Islander in Beirut: ‘I thought we were in the middle of a war’

A FORMER Les Quennevais student working on a Beirut-based superyacht has described the moment a massive explosion rocked the city, killing over 100 people and injuring thousands more.

Aftermath of a massive explosion is seen in in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020. Massive explosions rocked downtown Beirut on Tuesday, flattening much of the port, damaging buildings and blowing out windows and doors as a giant mushroom cloud rose above the capital. Witnesses saw many people injured by flying glass and debris. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar). (28960614)
Aftermath of a massive explosion is seen in in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020. Massive explosions rocked downtown Beirut on Tuesday, flattening much of the port, damaging buildings and blowing out windows and doors as a giant mushroom cloud rose above the capital. Witnesses saw many people injured by flying glass and debris. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar). (28960614)

Harry Stead (22), from St Ouen, said that he initially thought the country had come under attack and felt lucky to have escaped unharmed from the incident, having driven past the site of the blast on two occasions only hours earlier.

It is thought that the blast was caused by 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate igniting after being stored in the grounds of the city’s port for six years without safety measures. President Michael Aoun has said those responsible will face the ‘harshest punishments’ but has not commented on the cause.

Speaking about the incident, Mr Stead said: ‘We were driving around the city that day and we drove past the site where the explosion happened twice, about two hours before the explosion happened. Thankfully, I was actually back on the boat when it happened.

‘My friends and I were on the bridge playing cards and, during the first [small] explosion, we thought it was an earthquake. Then, during the second explosion, one of the guys dropped down on his knees and I cannot even begin to explain the sound of the bang. It was just so loud – my ears were ringing.’

Harry Stead (28964693)

He added: ‘Everything went up and then the clouds just started coming straight towards us. That was the shockwave but it looked like clouds. Afterwards, there was loads of screaming, you could hear a few helicopters flying around, you could hear sirens and you could just see big clouds of smoke. It was really colourful – the smoke was all red.’

Over the years, Lebanon and neighbouring Israel have shared a tumultuous relationship, with several wars and clashes breaking out between the two nations – most recently in a deadly 34-day conflict in 2006.

Between 1975 and 1990 Beirut was on the frontline of a civil war and it has also previously endured several terrorist bomb attacks.

Mr Stead said that immediately after the two explosions, he and the crew began fearing that they may have become caught up in another conflict.

His comments followed an announcement by US President Donald Trump that the blast had been caused by ‘a bomb of some kind’ despite statements by Lebanese leaders that it was probably caused by highly explosive material which had been stored dangerously.

‘At the start we had absolutely no clue what it was,’ he said. ‘Our captain was saying it was Israel and I thought I was about to be caught in the middle of a war.

‘That was my first thought. I genuinely thought that we had been attacked.

‘On Friday there is a high-profile trial going on in court over a former prime minister [who was assassinated]. When we arrived we were warned about that and, on the day we got here, there were riots all over Beirut. When we were driving through there were rioters everywhere.

‘So afterwards, the first thing we thought was, “Oh God. Let’s try and get out of here”.’

Mr Stead, a deckhand and son of Elizabeth and Chris Stead, added that he felt lucky to have managed to escape the incident unscathed and that he had realised the full extent of the devastation after going on a brief walk around the port area.

‘I feel quite lucky, as the area is literally just a ten-minute drive away. I went for a little walk around the port and there is so much damage and glass everywhere. Someone told me that 300,000 people have lost their homes, which is crazy, and obviously the deaths are still rising,’ he said.

‘I know someone who lives in Lebanon and I was speaking to him about two seconds before it happened. He sent me photos and his apartment has been demolished.

‘Because the number of cases of Covid are rising, Beirut was meant to be locked down today but that does not seem so important here right now. Everyone seems to have forgotten about it. It has been a crazy trip so far.’

Yesterday UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed that several British nationals – including some Foreign Office staff who sustained non-life-threatening injuries – had been caught up in the disaster.

In a tweet, he said: ‘The pictures and videos from Beirut tonight are shocking. All of my thoughts and prayers are with those caught up in this terrible incident.

‘The UK is ready to provide support in any way we can, including to those British nationals affected.’

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