It is August 4, the sun is approaching the horizon, it is a typical afternoon in Beirut. Lately, there has been a bad mood in the city. Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese are out of work, large parts of the city center are closed and abandoned. The country is on the brink of economic collapse. The corona pandemic affects everyday life in so many ways.
In a few minutes, everything will get even worse.
Smoke development at the harbor
At 17.50 the phone rings at the fire station at the port of Beirut. The police report smoke development in a port warehouse. It is allegedly a small fire, and it is decided that a fire truck and an ambulance will be sent to the scene. Ambulance worker Sahar Fares asks to join. Actually, it is colleague Laure Alam who is next, but Laure lets Sahar get what she wants.
– Sahar and I have been friends for three years, she is just like a sister. She insisted on leaving, so I gave her my place, says Laure Alam.
Sahar is 27 years old and a trained nurse. Her biggest wish for many years was to work in the fire service. Almost three years ago, she took the four-month compulsory course in rescue efforts that was needed to get a job as an ambulance worker in the Beirut fire brigade.
Sahar is well-liked by colleagues. She helps where needed and is described as kind and empathetic. The closest friends at work often call her “the bride”, since she is so busy planning weddings.
She was supposed to get married in May this year, but the economic situation in Lebanon has forced the wedding to be postponed. The date is set. Her boyfriend, Gilbert Karaan, is working to complete the dream apartment they will move into after the wedding.
For Gilbert, the Sahar is the great love. He says that he fell for her at first sight and that he tried for a long time to get in touch with her on social media, without result. One day, Sahar parked his car near where Gilbert lives. Then he took the chance and made contact. Since then, it has been the two.
The smoke rises sharply from the harbor. Now it can be seen from a long distance. The fire truck and ambulance drive with full sirens through the center. In total, they are nine firefighters and Sahar.
Sahar is excited. She has been waiting for this assignment for a long time. It is two weeks since she returned to the fire station after she was reluctantly moved to the Ministry of Health when the corona crisis hit Lebanon. She did not like sitting in the office. Therefore, she is happy to be back in the job she loves, to help the injured when the fire brigade is on assignment.
From the ambulance video rings Sahar girlfriend with What’sApp. She does not say much, but waves her hand and smiles, as a sign that she is happy.
– She said she would call again later. I asked her to wear a mask, she nodded, smiled and hung up, says Gilbert Karaan.
The port of Beirut is a place people in the city often associate with corruption. For several years, the media has revealed how employees accept bribes to get things done. Those who control the harbor are referred to as a mafia-like gang with connections to the politicians in the country. Few Lebanese know what is happening here, not even the fact that there are several thousand tonnes of high-explosive ammonium nitrate in the port warehouse.
Nor does Sahar and his colleagues who are on their way to put out the fire know.
The fire site
It is approaching 6 pm when the fire crews arrive at the harbor warehouse. They split up and start investigating where the smoke in hangar number 12 comes from. Sahar joins three firefighters to look for the injured, but it is completely empty outside. The people of the customs service have gone for the day.
The firefighters quickly discover that it is not a small fire, as the police had reported. They call the fire station and ask for reinforcements.
Sahar films with his phone and sends this video to his fiancé via the messaging service What’sApp.
The smoke billows from the building.
Gilbert is frightened by what he sees. First, he responds with a message.
Then he gets really scared and decides to call. While they are talking, he can hear several smaller bangs.
– I shouted at her that she had to get away from there. She ran with her mobile phone on. Then the conversation was broken.
The driver of a car driving past the harbor warehouse films the smoke from hangar number 12. Suddenly it slams.
At home, Gilbert feels that the whole building is shaking. He falls off the couch. There are pieces of glass everywhere. He gets up and calls Sahar again.
– It was just like a horror movie, but even worse. I tried to call Sahar but could not get in touch. There was traffic chaos and crying people in the streets. It looked like doomsday, says Gilbert.
And crushed by
Gilbert goes on to tell how he throws himself into the car and drives towards the fire station. It’s chaos. Everywhere there are destroyed buildings, the whole district is smashed. He runs into the fire station. It is out of order
Among burned cars, broken houses and dead people, Gilbert is looking for his beloved. Nobody knows anything, everyone is in shock. Hangar number 12 is gone.
2750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate combined with flames have caused enormous damage in the harbor and in areas several kilometers away.
In retrospect, the figures show that 180 people died. 6000 were injured. 300,000 lost their homes. It is a huge blow to a city that is already down due to the corona crisis and collapse of the economy.
Gilbert asks everyone he meets if they have seen Sahar. But no one can give an answer. Pretty soon the daylight disappears. It’s getting dark and he has to give up. Gilbert returns home, still hoping that Sahar has survived the explosion and is in hospital. The next morning, he sends her a message on What’sApp:
A little later in the day, Thursday 5 August, he will receive a phone call. Sahar is found at the port warehouse. She’s dead. Gilbert will not believe it.
– I lost a love that no one else in the world will be able to give me. To me, Sahar was like a mother, a sister, a friend, a girlfriend, a support. Sahar was everything, says Gilbert.
Sahar Fares was the first of the ten on the fire station team to be found. Everyone died. Colonel Nabil Khankarli, chief of staff at the station, said it took almost three weeks for everyone to be found and identified.
– They eagerly ran to the car to get out. None of us knew what was inside the harbor warehouse. It’s incredibly sad that we lost them. May God forgive those responsible, says Khankarli.
The last picture
On the same day that Sahar is found, the bosses at the fire station notice a picture on What’sApp. It is located in the group where the employees at the fire station share information and photos. Dozens of photos were shared in this group in connection with the explosion. But this one is going to be almost iconic.
The image has become a symbol of the firefighters’ heroism. It has been shared countless times on social media, and is used by newspapers and TV stations around the world. First lieutenant Ali Najem in the fire service says that it was circulating in the fire station’s What’sApp group, that he does not know who got it first, but that he is in no doubt about who took the historic last picture.
– We are sure that the photo was taken by Sahar. The entire team that moved out was killed by the explosion. She was responsible for taking pictures this day, says Najem. He adds that it was probably none other than Sahar and the three in the picture present at the door of the warehouse when the picture was taken.
– Are you absolutely sure that it was Sahar Fares who took this picture?
– Yes, I am.
After the explosion, an extensive investigation was launched. It’s still going on. Several employees at the port of Beirut have been arrested, among them the chief of customs. Investigators from France and the United States are assisting the Lebanese authorities in finding out what happened and whether anyone can be held accountable.
On Friday, August 6, two days after the explosion, Sahar’s funeral will be held in the village of Qaa, where she was born. Korona notwithstanding – several hundred people show up at the church to say goodbye.
It was not a wedding for the couple, but a funeral where Sahar’s life was celebrated. Gilbert will remember it for many years to come. He is still devastated by the loss of his girlfriend.
– She was my dream. I had based my whole future on a life with Sahar, on starting a family with her. The people in charge took Sahar from me. Then at the same time they took a part of me. They took my dreams. I do not know how to proceed. I ask myself about it a hundred times a day, but I can not find a single answer.