles pass in front of a house that was destroyed in Tuesday’s massive explosion in the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday. — AP

On Wednesday, Beirutis searched for missing relatives and bandaged 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.

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 stench of alcohol from broken bottles filled some narrow alleys, as if the neighborhood’s late night parties had turned bad. Nuns toured the churches along the streets, offering prayers and help. Supermarket owners filled plastic bags with the few remaining products in good shape— one saying he will take what is left home to use before it rots in the summer heat.

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