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An apocalyptic moment

Massive blast hit a Lebanon that was already in crisis

An apocalyptic moment

An injured man walks near the explosion scene that hit the Beirut seaport on Aug. 4. (Hussein Malla/AP)

Muthanna and Fahed worked the front desk at the Golden Tulip Hotel in midtown Beirut when they heard what sounded like a bomb. They headed toward the hotel’s floor-to-ceiling glass entryway to see what was happening when the true explosion struck. 

Nearly 3,000 metric tons of ammonium nitrate ignited in Beirut’s main port downtown at about 6 p.m. on Aug. 4, sending an orange mushroom cloud and a powerful shock wave over the city. 

Security camera footage captured what happened at the Golden Tulip, 6 miles from the blast site. The high-pressure shock wave, traveling faster than the speed of sound, sent a rain of exploding glass across the hotel lobby, thrusting Muthanna and Fahed back behind the desk. 

Fahed received cuts on his wrist and forehead. Muthanna, a Syrian refugee who came to Lebanon in 2015 after his father was killed in an airstrike, wasn’t injured. 

The explosion killed at least 157 people and injured more than 5,000. One week later, 150 people remained missing despite an international search and rescue effort. Damaged structures have left 300,000 people without shelter in a city of just under 2 million. The blast wave destroyed vessels at sea within a 1-mile radius, including cargo vessels and a UN maritime task force docked in port. 

Beirut’s explosion, caught on camera and spread widely via social media, captured an apocalyptic moment in what to many feels like an apocalyptic year. For Lebanese, already living through an economic and political crisis, the explosion is more than symbolic of all they’ve already endured. The blast crater—now opened 43 meters deep with buckled warehouse hulks stretched for miles around it—sits at what had been the center of commerce. Yet for months the country has tottered at insolvency, its currency losing 90 percent of its value, its bank reserve drained by wealthy politicians and international launderers, including Hezbollah.

Patrick Baz/AFP via Getty Images

A Lebanese man sits on the balcony of his damaged apartment two days after the blast. (Patrick Baz/AFP via Getty Images)

The blast destroyed 100 percent of the country’s grain reserves, said David Beasley, executive director of the UN World Food Program. “The explosion impacts this city,” he told me in Beirut on Aug. 11, “but the loss of the port and its silos impacts the whole country.” Without international help, he said, the city may have only a 2½ weeks’ supply of bread.

The blast sent hundreds of patients to area hospitals the first night, many facilities already strained by a surge in COVID-19 cases across the Middle East. During the week of the blast, Lebanon recorded 309 new cases of the coronavirus and seven deaths in one 24-hour period, a record. 

As residents learned the government knew of the ammonium nitrate stockpiled at the port and did nothing to remove the dangerous chemical, they stormed government buildings and occupied Parliament on Aug. 7, demanding the government resign. On Aug. 10 it did.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab, in office just seven months, announced his Cabinet’s fall: “This disaster is the result of chronic corruption,” he said. “The corruption network is bigger than the state.”

And then it rained, a downpour complicating life for thousands made homeless and for other residents seeking the outdoors for social distancing. It never rains in Lebanon in August, and Beirut’s cleanup crews and pedestrians stopped to stand in the middle of glass-strewn streets, looking at the sky, wondering what’s next.

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy wrote WORLD Magazine's first cover story in 1986 and went on to serve as international editor, editor, and now senior editor. She has covered wars in Syria, Afganistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C. Follow her on Twitter @mcbelz.

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  • Cyborg3's picture
    Cyborg3
    Posted: Thu, 08/13/2020 09:59 pm

    Informative article that was well written!