‘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.
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.
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.”