A blast like no other: Beirut explosion felt like an earthquake

Beirut, Lebanon CNN  — 

It’s an earthquake, I thought, as the CNN bureau in central Beirut shook Tuesday with a violence I’d never felt before. I crouched down on the floor, waiting for more tremors.

A split second later, I heard glass shatter and the crunch of metal. Peering through the window, I saw a cloud of yellow dust coming toward me, the street strewn with rubble and broken glass. People were running around and shouting, trying to understand what had happened.

I stumbled around the rest of the bureau. A window frame had been torn from the wall. The studio was a jumble of equipment, cables were scattered all over, but the tripod with its camera was still in place on the floor.

The bureau’s glass entrance, with its big, red CNN logo, lay shattered in the corridor.

A few minutes later, a doorman named Mustafa, a lanky, normally good-spirited chap, came running in. “Are you ok?” he shouted. “Is everyone fine?”

“I’m fine,” I responded. Nothing had happened to me.

“Thank God,” he said, and continued running down the corridor to search for others. The building had long been quiet since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

As I surveyed the damage, I began calling friends and colleagues. Three minutes after the blast, I got through to CNN producer Ghazi Balkiz. “I’m fine,” he said, and the line went dead. I called our cameraman, Richard Harlow. His phone was dead. I called again, and again.

A friend who lives near me in the Manara neighborhood, about two kilometers (1.2 miles) away, called me. “What happened?” she demanded, her voice full of panic. I told her all I knew – that there had been a fire in the port and then the blast.

Lebanon, a country I’ve lived in for the last three years but have been in and out for years, and where I was in boarding school when the civil war broke out in April 1975, is a place where dramatic events happen sometimes, it seems, out of the blue. And on this hot and humid Tuesday, it seemed like just another August evening until hell suddenly shattered the calm.

It wasn’t long before I was inundated with requests to explain what was going on to CNN viewers, but without a cameraman I had to report what I had seen and learned by phone. Richard, the cameraman, still wasn’t answering the phone. Fear gripped me that he, like so many others on this day, had been injured, or worse.

Finally a colleague got through to him. The blast had thrown Richard from his scooter, I was told, and he had injured his hand. “Prepare the medical kit,” my colleague instructed me.

He showed up at the office with a deep gash on his hand. I sprinkled the wound with disinfectant powder, wrapped it up and told him to get to a hospital, while I continued to report on the phone. But he insisted on setting up the camera. Within minutes, we had a live picture from the bureau.

All the while, the information coming in became grimmer and grimmer. First, 10 dead, then dozens more. Hundreds, then thousands wounded.

“I lived through the civil war, I lived through the (1982) Israeli invasion, the 2006 (Lebanon-Israel) war,” a friend told me over the phone, “but never, never have I seen an explosion like this,” she said.

It was the refrain I’d hear from one person after another.

“We’re living a curse,” another friend told me.

And it was hard to disagree. Lebanon’s economy is in a state of collapse. The local currency has lost much of its value. Prices of food and other basic goods have increased 50% every month for the last three months. Unemployment has skyrocketed. It has become a common sight to see people, even the elderly, rummaging through the rubbish, searching for food.

Added to these woes, Covid-19 cases have almost tripled since the beginning of July, and, until this blast, the country was in a partial lockdown to try to stop the spread.

But this evening, all these woes faded into the background as Beirut residents called frantically around to find missing relatives, flocked to hospitals to donate blood, surveyed the latest damage to their battered lives, and wondered why fate had yet again subjected them to another cruel blow.