BEIRUT: “It feels like yesterday; these guys do not leave my mind, I think of them every day. If my house wasn’t near the port, I wouldn’t ever look at it again.”
Firefighter Wafiq al-Sebaay was remembering his 10 colleagues and friends who died in the line of duty last year when they were called to put out a fire at a warehouse at Beirut’s Port on Aug. 4, 2020.
As far as the Beirut Fire Brigade knew, they had been called up for a routine job that late summer afternoon, as much of the city began noticing huge billows of dirty smoke rising to the sky, large enough for many to decide to film the burning depot on their mobiles.
Thirty-four-year-old Sebaay was on duty that Tuesday at Beirut’s main fire station in Karantina, less than 2 kilometers from the port where the team, including Rami Kaaki, had driven off with sirens blaring.
“Rami was already in the truck and I told him it was my turn to work and to switch, but he said there was nothing scary at the port, just fireworks. He said it’s not worth it, and he would take care of it.”
“I tried a lot to switch with him but he wouldn’t budge,” Sebaay told The Daily Star.
Jumping into their firefighting protective gear and into trucks, the team sent to the port had no chance of survival nor an ounce of warning that they would become victim to Lebanon’s worst peacetime disaster, and one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions the world had ever seen.
Beirut morphed into a disaster zone in seconds when 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse at the port detonated. It sent shock waves through the capital, annihilating everything in its path, with ripples felt 230 kilometers away in the neighboring island of Cyprus.
Just as the city grew desperate for emergency assistance, most services were caught up in the blast; like Karantina fire station. The brigade was lucky not to lose other members when ceilings collapsed and windows shattered, spraying shards of glass and injuring much of the team, including Sebaay who suffered cuts and bruises. Fire trucks and cars were also damaged beyond use.
With just days remaining until Lebanon marks the passing of one year since the event, the station is still not fully operational. Reconstruction work started just three months ago, Lt. Ali Najem, head of public relations at the Beirut Fire Brigade, told The Daily Star.
Over the last eight months the firemen and women had to make do with temporary office blocks located opposite the building. A few weeks ago they were able to return to almost-finished bunk rooms, Najem said.
Over the last 12 months such disruption has put further pressure on the service, which like other state services has been left reeling from budget cuts instigated as a result of the country’s two-year-old sharp economic downturn.
Sebaay spoke quietly as he recounted the day he lost his friends and which left him struggling with mental health issues. There was a broken clock hanging on the wall behind him with its hands frozen at 6:15 p.m. – the time of the explosion that nothing during Sebaay’s 13 years in service could have prepared him for.
Just as he and his colleagues received a back-up call to the port, the ground began to tremble, and he was “flung inside the building.”
“The sky turned yellow and red; everything was destroyed: the glass, the doors. We spent minutes not being able to hear or see anything because of the pressure from the explosion and the dust.”
The blast ripped through swaths of the city, ravaged an estimated 77,000 housing units, killed 211 people and injured 6,500 civilians, and unleashed a hellish scene.
“I felt like the world was ending” Sebaay said, recalling that desperate members of the public began piling into the station looking for help “as if it was a hospital.”
Despite the chaotic scene, the firefighters eventually made it to the port to search for their teammates.
Arriving at the epicenter of the explosion, the port was unrecognizable. Sebaay said they struggled to get orientated and find Hangar 12, where his friends had been sent to put out the fire. “We saw dead people lying in places and we didn’t know where the guys were since the port was destroyed and the shape was different – there were no ambulances or fire trucks in sight.”
Najeed Hati, Charbel Hati, Ralph Malahi, Charbel Karam, Joe Noun, Rami Kaaki, Joe Bou Saab, Elie Khouzami, Mathal Hawa and Sahar Fares, all died on Aug. 4, 2020, carrying out their duty as members of Beirut’s Fire Brigade.
The news of the firefighter casualties added to intense public anger and upset after the disaster.
Following the revelation that senior officials, including the president and prime minister, along with port authorities, had known that highly explosive material was stored in the port since as far back as 2014, many decreed the firefighters had been effectively “sent to their deaths.”
Just a few weeks before the blast, port authorities had sent a warning to President Michel Aoun over the danger to Beirut if an accident were to occur in Hangar 12, yet no action was taken.
“The people who died at the port – they were like family for me, it was devastating. We always spent time with each other, we were best friends and that is how we lived – we did everything together.”