‘The trauma absolutely does affect you’: Irish in Beirut recall the port explosion

Four Irish people living in Beirut look back on the huge chemical explosion that devastated the city

Damian Carroll on the street where he was living at the time of the explosion: ‘I think I’ll always be entwined with Beirut because of the port explosion’

Damian Carroll on the street where he was living at the time of the explosion: ‘I think I’ll always be entwined with Beirut because of the port explosion’

 

On August 4th, 2020, a fire broke out in a warehouse in Beirut port, where 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate had been negligently stored since 2014. The volatile compound, which is used as a fertiliser as well as in explosives, was stored alongside 15,000kg of fireworks, fuse wire and containers of oil, kerosene and hydrochloric acid. Once ignited, these substances combined to create one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded.

There were two explosions at the warehouse. The second triggered a shock wave that tore through Beirut, shattering glass and throwing people in the air. At least 217 people died, 6,500 were injured and 300,000 people were displaced from their homes.

The old, historic neighbourhoods surrounding the port bore the brunt of the explosion. These areas represent Beirut’s creative and economic heartland; they are where most of the city’s NGOs (non-government organisations), media outlets and galleries are based, as well as the restaurants and bars that make its nightlife famous. These neighbourhoods have long attracted new migrants to Beirut and many Irish expats based in the Lebanese capital were living there when the port explosion happened.

Young woman waves a Lebanese flag at the site of the deadly explosion at the port of Beiruit. Photograph: Houssam Shbaro/Anadolu Agency via Getty
A woman waves a Lebanese flag at the site of the deadly explosion at the port of Beiruit. Photograph: Houssam Shbaro/Anadolu Agency via Getty

Decades of corruption and failed reforms meant that the Lebanese economy was already in a downward spiral when the explosion took place. There is little support available from the struggling public health system for those dealing with injuries from the blast – eyes scarred by glass, amputated limbs and post-traumatic stress. In the neighbourhoods surrounding the port, many buildings are still wrapped in scaffolding.

Nightlife has returned to Beirut, but many businesses near the port have not reopened since the blast. Owners are reluctant to invest in an economy in free-fall, with no government support and increasingly scarce electricity and fuel.

Media investigations since have shown that officials were warned on numerous occasions, including less than a month before the explosion, that a large quantity of ammonium nitrate was dangerously stored at the port. Survivors have demanded to know why nothing was done to safeguard the volatile substance since 2014. Or why the surrounding area was not evacuated when the fire at the port began; and why a warning to stay away from windows, which would have saved countless lives and prevented debilitating injuries, was not issued.

The legal inquiry established by the Lebanese government to investigate the port blast was described by Human Rights Watch as “incapable of credibly delivering justice”. The international NGO cited issues with political interference, breaches of due process and legal immunity for many of the politicians and officials involved. With little faith in the Lebanese legal system, survivors and NGOs have called for an independent investigation into the port blast led by an international body, such as the United Nations Human Rights Council.

A year on, four Irish people living in Beirut recount their experiences of that day.

‘The city didn’t come to help, so people came to help’ – Damian Carroll

A memorial to those who died in the port explosion along the George Haddad highway, near the port in Beirut
A memorial to those who died in the port explosion along the George Haddad highway, near the port in Beirut

Damian Carroll is a member of the Defence Forces, currently posted to the UN Truce Supervision Organisation in Beirut. He had just finished a two-week hotel quarantine and moved into a new apartment with a view of the port the day before the blast.

“On the day of the explosion, I was finishing some reading for my new job when I saw a fire at the port,” he says. “I went out on to the balcony to look closer and, suddenly, I heard a bang and dropped to the floor of the balcony. There was a wall about knee-high and then a railing, so the shock wave came right over me.”

After the sound of the explosion stopped, Carroll heard car alarms and screaming. “I lay on the floor for a while and checked my fingers and toes,” he says. “I knew that if my adrenaline was pumping, I was not going to feel any pain if I was injured. There was a bit of blood and a few cuts from fallen glass, but luckily nothing bad.”

The doors and stairways in Carroll’s building were blocked by fallen debris, so he and other people in the building began helping older people and injured people to evacuate the building to the underground car park. “I did a quick first-aid check and we got them to ambulances if they needed them,” he says. Two people living in his building died from injuries they received during the blast.

Carroll’s apartment was located just a few hundred metres from the port.

“I wasn’t the only one evacuating people and doing first aid,” he says. “Everyone who could help people was helping. The city didn’t come to help, so people came to help.”

Carroll says that the days after the explosion were “quite heartening in terms of how the local population reacted, but sad in the sense that they knew what to do”.

“I think I’ll always be entwined with Beirut because of the port explosion,” he says. “Every so often when you’re talking about it, your mind wanders and wonders: ‘What if?’ ‘What if I’d not gone on to the balcony and been inside?’ ‘What if I had not got down on the ground?’

“You don’t think about that in the immediate aftermath, you’re trying to help as many people as possible at that time, it’s only afterwards that you think about it.”

‘I followed my security training and was standing in a doorway for the second blast’ – Aoife Keniry

Aoife Keniry at her new apartment which looks on to Beirut port
Aoife Keniry at her new apartment which looks on to Beirut port

Aoife Keniry works for UNRWA, a UN agency which assists Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. She was at her apartment getting ready to go out for the evening at the time of the explosion.

“I was in my apartment texting some friends,” she says. “I could hear the fire and I knew it was down in the port. I texted my friend half-joking that ‘you should come quickly because I think something is going to happen’ and then the first big explosion happened.”

Keniry suffered a broken rib and cuts on her back, legs and arms when shattered glass fell on her, but she considers herself “very lucky”. “If I had been a couple of inches this way or that way it would have been a very different story,” she says. “I followed my security training and was standing in a doorway for the second blast.”

The sound of the blast was like nothing she’d ever heard – “everyone felt like it was right outside their door”. At first, Keniry thought it was a nuclear explosion. “The colour of the air was white and there was no fire,” she says, “I was actually touching my face to check I still had skin.”

Her apartment was destroyed: “There was a wall that had fallen in, all the windows were gone, and a water tank had fallen through the ceiling.” The building is condemned now for demolition.

After helping her landlord’s elderly mother, who lived at the top of the building, she began texting her friends who lived nearby.

When the people she was supposed to meet with that night didn’t respond, she went to their apartment on the ninth floor of a tower block near the port. “Their apartment was covered in blood when I found them,” she says, “one had a head injury and the other a very bad cut.”

It was difficult to get treatment. “Some hospitals were damaged by the blast, others were overwhelmed,” she says. “Doctors triaged my friends and said: ‘you’re not dying, we can’t see you’.”

Keniry saw people filming on the day. “Afterwards it made sense that someone would document what happened, as there is absolutely no accountability,” she says. “You keep a record so that you don’t think you imagined the whole thing.”

The 94-year-old grandmother of her friend died in the blast. “She could have had a peaceful, dignified end, but she was killed by this stupidity,” Keniry says.

‘The trauma absolutely does affect you’ – Niamh Fleming-Farrell

Niamh Fleming-Farrell in Aaliya’s Books just after the port explosion
Niamh Fleming-Farrell in Aaliya’s Books just after the port explosion

Niamh Fleming-Farrell is the co-founder and co-owner of Aaliya’s Books in Beirut. On the day of the blast, the bookshop and cafe was closed due to Covid-19, but she had stopped by the shop with a friend to pick up a bottle of wine before going to dinner at the time of the explosion. Fleming-Farrell’s friend was standing in the middle of the bar area, but escaped basically untouched from the explosion, which was “utterly miraculous”, says Fleming-Farrell.

Fleming-Farrell was thrown in the air. “I suffered a concussion and lost consciousness for about 10 minutes,” she says.

Outside the shop, on Rue Gouraud – a busy street full of bars and cafes – people were unsure if there was going to be another explosion. “Everyone was trying to figure out how to get out of the area,” she says. “That was the thing, everyone thought that they could get beyond where the explosion had happened, but they kept walking and couldn’t.”

Fleming-Farrell got a scan late that night for her concussion. “The scan was clear, so I just let the concussion run its course,” she says, “but I have noticed that there are things that I have forgotten. There are holes in my memory from three or four days after the explosion.

“The physical vulnerability was quite alarming,” she says. “I slept in the mountains for two months after the explosion. I was really worried about moving back to Beirut. The trauma absolutely does affect you.”

Immediately after the explosion, Fleming-Farrell wondered if it was going to be possible to reopen Aaliya’s Books. “But, as long as we could find the means to do it, I knew that we would rebuild. My partners and I still have energy left for that.”

Fleming-Farrell says that is not the case for every business on her street. “For me, this is the first time – and hopefully the last time – that I have ever had something that I have built destroyed,” she says. “But for a lot of people, especially the older people here, it is not the first time they have had their businesses ruined and had to rebuild.

“Some people just say they’re tired and they don’t want to keep doing this, or for their children to keep doing this.”

‘The court case investigating the explosion is a sham’ – Luke Fitzherbert

Luke Fitzherbert at his apartment in Geitawi
Luke Fitzherbert at his apartment in Geitawi

Luke Fitzherbert had finished work at a newspaper in downtown Beirut and was on a bus with a friend when the port explosion happened. He was far enough away from the port that he didn’t feel it, but he heard it. “It sounded like supernatural thunder. I immediately stood up and looked around,” he says, “the physical damage was in every direction.”

Unsure what to do and fearing another explosion, he and his friend got back on the bus. It drove slowly by the stores and restaurants with shattered fronts, Fitzherbert recalls.

After getting off the bus again, he contacted family in Ireland and friends who were in Beirut. Some of his friends were concerned about another explosion and were planning on going to the mountains outside the city that night.

“I started walking home then and suddenly thought about my apartment,” says Fitzherbert. “In the beginning, I thought all the damage was around Sassine Square and that my apartment was a while away. But everything was just as destroyed – if not more destroyed – as I walked towards Geitawi, where I lived.”

When he returned to his apartment, “it didn’t look like there had been an explosion, it looked like a robbery.” His clothes were scattered around the apartment and some of the windows were broken. Some friends arrived. “They were very shaken,” says Fitzherbert. “They had been very near the port and the room they were in had collapsed in on them. They had seen dead bodies.”

There was a young Lebanese woman with them as well. “She was so angry,” says Fitzherbert. “She kept starting to say something but was too emotional to continue... It didn’t matter what caused the explosion at that point, it was symptomatic of what Lebanon was like and how incompetent the leadership was.”

In the days after the blast, he recalls “a manic, enraged atmosphere that also brought a renewed sense of revolutionary fervour”. A huge protest on Martyr’s Square was held on the Saturday after the explosion. It was dispersed by security forces who used rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse angry and emotional protestors. Fitzherbert was tear-gassed too.

“That protest has now receded into memory,” he says, “and the court case investigating the explosion is a sham. Boarded-up shops and the occasional protest outside the justice ministry are all that’s left.”