Beirut blast: a night of horror, captured by its victims

Lebanon’s August explosion was one of the largest non-nuclear blasts ever. Survivors tell their stories using the media they recorded on their smartphones

Warning: this interactive contains audio, photos and videos that some may find distressing.

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"It’s like an atomic bomb ... It’s like the end of the world."
"Oh shit. What the fuck is that? What happened? What happened? [SCREAMING]"
"We’re covered in blood. We need an ambulance, please ..."
"The ER is broken. They're taking the sick people out of here, the whole hospital is destroyed."
"Look what's happening, look! [SCREAMING] They're going to kill us! Kill us! [SOBBING]"
"I'm trying to reach Alex and Eva. Everything is destroyed. It's worse than the 2006 war ..."
"Please, listen ... [EXPLOSION] [SCREAMING] Mum! Mum! Mum!
This is a subtitle....

‘Everything was falling’

One hundred days since the blast in the heart of Beirut, memories are not fading. “Sometimes I feel like the ground is shaking, exactly as it was before the explosion,” says Tilda Wakim, who owns a home goods showroom on the edge of the city’s port. “I don’t just remember it. I feel it shake.”

Flashbacks are not her only record of what she and her family underwent on the evening of 4 August.

The detonation of more than 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate housed at the Beirut port for more than seven years was one of the largest non-nuclear blasts ever recorded – and the first of its scale in the smartphone era.

As soon as a fire erupted at the port shortly before 6pm that day, people in Beirut started filming, taking pictures and recording messages. What they captured forms an extraordinary record of the disaster in the city as its residents experienced it. The Guardian, in collaboration with the Arabic podcasting network Sowt, has collected some of their accounts and presented them in the timeline below.

‘We thought it was just another assassination’

Fouad Wakim, Tilda’s son, was at work in the family’s showroom when he received a video of the fire raging at a warehouse nearby. At 6.07pm, about half a minute before the main explosion, he heard a dull blast. “It sounded like the explosions we used to hear when they were assassinating politicians,” he says. “We thought it was just another assassination.”

In his apartment in Gemmayze, a suburb a few hundred metres from the port, Jean-Paul Rahal had been watching a political talk show with his mother when the host mentioned reports of the fire. “My mum told me, ‘JP, pack your bags. We have to go, something is happening’,” he recalled.

She filled a bag and he grabbed his passport. Before they left, Jean-Paul noticed the balcony door was still open and went to close it.

In the basement of the home goods showroom, Tilda had also heard the first explosion. The floor beneath them was rumbling. “Did you hear that?” a colleague asked.

She had just enough time to say yes, she says. “And then everything was falling.”

Note: No one was killed or seriously injured in the following videos.

The chaotic first hours

The explosion blanketed the city in dust and rubble. Over the next hours - depicted in our timeline - Tilda and others fought to save themselves and each other, and piece together what had happened.

0mins after explosion
4 Aug
0mins after explosion
Site of explosions
6:10pm
Site of explosions

Tilda

Miele showroom, Saifi district

The explosion plunged the basement where Tilda was working into darkness, and sent the glass wall of an elevator crashing over her. She was conscious, she says, but knew she was bleeding. “I couldn’t see it, but I could feel the liquid,” she says.

As a younger woman, Tilda had volunteered with the Red Cross. She remembered the training, and scrambled to find her handbag. “I know when a wound is fresh you don’t feel it, but maybe 15 minutes later you might faint,” she says.

“I was preparing myself with my ID and everything.”

Upstairs, an unharmed Fouad was scouring the showroom for his mother.

“Tilda!” he shouted. Repeated screams were captured on the CCTV of the shattered building.

6:14pm
Site of explosions

Mousa

Café Em Nazih, Saifi district

Mousa Saleh was not supposed to be staying in a hotel in Gemmayze. But when his brother contracted Covid-19, the family cleared out of the house so he could isolate, and Mousa, 24, found himself working in a hotel room about 400m from the Beirut port.

In the split-second before he heard the explosion, and then felt its force, he remembered thinking a gas bottle must have blown up in a cafe downstairs.

The blast sent glass shattering over him. An air-conditioning unit crashed over his desk and the door blew off its hinges. “I had no idea what was happening,” he says. “All I was thinking was I need to run.”

Mousa grabbed his laptop and, barefoot, sprinted down the stairs of his hotel towards the exit. “I was still thinking something had happened at [the cafe] Em Nazih,” he says. “It had blown up and people were coming out [of the rooms] bloody and there was debris on the stairs.”

In the first voice message he sent, at 6.14pm, he could only stammer: “What happened? What happened? It’s exploded, it’s exploded. [The cafe] Em Nazih has collapsed. Everything has collapsed.”

As he emerged into the streets, he took pictures of what he saw. “I realised it wasn’t a problem at Em Nazih,” he says. “The streets were full of dust and people were running around bloody and injured and crying and confused. And there were people lying on the ground.”

Mousa took a photo of the nearby streets as he emerged from Café Em Nazih.
6:15pm
Site of explosions

Fouad

Miele showroom, Saifi district

Crossing a showroom scattered with broken glass, Fouad managed to reach the basement and free his mother and her colleague. Tilda’s head was gushing blood. They emerged from the showroom into a scene of devastation.

Tilda and Fouad Wakim outside the Miele showroom. Photo: Wakim family.

“Where is your brother?” Tilda kept asking Fouad. Omar, her younger son, was a few hundred metres away at home in the portside neighbourhood of Mar Mikhael. Fouad surveyed the damage around them - briefly filming it - and told his mother not to worry. The explosion had been here, near the showroom, and would not have reached Omar’s house.

“I thought maybe it was a car bomb,” said Tilda. “Then I started seeing wounded people coming from other directions. I thought, if it was a car bomb, they would be coming to help. Why are they panicking too? I couldn’t get the answers straight in my head.”

Tilda flagged down a passerby, and used his undershirt to wrap her head wound. Fouad spotted a neighbour’s undamaged car about to scream from the scene. He stopped him, and without asking, opened the back door and guided his wounded mother inside.

0:07
Fouad Wakim's footage of the street outside his family's showroom.
6:17pm
Site of explosions

Jean-Paul

Armenia Street

Jean-Paul knew the explosion had been massive. He had seen it with his own eyes, storming towards him at the balcony door. “I saw the white smoke, the white cloud,” he said. “As I was flying from the balcony, five or six metres into the living room, the only thought in my head was - this is an atomic bomb.”

The blast had made shrapnel of his household possessions. “My forehead was like a waterfall,” he says. “There was a big hole in my wrist. I was bleeding a lot.”

A shard of glass was embedded in his mother’s ankle, but she could walk, and they wrapped each other’s wounds in towels and made their way into the street below.

“It wasn’t even a war zone,” he recalls. “It was apocalyptic.” There were injured people, dead bodies, and body parts scattered among the debris. But what struck him hardest was the silence.

“It was dead quiet,” he says. “No one was screaming, no one was running. Everyone was walking quietly, not saying a word.”

Within a few minutes, Jean-Paul’s brother would reach the house to collect some of their things. He filmed the disarray he found.

0:14
Jean-Paul’s brother filmed the chaos in the street outside once he arrived at the house.
6:18pm
Site of explosions

Mousa(cont.)

Café Em Nazih, Saifi district

In the street outside his hotel, Mousa could see a thick plume of smoke in the distance. He started receiving messages from friends saying there had been an explosion in the city. He was dazed and still without shoes.

“I wasn’t injured but I was walking on glass and I couldn’t find a place to stand where I wouldn’t be cut,” he said.

He made it to Gemmayze’s main thoroughfare, and sat for a moment on the sidewalk. For the first time, he says, he started to comprehend what was happening around him.

“I’m afraid of blood, and when I started seeing blood coming out of people, and then people dead on the street - people couldn’t get them to wake up - and I was barefoot and people were running and glass was all over the ground,” he says.

“I think at that point I realised people had died and I was alive.”

His body went numb and his hands tightened into fists. A panic attack washed over him. “My parents, my friends were calling me but I couldn’t pick up the phone to answer because I couldn’t move my hands,” he says.

At 6.18pm he sent a short, anguished voice note. All he could get out was: “There’s someone dying on the ground.”

6:27pm
Site of explosions

Maya

City Centre shopping mall, Hazmieh

Maya Nehme had been running errands with her daughter in a mall in Hazmieh, a neighbourhood around 7km from the Beirut port. Even at that distance, “the power went off and we heard something explode”, she said.

The mall suffered damage and parts of it were covered in fine debris. “I was shocked and said for sure something in the mall had blown up,” Maya, 52, said as she and others shoppers were escorted to the entrance.

Outside the centre, she saw a huge cloud of smoke over her neighbourhood Ashrafieh. “That’s what I started shaking,” she says. “I got scared and thought of my kids, the two at home.”

When she finally got through to her children on the landline, “I heard my daughter screaming”, she says.

“My son was telling me the whole house was damaged but they were OK, and nobody had an idea what had happened.”

There were rumours of a terrorist bombing or an Israeli attack. Maya reached her car 20 minutes after the blast, and started driving towards the smoke.

6:45pm
Site of explosions

Jean-Paul(cont.)

Soeurs du Rosaire, Gemmayzeh

The further up Armenia street that Jean-Paul and his mother walked towards the Rosary hospital, the worse the destruction seemed to get.

“I kept seeing the pictures of two saints: Saint Therese and Padre Pio,” Jean- Paul recalls. He was not especially religious, he says, “but I started to pray, just within myself.”

Jean-Paul and his mother felt relief as they approached the Rosary hospital, until it came into view. It was gutted.

“The emergency entrance was totally gone,” he said. A security guard stopped anyone from entering.

He was coming out of shock now, and Jean-Paul started to feel panic. “I thought, if the other hospitals are going to be in the same state - what do I do? Go to a hospital in the mountains? But how do I get there? And I’m going to lose more blood - someone has to close my wounds before I bleed to death. All these thoughts started flooding in.”

As they had been trudging up the street, his mother had taken Jean-Paul’s picture.

Later, when he asked her why - amid that tumult - she had thought to do so, she told him it was in case neither of them survived. “Then someone will know where we were, and what happened to us,” she said.

Jean-Paul's mother photographed him near the hospital.
6:58pm
Site of explosions

Maya(cont.)

Adib Ishak Street

As Maya approached her neighbourhood, the road turned from gravel to glass. Rumours were circulating that a stash of fireworks had detonated, but it was clear this was something much larger. “It’s like during the war,” Maya said in a message. “The glass, the surroundings - it’s something horrible. For sure, it’s not fireworks.”

People with bloody faces and heads were mobbing the hospitals as she passed. “I can’t even drive anymore,” she said in a message at 7.02pm, her rage building at the country’s leaders, already implicated in plunging the country into a deep financial crisis.

“You should see Sodeco, see the injured people going to Rizk hospital. It’s unacceptable. We don’t want to live in this country anymore. Fuck them!”

Three minutes later she recorded another voice message, declaring she was done with Lebanon for good, and leaving for the Gulf where her husband works.

“The sight in Ashrafieh is frightening, around my house,” she said. “I haven’t even arrived and I’m shaking. Enough, I’m going to Saudi Arabia. It’s finished.”

7:28pm
Site of explosions

Tilda(cont.)

Clémenceau Medical Center

By the time Tilda arrived at the Clemenceau Medical Centre, it was already inundated with the injured and dying. There were pools of blood on the floors and doctors were struggling to treat more than a handful of people at a time.

With the undershirt still wrapped around her head, Tilda started helping medical staff cover people’s wounds. She found herself seeking out the young men around her sons’ ages. “The whole time I looked at these guys thinking, oh my god, their mother must be worried the way I am about my sons,” she says.

The injured had come from all the areas surrounding the Beirut port, including one young man from Mar Mikhael, her son Omar’s neighbourhood. “There’s even damage there?” Tilda asked him, her chest tightening.

Mar Mikhael had been levelled, he told her.

"I couldn't think anymore," she says. "My whole body went numb."

The realisation had struck Fouad, too. His calls to Omar returned a dead signal. He shouted a desperate voice message to his friends:

“Ask about my brother, please, see where my brother is. I can’t find him! I can’t find him!”


Where was Omar?

It had been hard to miss the huge fire that was billowing from Beirut’s port by 6pm that day. Omar had seen it from the window of his house. When he had heard the first, smaller explosion, he had scrambled to start recording the scene outside. It was five seconds before the blast.

Omar's destroyed phone was found by a clean-up volunteer days later in the rubble outside the family's house. It was repaired and returned to the family. They opened to the last saved video.

Omar filmed the explosion from his window. The following footage shows the shockwave coming towards where he was standing.
This was the moment at which his phone was blown out of his hands as the shock wave carried him across the room.

The videos on either side show the full extent of the explosions.
0:12
0:16
0:12
0:09
Reuters, Latin America News Agency. Still images: GABY SALEM/ESN/AFP/Getty Images

What happened next

The force of the blast had lifted Omar off his feet and across the room. He had remained conscious, but was badly hurt and barely able to see. Crumpled in the debris, Omar had thought of his girlfriend, who lived across the street; he had summoned his strength to get up and try to reach her, feeling his way out of the house with his hands.

Friends of the brothers had heard Fouad’s messages and were scrambling to help find Omar. The first to make it to the devastated site saw a familiar figure outside the house. Omar had made it down four flights of stairs, found a pair of slippers somewhere, and managed to walk a few metres from the house.

The handprints Omar left on the wall as he managed to make his way out of the flat.

“Our friend found my brother sitting down in the street,” Fouad said. “He threw him in the back of the van and he called me to ask where he should take him, because the hospitals were completely full.”

The family were lucky. Fouad’s fiancee’s father was a gynaecologist with a clinic in the mountains. The doctor summoned his nursing staff and told them to start preparing for Omar’s arrival.

In the back of the van, Omar was barely conscious for the journey. But he could still glean some details, Tilda says. (Omar was still recovering and could not be interviewed for this story.) “They told him in the car, your father is asking after you,” Tilda says. “Automatically, Omar said, my mother is hurt. Because why else would they say ‘your father’, and not ‘your parents’?”

Across Beirut, people had answered the call of the blast, and swarmed the port area trying to help. One was a young man on a scooter from the western neighbourhood of Verdun, who found Jean-Paul outside the second overwhelmed hospital he had been turned away from that night, in real fear now that he might bleed to death in the streets. He ferried him to another, larger medical centre.

Another was a doctor from central Beirut’s Makassed hospital, who had heard the blast as she was driving from her shift, and headed straight towards the sound. She picked up Jean-Paul’s mother, who led her to Jean-Paul in a jammed waiting room in the third hospital. “There were so many old people who were wounded, every metre of the hospital there was someone sitting on the floor, all bleeding,” he says.

Jean-Paul was taken to a different hospital where he received urgent treatment.

The doctor saw Jean-Paul needed urgent treatment, and took him to her own hospital. There, more than two hours after the blast, he finally had the cuts on his forehead, ear and wrist stapled.

At about 9.30pm, Tilda reached the Mt Lebanon hospital, where her son Omar was receiving 160 stitches, including over a bone-deep wound on his forehead. “When I saw him, I fainted,” Tilda said. “People had been telling me he was OK, but when I saw him, I saw they were lying to me.”

She finally allowed doctors to treat what they told her was a severe head wound. “That was when I felt like I finally woke up,” she said, pausing for a moment. “Like waking up from hell.”

Mousa was given shoes by a passerby outside his hotel, and picked up by someone else and taken to a hospital, where he received treatment for the cuts on his feet and told to get some rest. He still had no idea what had happened in Beirut until he opened his social media that night and saw videos of the explosion at the port.

He went back to his hotel room the next day to collect his belongings. He was astounded at the state of the room he had run from unharmed. “The thing I think about most is, I could’ve died in that moment – with any piece of glass in my neck or eyes or wherever,” he says. “I lived in a moment where others died.”

Mousa photographed the ruins of a street nearby Café Em Nazi when he returned the following day.

Three months on

The death toll from the blast has exceeded 200, with some of the more than 6,500 injured dying from their wounds in the months since. A preliminary estimate from the University of Sheffield says the blast was one-twentieth the size of that unleashed by the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Neither Tilda and her family, nor Jean-Paul or anyone profiled in this story have received compensation from a 100bn Lebanese pound rebuilding package unveiled by the government. The fund is worth around $13m at the market rate, far less than what is required to repair the estimated 80,000 homes and buildings damaged.

The Wakim family in the showroom, October 2020. Photo: Daniel S Carde for the Guardian

Nobody has been charged over the ammonium nitrate, which subsequent investigations have shown was flagged as a threat repeatedly, including in the weeks leading up to the blast.

Jean-Paul and his mother have fully recovered and their house has been repaired.

The Wakim family’s showroom is slowly being rebuilt with the assistance of Miele, the German company whose products they stock. With one difference: the glass facades of the former showroom will be replaced with metal sheeting. “We’ve been told the situation is not getting better, so we need to protect what’s left of the showroom,” Tilda says.

The Rahals, October 2020. Photo: Daniel S Carde for the Guardian

She says the Lebanese are used to rebuilding, but this time feels different. “We don’t have that feeling of being safe at home anymore,” she says. “Death feels like it’s just underneath your feet, it’s very near you.”

Mousa has left Beirut and is unsure if he will ever return permanently. Maya says she was certain she would finally leave after the blast, but not anymore. “Whenever I listen to the music of [the Lebanese singer] Fairouz, her song For Beirut,” she says. “I think, no, I can’t leave my house, my memories, my childhood. There is no way.”

Main photo: AFP/Getty Images, Guardian composite