Sky’s offices in Beirut are in the Downtown neighbourhood. It’s an upmarket area which hosts ministries, media agencies and businesses.
Not many people live there, not many people can afford to, but everyday Beirut’s residents pass through this neighbourhood on the way to work or to pray at the iconic Al Amin mosque.
It was approaching early evening and I was pacing in the front room of my flat at Sky’s offices. I was on the phone to a colleague when I felt the ground tremble.
My first thought was: “This couldn’t be an earthquake, surely?”
The last thing a country in the grips of an economic collapse and political turmoil needs right now. Seconds later an explosion blew the windows out and doors clean off.
As I got up off the floor a woman walked into my flat holding her baby. She was wailing for someone to help her. Smoke had filled the room and the sound of car alarms were piercing.
It was my neighbour. The front door of their flat across the hall had, for months, been decorated with balloons welcoming their new arrival. Now it’d disappeared.
I checked if she was okay. She was distraught and dazed but thankfully nothing more serious. She was shaking and asked me to hold her baby and we headed down the fire escape to the ground level.
A security guard was on the ground floor trying to keep other residents calm but struggled to open a heavy, metal door which had been twisted shut as a result of the blast.
Another door suddenly swung open and we managed to escape the apartment block – the floor strewn with debris; broken door frames, shattered glass, people panicking as they fled their offices and apartments.
A thick orange cloud filled the air as security officials rushed back and forth trying to ascertain what happened.
Beirut has endured too many of these moments of horror in its recent history. Car bombs, airstrikes, assassinations… could it have happened again? Surely, in the country’s weakest moment, when people of all religious and political beliefs are suffering the affects of economic collapse and political paralysis, no one would be so cruel?
I walked towards the central square, Martyrs’ Square, towards a thick rising plume of black smoke coming from the end of Downtown towards Beirut’s port.
As I crossed the road I noticed scooters, dozens and dozens of them, beeping their horns and driving towards the scene of the blast. A teenage boy wearing a white T-shirt with curly brown hair walked towards me.
He asked me in Arabic if I knew what happened. I told him there was an explosion. I noticed dry blood on his neck and behind his ear.
“Are you okay?” I asked him. “I’m okay, but can I borrow your phone to call my mother?” he replied.
I only had my UK mobile phone on me so reminded him to dial Lebanon’s country code first… “+961 and then the number”.
He nodded and called, reassured her that he was all right and passed me back the phone. He thanked me and then hugged me. I told him he would be okay before he walked away.
My phone starting ringing. It was my friend and colleague, Sami, who works with Sky teams when they travel into Beirut to cover developments.
He lives with his family in the suburbs. He had felt the explosion where he was, miles away, and was checking everything was okay. In what seemed like just minutes later, he appeared on his motorcycle.
There was no way we could reach the scene by car and the security forces had begun mobilising in huge numbers, blocking off roads and diverting traffic.
We managed to pass by one makeshift checkpoint, waving my press card and driving through the neighbourhood of Gemmayze.
It’s usually bustling with restaurants and cafes and is home to thousands of people who live in apartment blocks across the area.
Some are new builds attracting the city’s wealthy, others are more rundown, but still preserved in an Ottoman style that predates Lebanon’s civil war.
As we drove through, the tyres crunched over shattered glass and pieces of wood. Trees had been uprooted and metal poles collapsed on cars tightly parked on side streets.
Dozens of people were walking in the middle of the road carrying their possessions in plastic carrier bags and backpacks. Whatever they could carry.
It looked as if everything had collapsed. Buildings missing their facades, some older homes caved in on themselves.
Some residents discussing among themselves what had just happened. “This was a rocket strike,” one person said as we drove past.
Outside the central electricity building, a huge hulking tower that had seen protests outside just hours before because of the constant power cuts, not a single window remained intact.
At least a half dozen ambulances were parked in the streets helping remove those trapped in their homes. I asked a civil defence worker if they’d removed anyone from inside the apartments?
“Yes,” he replied. “We’ve removed some bodies. We’re searching for more.”
We managed to get as close to the site of the blast as we could. Lebanese soldiers were clearing a way for fire engines and ambulances to reach the scene.
Suddenly a convoy of black SUVs with tinted windows drove from where the smoke was still pouring out from the port. They were stopped by a group of furious civilians. (Black SUVs tend to be the car of choice for high-ranking politicians and officials.)
“What have you done?” one of the civilians shouted. Several others joined in slamming their hands on the car bonnet.
An armed man, most likely a bodyguard, came out of the car and pointed his firearm into the air. The people, without skipping a beat, confronted him immediately.
“How can you do this to us? Look what’s happening.”
Eventually the soldiers intervened and calmed the situation down. The SUVs drove away. The ordinary folk remained.
Thousands left to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives.