Funerals and fury in Beirut as scale of devastation comes into focus
By Marc Santora and Megan Specia
Lebanon began an official period of national mourning on Thursday, two days after a powerful explosion in Beirut flattened whole neighborhoods in the bustling metropolis, even as rescue crews from around the world began arriving to help in the search for survivors.
The official death toll rose to 137, and with more than 5,000 people injured and miles of debris still covering the area around the epicenter of the blast at the Port of Beirut, officials said it would take time to determine the true number of victims.
Lebanese army bulldozers plowed through the wreckage, trying to clear roads so that emergency workers could reach the hardest-hit areas. Residents of the capital, widely known for resilience forged during years of civil war, fanned out across the city to sort through the wreckage and start what promises to be a herculean task of rebuilding.
Rima Tarabay, who lives near the port, captured the public’s exhaustion with a government riven by factions, plagued by corruption and marked by incompetence.
“The Lebanese are in the streets, showing great solidarity, and the authorities are just absent,” she said. “It’s impressive on the one hand, desolating on the other.”
Residents were joined by crews of workers from across the region, filling truck after truck with remnants of people’s lives blasted from their homes out onto the street like so much flotsam.
With more than 250,000 people displaced from their homes, local leaders said they were scrambling to meet their needs. Several of the city’s main hospitals are no longer usable, and health officials said they were running out of supplies to treat the wounded.
The port was a crucial hub, with 60% of the nation’s imports flowing through it, in a city that is Lebanon’s economic engine. Port operations are now paralyzed, and the nation’s grain supply was wiped out in the blast, raising concerns about food security in the country of 6.8 million people.
The calamity has compounded an already dire financial and political crisis, with soaring inflation and widespread unemployment. The World Bank estimated in November that poverty in Lebanon was expected to rise from 30% to 50% this year — and that was before the coronavirus pandemic took a devastating toll on the economy.
The government estimates the physical damage from the blast to be $10 billion to $15 billion, and it is unclear how willing the international community will be to give financial aid to a Lebanese government known for dysfunction.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab has promised a full investigation into the blast, which officials said was caused by highly explosive materials stored at the port, and vowed to hold those responsible to account.
But his words did little to calm the swelling public anger as it was revealed that government officials had been aware for years of the danger posed by more than 2,000 tons of combustible ammonium nitrate stored at the port.
A group of doctors who were instrumental in anti-government demonstrations last year organized a protest for Thursday afternoon at St. Joseph’s Hospital in central Beirut.
“If we do not move today, please let’s shut up forever,” the organizers wrote on a flyer promoting the action, according to a local report. They said the government had left people with two choices: “Die slowly (hunger and disease)” or “die acutely (blast injury).”
Ramez al-Qadi, a prominent television anchor, tweeted: “Either they keep killing us or we kill them.” A trending hashtag on Twitter in Lebanon on Wednesday was translated as “hang up the nooses.”
Images of the damage captured the scale of the devastation, with a smoking crater stretching more that 700 feet and the blast’s shock wave damaging buildings over a radius of nearly three miles. It registered as a 3.3-magnitude earthquake, and its power was captured in scores of videos.
Behind each shattered window and battered building was a human story.
Funerals for those killed in the explosion began on Thursday, with small groups of mourners gathering across the city to bury the dead.
A funeral for Sahar Fares, a 24-year-old emergency medical worker who had joined the rush to the port to help extinguish an initial fire, only to be downed by the huge explosion, was aired on national television on Thursday morning.
Her white coffin, held by members of the armed forces, was carried through an honor guard of fire trucks and emergency responders as her grieving family followed. Trucks that lined the way were draped in banners with a photo of Fares, smiling and in uniform.
“My sister is a hero,” a woman could be heard yelling through sobs as Fares’ coffin was loaded into a vehicle. “She was someone who served who sacrificed her life to save the country.”
As international aid workers flooded into the country, President Emmanuel Macron of France visited downtown Beirut on Thursday and promised to provide assistance, including “several tons of medical equipment.”
“I want to meet with all Lebanese political forces for very frank discussions,” Macron said when he arrived. “Because beyond the explosion, we know that the crisis here is severe. It implies a historic responsibility for the current leaders.”
But as he toured the Gemmayzeh neighborhood, which was especially hard hit, he was soon surrounded by a crowd that angrily denounced the Lebanese government. Volunteers who were cleaning up the street chanted “The people demand the fall of the regime,” as Macron visited the area.
Over 50 French emergency workers joined teams from across Europe and around the world to help with the search-and-rescue operations.
France, a former colonial ruler of Lebanon, has long maintained deep ties with the country, epitomized by the close friendship between former President Jacques Chirac and Lebanon’s former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005.
Macron, who has sought to deepen the diplomatic ties between the two nations, was greeted at the airport on Thursday by President Michel Aoun.
But while Lebanon is in urgent need of international assistance, many were skeptical that the visit would bring significant change to the nation’s government.
“The Lebanese need support and encouragement, but is it going to change something? That’s unlikely,” said Tarabay, who worked as an aide to Hariri. “France has long donated money to successive Lebanese governments,” she added. “But where did the money go?”
There were more immediate concerns on the ground, as search teams combed through fields of twisted metal and debris in hopes of finding survivors in what was both a frantic scramble and a delicate operation. Dozens of tents of rescue crews crowded the port area as teams tried to coordinate their efforts.
At the same time, families of the missing pleaded for help.
Emilie Hasrouty, whose brother, Ghassan Hasrouty, was working in the port at the time of the explosion, said she was putting hope before cold reason.
“Logic says that my brother evaporated,” she wrote on Twitter. “Hope says that he may have gone into hiding at the start of the fire.”
She added in another post that authorities had said they would not excavate the area, even after the family offered to pay for the equipment.
His daughter, Tatiana Hasrouty, told CNN that her father had been in the operations room of the grain store at the time of the explosion, and believes he and his colleagues may still be trapped under the rubble.
“He went on Tuesday to work and we never saw him again,” she said.