The Lebanese obstetrician was prepping to deliver a baby at Beirut’s St George Hospital, when thousands of tonnes of explosive material detonated less than a kilometre away at the capital’s main port.
Two of Professor Elie Anastasiades’ team of midwives were injured in the blast which ripped open the room, showering windows, doors, metal beams and chunks of the ceiling onto the mother in labour and the medical crew below.
Just metres away on the same floor, a nurse was killed.
Despite sustaining injuries himself, and amid the glass and debris, Prof Anastasiadis knew he had to continue the delivery otherwise the baby and the mother might not survive.
The baby boy was born safely, by the lights of the team’s mobile phones.
“The problem was the evacuation of the building, we had to deliver there and then or she would be in labour in transit,” he tells The Independent.
“We had no choice but to continue.”
St George hospital, one of the largest in Lebanon, overlooks Beirut port and so was gutted in last week’s blast that killed over 170 people and wounded 6,000 more.
New dizzying CCTV footage of the explosion, shared with The Independent, shows the impact the blast had on the hospital, and especially the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), where several Covid-19 patients were intubated at the time.
The medical complex, one of the main facilities treating coronavirus patients, is one of six major hospitals and 20 clinics that sustained material or heavy structural damage from the blast, according to a UN report released on Friday.
Aid agencies and rights groups fear this will have a devastating long-term impact on the country’s already ravaged healthcare system and its ability to handle the coronavirus pandemic.
A few minutes before the explosion, CCTV cameras show staff and visitors across the medical facility being startled by a smaller blast.
In the ICU, on the third floor, the nurse goes to the window to check.
By the time she sits back down the pressure wave from the main explosion hits – tearing the tiles, windows and doors from the walls and ceiling. Steel beams fly across the room in tandem with heavy ward doors and steel cabinets.
As the smoke and dust settles in the dark, she scrambles over the counter. Dazed medics, spattered in blood, pick their way through the debris to check on the patients.
Four nurses are instantly killed, one on the sixth floor decapitated by a shard of glass, workers said.
In addition 13 patients and visitors also do not make it.
Among them are five intubated patients, including one suffering from Covid-19. The blast destroyed the hospital’s power supply, generator and back-up batteries, meaning their ventilators stopped working.
“No elevator was functioning, there was no electricity, so we divided the teams into groups of 10 for every floor. They were climbing stairs with the lights of their cell phones,” recalls Alexander Nehme, the hospitals’ chief medical officer.
“Triage was performed on every floor. We left the dead in place, and succeeded in evacuating with our own hands and with sheets, any of the 160 patents who were still alive,” he adds.
Despite being wounded and bleeding, hospital staff pull their colleagues and patients out from underneath the rubble and then in the complex’s car park immediately start treating the newly injured from the neighbourhood.
They had no other choice, as every single floor from the ground up has been “ripped out”, Dr Nehme continues.
“It was like a skeleton. We were completely non-functional,” he says.
St George was one of the country’s main facilities treating coronavirus patients and offering PCR tests. Its 18 Covid-19 patients had to be evacuated, and two died.
It has had to shut down those wards.
The International Rescue Committee warned this week that the number of Covid-19 cases in Beirut has surged by a third since the blast hit on 4 August.
New daily infection rate records have been set over the last seven days.
Lebanon was already in the grips of an unprecedented financial crisis which had hampered its efforts to response to the pandemic.
Before the blast the country was under a reimposed lockdown as the case number had started to rise. Social distancing is near impossible with a large clean-up and rescue operation under way and the fact tens of thousands have now been made homeless.
Sami Sadi, part of the hospital’s administration says they are not sure when they will be able to rebuild most of the hospital, let alone open the coronavirus wards.
“It would take a year to get back to normal and as much as $25m to get the hospital functioning again,” he says from an office with no roof.
Dr Nehme adds no one could be equipped for a blast of this intensity.
“This was beyond any emergency plan you could ever imagine.”