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Beirut explosion

Beirut Port Blast survivor still living with severe PTSD, moved to Dubai to feel safe

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Two years went by since the Beirut Port explosion marked the country’s worst peacetime disaster and one of the world’s biggest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded. The blast killed 215 people, injured thousands and damaged swathes of the Lebanese capital.

Hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate stored at the port caused a massive fire which tore through the warehouse, subsequently causing the devastating explosion.

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The blast took place at around 6:00 p.m. on August 4, 2020. This was when 26-year-old Lebanese Architect Nadine Gherez was sitting at a desk with her work colleague in Gemmayzeh, an area located in Beirut near Achrafieh.

While Gherez’s workplace was facing Gemmayzeh street, the blast directly affected her and her colleague because the other side of the building had a direct view of the port.

The Beirut blast survivor Nadine Gherez told Al Arabiya English that she is still living with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) two years on from the disaster as she recalled the day’s events. She moved to Dubai as soon as she could so she could live in a safe and peaceful environment.

 Women stand inside a damaged building following Tuesday's blast in Beirut's port area, in Beirut, Lebanon August 7, 2020. (File photo: Reuters)
Women stand inside a damaged building following Tuesday's blast in Beirut's port area, in Beirut, Lebanon August 7, 2020. (File photo: Reuters)

“We first heard a really loud explosion sound and we both immediately got up because we felt something was wrong. It wasn’t just the casual loud noise, we always used to hear loud noises [in Beirut], but this was strange,” Gherez said.

Being on the other side of the building, she was unaware that the Beirut Port was on fire and that the infamous explosion that would come to be known as the Beirut Blast was about to happen and wreak havoc on the city.

“The actual moment of impact has been completely wiped from my memory. I don’t actually remember how it happened,” she said. “I just remember closing my eyes for a second and then opening them and the entire office and everything outside was demolished.”

Rescue workers dig through the rubble of a badly damaged building in Lebanon's capital Beirut, in search of possible survivors from a mega-blast at the adjacent port one month ago, after scanners detected a pulse, on September 4, 2020. (AFP)
Rescue workers dig through the rubble of a badly damaged building in Lebanon's capital Beirut, in search of possible survivors from a mega-blast at the adjacent port one month ago, after scanners detected a pulse, on September 4, 2020. (AFP)

“I just remember the dust in the air. I don’t remember anything hitting me… nothing. I didn’t feel anything. It just felt like, in the blink of an eye, everything was different.”

Without fully processing what had happened, she immediately threw herself under the table because she was worried the ceiling would collapse on her.

“I was crawling on top of shattered glass and I remember I got cuts all over my hand because of that,” Gherez recalled.

A combination picture shows the damage around the site of the Aug. 4 explosion at Beirut's port, shot on August 4, 2020, and the same area after almost a year since the blast, Lebanon on July 19, 2021. (File photo: Reuters)
A combination picture shows the damage around the site of the Aug. 4 explosion at Beirut's port, shot on August 4, 2020, and the same area after almost a year since the blast, Lebanon on July 19, 2021. (File photo: Reuters)

“We were fully convinced that we were being attacked, or that we had been bombed because when we heard the first explosion, then the second one, our office exploded so it was almost like a narrative, we thought: OK, we’re being bombed.”

Unaware of the injuries she sustained, Gherez did her best to run out of the building as fast as she could, although the stairs were covered in rubble after the ceiling caved in.

“We were literally jumping through the rubble… we got out quite fast [but] I remember people from other offices next to us screaming and running as well. I remember someone saying that somebody had been injured and I found out later on that someone from that office passed away… That was heavy,” she added.

When she finally made it outside and onto the street, she suddenly became aware of her wounds.

“I looked down and saw a hole in my hand, I could see a bit of my bone. It started to go numb and that was when full panic set in,” Gherez recalled.

“There were so many people on the street. Some were lying on the ground, I didn’t know if they were injured or dead. There were a lot of people running and screaming, and I just remember seeing a lot of bodies.”

To immediately get herself to safety, Gherez and her colleague drove into Gemmayzeh to find the nearest hospital.

“It was literally like an apocalypse,” she said, describing the scene in Gemmayzeh. “We picked up three passengers, someone had half her face gone, someone sitting in the middle was dying because I think he had glass in his stomach and I remember he kindly said: “I don’t want to make you panic, but can you stop here? I think I’m about to die.”

A view shows the damaged site of the massive blast in Beirut's port area, in Beirut, Lebanon August 31, 2020. (File photo: Reuters)
A view shows the damaged site of the massive blast in Beirut's port area, in Beirut, Lebanon August 31, 2020. (File photo: Reuters)

“The worst part of it all was knowing that no one was going to come help. When you live in a failed state where you don’t expect your government to help you out… I think that was one of the worst feelings.”

After multiple attempts to get treated at different hospitals where she was rejected, her uncle and fiancé came to pick her up and eventually took her to a hospital near Broummana, a mountainous area about half an hour away from Beirut.

“They couldn’t perform surgery on my hand or do anything drastic. They just stitched up my hand and told me that my tendons were ripped. I was paralyzed in both my fingers,” she said, adding that she was told to go back to the hospital in two days for reconstructive surgery.

“I had so many cuts all over my body that needed stitches but they [the hospital] had more critical situations to deal with,” she told Al Arabiya English.

“I remember we passed by a pharmacy we got a bunch of supplies and my family like DIY stitched me up at home type of thing.”

Gherez arrived back home six hours later, at around midnight, without knowing what caused the explosion yet.

“I didn’t understand how big this was. It took until I got into bed that night to understand what just happened.”

After reconstructive surgery, she couldn’t move her hand for a month and a half and said that it took her four months to recover physically. When it came to her mental recovery however, it took a lot longer.

“Every time I got in the car, anytime I left the house, I thought I was going to die. I don’t know if it’s survivor’s guilt. Every time I tried to sleep at night, I would start shivering out of control, thinking the ceiling was going to fall. I couldn’t even sit next to windows,” Gherez said.

“I was just a shell of a person. The following days and weeks after the explosion were the worst of my life.”

A view shows the damage around the site of the Aug. 4 explosion at Beirut's port, shot on August 4, 2020, and the same area after almost a year since the blast, Lebanon. (File photo: Reuters)
A view shows the damage around the site of the Aug. 4 explosion at Beirut's port, shot on August 4, 2020, and the same area after almost a year since the blast, Lebanon. (File photo: Reuters)

Gherez then decided to move back to the United Arab Emirates, where she grew up and spent most of her life.

“I texted my dad telling him I didn’t want to live [in Lebanon] and that I couldn’t live there. Luckily my parents still live here [in the UAE] so they helped make that happen I immediately left.”

She eventually moved back to the UAE a couple of weeks after the Port blast, and said that she is happy to not live in a state of anxiety anymore.

“There are pros and cons to me leaving [Lebanon] so fast. I feel like I never got closure, I never got to feel safe again in Lebanon. Every time I visit, it’s not that pleasant memory that I had before. When I go back, I’m way more cautious,” she explained, adding that her friends who stayed in the country because they had no other choice came to terms with what had happened and “got used to living there again.”

“I never got the chance to [gain closure] so when I’m back in Lebanon, I feel like I made no progress at all. I still have full-fledged PTSD.”

Read more:

The ongoing battle to save Lebanon’s heritage damaged by the 2020 Beirut Port blast

Two years since Beirut blast, why has no top official been held to account?

Part of Beirut port silos, damaged in 2020 blast, collapses

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