'I saw people flying': Eyewitnesses describes horror of Beirut explosion

Beirut explosion - Sarah Abdallah (Twitter)

When a massive explosion shook Beirut on Tuesday afternoon, shattering glass, toppling buildings and burying countless people under rubble, Ahmed Yassine was in his car, heading home from work.

At the moment of the explosion, which followed a smaller blast, Yassine, a senior producer at Alaraby TV, said he saw “a cloud of smoke” cover everything.

“My car jumped, I saw people flying,” he told CTV News Channel. “Stores, apartments, houses, everything fell down. People were screaming, running.”

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Video footage posted to social media shows the shocking moment that the second explosion hit, mere minutes after the first.

Towering plumes of smoke were already climbing into the sky from the port when a second, red cloud shot up — immediately surrounded by a dome of white as the shockwave of the explosion thrust outwards into the city, blowing out windows for kilometres.

The exact toll of the explosion is not yet known, but officials say more than 70 people were killed and more than 3,000 were injured. Hours after the explosion, ambulances were still carrying away the wounded.

The blast could be heard and felt in Cyprus, more than 200 kilometres away.

Yassine said he was around 4 kilometres from the radius of the explosion when it occurred, but luckily, escaped harm.

What he could not escape was the horror of the situation.

“Glass, stone, buildings cracking. It was really terrifying,” he said.

Nada Hamza, another resident of the city, was even closer to the blast when it reverberated through the city.

“I was in the street just behind the port of Beirut,” she told CTV News Channel over the phone, estimating that she was within one kilometre of the explosion.

Like Yassine, she had been in her car when she heard the first warning sounds of the devastation that was to come.

At first, she thought she heard “bombs,” she said. She rolled down her window to ask others in the street what was happening, thinking at first that it might be protesters having a “fight or clash with the government.”

Then the sound shifted. It sounded like airplanes, she said -- making those around her fear it could be an attack from Israel. There have been rising tensions recently between Lebanon and Israel.

“And then we saw the smoke, we saw the fire, we heard the explosion,” she said.

Unsure if the city was under attack or not, Hamza initially abandoned her vehicle.

“I left my car in the middle of the street. I ran away to hide in a building,” she said. “I was totally confused and scared.

“The street was almost destroyed.”

The scene of chaos reminded Yassine, he said, of watching Chernobyl, a television show that dramatized the infamous 1986 disaster at a nuclear plant with the same name in then-Soviet republic of Ukraine.

The comparison isn’t far off, as early reports indicate that the second, larger explosion, was a chemical explosion.

The first explosion, which occurred at 6:05 p.m. local time, Yassine said, was at a fireworks warehouse at the port. Three minutes later, the second explosion ripped through the area, potentially triggered by the first fire.

The chief of Lebanese General Security, Abbas Ibrahim, has said that the explosion may have been caused by highly explosive materials that had been confiscated by a ship and had been stored at the port for some time.

Local television channel LBC said the material was sodium nitrate.

Yassine said that although the city has weathered many crises, this explosion feels different.

“We faced wars … we survived many explosions. But this one is totally new. It’s another kind of explosion.”

The official death toll has risen continuously in the hours since the explosion, and is expected to continue rising as more victims are found and more of the wounded are treated.

It’s a huge blow to a city and country ravaged by a financial crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our hospitals are not that ready to hold too much people,” Hamza pointed out. “Because of COVID-19, our medical institutions in Lebanon and establishments are not well equipped.”

Already, she’s seen numerous acts of kindness among survivors, but acknowledged that the true toll of this tragedy is something they aren’t able to wrap their heads around yet.

“Lebanese people now are trying to help each other,” she said. “We’re trying to open doors for people who lost their places, our houses. We try as much as we can to help each other, but we’re still under the shock. We don’t know what’s going on.”

As the city moves forward and attempts to recover from this tragedy, Yassine said he wants accountability for how this could have occurred.

“[The sodium nitrate] was stored for more than a year without taking any precaution,” he said. “The authorities didn’t destroy these materials, in fact they kept it, they kept it stored without even warning anyone. Today, it exploded in the port.”

He hopes there will be justice.

“Someone must pay for that,” he said. “Especially the people who are responsible for storing such materials in a place where there is many people around.

“It’s a place where poor people live.”

Yassine pointed out that the explosion destroyed many resources stored at or near the port that the city needed in this “economical crisis,” such as a large supply of wheat.

Without the city’s port, “how are we able to survive?”

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