Family and colleagues agree that Charbel Karam was one of the bravest firefighters at the east Beirut fire department. On Tuesday evening, the 32-year-old was on duty when a fairly routine call came in from Beirut’s port: a warehouse appeared to have caught on fire.
By chance, Karam was on shift with his brother-in-law, 27-year-old Najib Hatti, and his wife’s cousin, 22-year-old Charbel Hatti. As the three of them sped down the coastal highway towards the port, Karam video-called his wife Karlen and their two little girls.
“Look, we’re going to the rescue! Your uncle is driving the fire engine very fast!” he told his daughters. Less than half an hour after he hung up, Karam, Najib and Charbel Hatti, along with seven other colleagues from the fire station, were at the centre of one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded. Three days later, only one of the team of 10 has been confirmed dead, and the whereabouts of the rest are unknown.
“The heart of our family has been ripped out,” said Mayan Nassif, a relative of the three men. “We make a big deal in this country about martyrs, people who die fighting our enemy or protecting our land. But they have died for nothing. They are the martyrs for the corruption and criminal behaviour of our government.”
Twenty-five-year old paramedic Sahar Fares was buried in her hometown of Qaa on Thursday, but three days after the blast, which destroyed almost half of Lebanon’s capital city, the families of the other nine members of the crew are still stuck in an agonising limbo with their loved ones still missing.
Nassif and her family are based in Qartaba, a village on Mount Lebanon above Beirut, so their homes escaped the destruction – believed to have been caused by almost 3,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored illegally at the port, which exploded after the initial fire spread.
“My poor cousin lost her husband, her brother and her cousin,” said Nassif. “It’s just as well she still has her house because we have not had any help in our search for our relatives at all. We are doing it all on our own … Not one official has been in touch to help or offer condolences,” she added.
The men’s absence is also keenly felt at the fire department. “We were like brothers,” said one colleague who had been close to Karam since the pair joined the station in 2008. He asked not to be named because he was not authorised to speak to the media.
“We ate together, worked together, slept in the same room for three days at a time. I saw him more than my own family. It will be hard getting used to him being gone,” he said.
As the hours tick by, the hope of finding the missing firefighters – always slim – is fading. Regional media reported on Friday that a worker at the port, Amin al-Zahed, was rescued after 19 hours in the water, but the surviving men at the station in Karantina were dismissive.
“They are just lying to us, to give us false hope as long as possible, because they don’t want our sorrow to turn to anger,” Karman’s colleague said.
Exactly what happened on the fire department’s doomed mission is still not known. The Lebanese president, Michel Aoun, vowed on Friday that all officials responsible for the explosion will be brought to justice regardless of their positions in the government, but the little remaining faith the Lebanese people had in the political class has now vanished. Aoun has already suggested that “foreign interference” may be to blame – something many Lebanese see as laying the groundwork to allow powerful players to avoid justice.
What is patently clear is that decades of a post-civil war political system that entrenched the country’s religious and cultural divisions and enriched former warlords has hampered the state response to the emergency: the debris that has left up to 300,000 people’s homes uninhabitable is largely being cleared by teams of volunteers. A total of 154 people are now confirmed dead, but the search for 500 who are still missing goes on, aided by both local volunteers and foreign search and rescue teams dispatched to help.
Shock has now definitely given way to anger. Protesters in central Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square were met with violence and teargas from security forces overnight on Thursday, and a convoy of soldiers carrying riot gear and shields drove down the city’s Corniche on Friday morning in preparation for further unrest.
At east Beirut’s fire department – which was badly battered by the blast – employees have been told to follow strict lines when talking to media, but one senior-ranking official was keen to show the station’s memorial wall, on which 18 men who have died in the line of duty are honoured.
On Friday, one of their pictures was missing, lost in the blast, and a trail of blood led up the stairs from what used to be the operations room.
“They promised us new equipment in 2015, after we lost two men because they did not have proper radio equipment and lighting to put out a fire in an underground car park,” he said.
“Nothing happened. It’s always the same excuse. And now we will have to put up a whole new board to remember another 10 who have died for no reason.”