'Felt like an earthquake': Resident describes blast that shook Lebanon

Philippe Tawileh was with his wife and children watching television after dinner when they heard a blast and felt the house shake.

The family of five who live in Byblos (Jbeil), about 40 kilometres north of Beirut in Lebanon, rushed to look out the window but couldn't see anything, Tawileh said in a WhatsApp interview Tuesday night.

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"We felt like an earthquake and we heard the blast. It was very loud, big, huge."

That's when he turned on the news while simultaneously scrolling through his social media to find out what was happening.

Tawileh's 22-month-old son, Alexandre, was born in Montreal and is a Canadian citizen. His two other children are nine-year-old Andrew and eight-year-old Adriana.

His wife, Rawane Dagher, who is a pediatrician, recently accepted a job at a hospital in Montreal. They are waiting for their documents to immigrate, which have been delayed by the pandemic, he said. His parents and brother live in Quebec.

The massive explosion rocked Beirut Tuesday, flattening much of the city's port, damaging buildings across the capital and sending a giant mushroom cloud into the sky. More than 70 people were killed and 3,000 injured, with bodies buried in the rubble, officials said.

The blast struck with the force of a 3.5 magnitude earthquake, according to Germany’s geosciences centre GFZ, and it was heard and felt as far away as Cyprus more than 200 kilometres across the Mediterranean.

Global Affairs Canada said in a statement that it is closely monitoring the "tragic situation" in Beirut. It has received one request for consular assistance.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said a member of the Canadian Forces suffered non-life threatening injuries.

"We are providing support to the member," Sajjan said in a post on Twitter. "I wish them a speedy recovery."

The federal government says there are 10,996 Canadians in Lebanon who are registered in the Registration of Canadians Abroad database. However, as registration is voluntary, this is not a complete picture of Canadians in the country.

What caused the detonation was not immediately clear. Videos showed what appeared to be a fire erupting nearby just before the blast. Local TV stations reported that a fireworks warehouse was involved. The fire appeared to spread to a nearby building, triggering the more massive explosion, generating a shock wave.

A former Montrealer is among those who died in the blast.

Nizar Najarian lived many years in Montreal. The businessman had recently returned to his home country to get involved in politics.

Aref Salem, a Montreal city councillor, confirmed Najarian's passing.

Salem, a friend of the victim, said his wife and two children still live in Montreal.

"His wife left two weeks ago for a visit and his two children will leave tomorrow for the funeral," Salem said in an interview.

"He was an extremely dedicated man who believed in certain values and he believed in change," Salem said.

"He had accepted a job in an insecure country, far from his family, because he was a man who had values, but he ended up giving his life for those values."

The country's national news agency reported that Najarian, the secretary-general of the Christian Kataeb party, was in his office at party headquarters about one kilometre from the blast site.

Tawileh said Beirut and the surrounding areas have been rocked by explosions every few months.

"You know in Lebanon, normally we are used to explosions. Now it was new for the kids to hear something that huge. So, they were afraid — they were very afraid," he said.

"They came and asked, 'what happened there, Daddy'?"

Sounds of police and ambulance sirens filled the air a few minutes after the explosion, he said.

It was dusty for a while, adding a strange smell that lingered in the air.

"Here we are 40 kilometres far, and when we go outside, we can smell a certain chemical smell, something strange. I don't know what it is."

Dagher said she rushed to the local hospital minutes after the explosion.

The queue outside the ER was "shocking," she said, noting some people who were wounded were carrying injured children.

With most Beirut hospitals overloaded and others destroyed by the blast, this one took patients coming in from the capital, she said.

"I have never seen something like this," she said. "Even older doctors who outlived many wars in Lebanon have never seen such a dramatic situation."

— With files from Stéphane Blais in Montreal and The Associated Press

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 4, 2020

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