The twisted and mangled heap of steel that used to be Beirut’s port stretched to both horizons; to the left, battered skyscrapers seemed hunched in defeat and an empty highway strewn with wrecked cars led through a heat haze the other way.
A traffic barrier was covered in the bloody handprints of those who had somehow survived the cataclysmic blast and had staggered into the apocalyptic aftermath.
Ground zero of the explosion that destroyed much of the Lebanese capital was an enormous arc of warehouses, restaurants, homes and shops that, until Tuesday evening, were the still functioning heart of an already dying city.
Day broke on Wednesday to a very different reality. Much of east Beirut is no longer habitable, something which the few residents and shopkeepers picking through their wrecked businesses tacitly acknowledge. “I don’t know how we’re going to get through this,” said Issam Nassir, the manager of a tyre shop that stood next to a building that used to house a travel agent, a pizza parlour, and an upmarket bar – all destroyed. “Do you really think Hiroshima could have been worse than this?”
Across the road, a shop selling coffins had also been damaged. Some lay on their side, others had been blown open. Even a business in such high demand was unable to reopen. Throughout the morning landmarks around the Gemmayze district, a hub of cafes, pubs and restaurants, which had risen and fallen with Beirut’s fluctuating postwar fortunes, were being identified by locals as places where the explosion had hit hardest.
“Six elderly people were sitting on their chairs over there,” said Malik, 36, an Iraqi migrant worker from Mosul. “I swear death stalks me wherever I go.”
Like almost every other eatery, Le Chef, one of the last cheap restaurants in the city, was heavily damaged. It’s co-owner, Charbel Bassil, a laconic host for nearly 40 years was catapulted into a fridge and was now recovering at home.
Wounded patrons in the restaurant were first taken to the nearby St George hospital, up the hill from the port, and in its direct line of sight. The hospital had taken the full brunt of the explosion and medics inside lay dead and dying. Senior medics reached a conclusion – unthinkable in almost any other circumstance – to turn people away.
“I could not treat people,” said one doctor who did not want be named. “We had no power. Some of my colleagues were trapped. And there are still pieces falling from the ceiling today.
“Most of our intensive care patients died. They were there before this happened, and they should be included in the death toll. Their deaths will haunt me for a long time.”
At the nearby Hospital Dieu, which became one of the city’s main casualty centres, Dr Fady Haddad, a professor of internal medicine and immunology, was enlisted as a trauma specialist.
“We had a lot of spleen ruptures, severe blast injuries. Not less than 400. These are severe cases. We were overwhelmed. We couldn’t find some materials. We needed to enlist student doctors and residents. We also had to treat many colleagues. And we all knew people in our families or among our friends who were suffering.
“I used to be in the Red Cross and we saw many things like this but nothing nearly as huge. In the emergency room for the first time we couldn’t take care of all the casualties we had. We had to open at least 60 rooms on other floors to take emergency patients. We had 10 surgery rooms open simultaneously and surgeons operated all night till 8am. I lost two of my friends.”
Anger at the Lebanese government and distrust at what might come next burned deep among the city’s medics. In a country already ravaged by an economic implosion caused in large part by decades of unchecked official corruption, calls by politicians for international aid have been met with deep scepticism.
“If any country wants to help us, please help institutions you can trust,” said Haddad. “Not through the government.”
On one of the most agonising days in Beirut’s tumultuous history, a sense of injustice was everywhere. “Macron is coming here tomorrow and they will think they are now off the hook,” said Boutros Faris, a shopkeeper. “They have been stalling on reforms, and now they’ll think they don’t have to make them. This will be the old days when states turn up with cheque books and the money disappears. I hope the French president gets this.”
As a warm morning gave way to a sultry afternoon, attention seemed to collectively shift to what had caused such carnage and whether anyone would be held to account for it.
A massive shipment of around 2,750 tonnes of the chemical ammonium nitrate, stored in several warehouses after being unloaded from a rickety Russian freighter six years ago was identified by authorities as the source of the explosion. Arguments quickly escalated over why such a compound had been allowed to remain near the heart of the capital and who had authorised it.
“How they end up justifying this is going to be very interesting,” said Makram Khaddaj, 41, a lawyer. “If this is found to be on the orders of one of the elites, this will be made to go away. Or they’ll charge a bureaucrat.”
Lebanese officials promised a five-day investigation phase, during which any official linked to the decision would be placed under house arrest, then possibly charged.
Former port worker Yusuf Shehadi told the Guardian the Lebanese military had told him and other port workers to store the chemicals, despite repeated protests by other government departments. “We complained a lot about this over the years. Every week, the customs people came and complained and so did the state security officers. The army kept telling them they had no other place to put this. Everyone wanted to be the boss, and no one wanted to make a real decision. There was a lot of fighting about this subject. And all the official requests we received were placed into a drawer. Nobody ever acted on things.”
Grappling with the cause of such a catastrophic event looms as yet another test for a government that has failed to convince many Lebanese that it is up to implementing a stated goal of introducing accountability.
“If they don’t deliver here, many people will leave the country for good,” said Sarah Mansour. “I will the moment I can.”
Ammonium nitrate is a common industrial chemical used mainly for fertiliser because it is a good source of nitrogen for plants. It is also one of the main components in mining explosives.
It is not explosive on its own, rather it is an oxidiser, drawing oxygen to a fire – and therefore making it much more intense. However, it ignites only under the right circumstances, and these are difficult to achieve.
While ammonium nitrate can in fact put out a fire, if the chemical itself is contaminated, for example with oil, it becomes highly explosive.
Beirut’s governor said 300,000 people had already left the city for other parts of the country. Many are unable to return to shattered homes, some of which have already been condemned by surveyors who picked through ruins with owners on Wednesday.
Huge piles of broken windows and doors stood on the sides of roads, while pebble-sized pieces covered the ground like snow. By day’s end, the cars that had weaved a slow path through clogged streets had turned the glass to powder. Parts of Beirut looked like a summer blizzard had come and gone. That didn’t last long though.
Civic workers and community teams with shovels and buckets were busy throughout the day turning ruins into structures that looked more manageable if money ever arrived to get things working again.
Water was being handed out to anyone who wanted it in Gemmayze and nearby Mar Mikhaël.
Nearby, the smell of spilt alcohol reeked from ruined bars. A UN convoy crept through a nightclub district – far from its normal deployment on the Israeli border. Tired Red Cross workers cleaned up a makeshift trauma centre in a carpark, which the night before had been slick with blood.
If there was small mercy it was that the coronavirus lockdown had closed most bars. “We were closed,” said Niamh Fleming Farrell, the co-owner of Ahliay’s cafe in Gemmayze. “That’s a blessing in disguise. I couldn’t have confronted having lost people. At least we’re just managing a clean-up.”