Hussein Charafeddine tells PEOPLE about the chaotic moments following the Aug. 4 explosion, which destroyed his building and neighborhood

By Sean Neumann and Diane Herbst
August 06, 2020 05:03 PM
Advertisement
Photo provided by Hussein Charafeddine
Hussein Charafeddine

Two days after a massive explosion along the port of Beirut decimated portions of the Lebanese city and killed at least 135 people, Hussein Charafeddine is still struggling to make sense of what happened.

"I've seen things. I've heard things. I know what an explosion feels like. But this was something exceptional. This was beyond anything I can even comprehend," Charafeddine, 39, tells PEOPLE. "I cannot even begin to tell you what it felt like."

The blast — which Lebanon officials have blamed on a fire that ignited thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate stored inside a waterfront warehouse — injured at least 5,000 people and was felt as far as 150 miles away in Cyprus, according to multiple media reports.

Charafeddine was roughly two city blocks from the enormous blast when it happened. The explosion shattered the windows of his apartment complex, sent residents flying against walls, and shifted the foundation of the building, he says.

On the streets outside, the creative director — who recently moved back to Lebanon from Canada in order to renew his visa — says he witnessed people yelling out frantically for help.

Some carried bloodied victims to safety, while others stood momentarily in shock at the dust and debris that strewn across the Jeitawai neighborhood, known for its clubs and restaurants.

"Our building, our neighborhood, our block, and every single block, is completely destroyed," he says. "I went up to Zahleh to stay with a friend of mine [because] I was in shock. Like, my body... today, I am recollecting myself and remembering basically what happened."

Photo provided by Hussein Charafeddine
Hussein Charafeddine
Photo provided by Hussein Charafeddine
Hussein Charafeddine
Photo provided by Hussein Charafeddine
Hussein Charafeddine

Videos that went viral in the wake of the explosion show plumes of smoke billowing over the port of Beirut  — a blast local officials believe began after a fire reached 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate that had been left abandoned at the port for at least six years, after it was confiscated from a Russian-owned cargo ship, The New York Times reported.

Local customs officials managing the port had written to the Lebanese government on at least six occasions between 2014-17, according to the Times, asking officials how they should dispose of the material or where they should relocate it.

The chemical compound is commonly used as an agricultural fertilizer and it's highly combustable.

Photo provided by Hussein Charafeddine
Hussein Charafeddine
Photo provided by Hussein Charafeddine
Hussein Charafeddine

Charafeddine says he and a friend were at his home when they heard what sounded like gunfire and jets flying overhead.

The two headed to Charafeddine's balcony to scope out the scene, which is when he says the explosion occurred, sending his friend ducking for cover.

"I couldn't duck. I [was] looking straight at the blast and everything, everything, everything in front of me blew up," he says. "The buildings jumped a foot... We looked inside the house, and it was messed up, [though] the house in front of us took the brunt of the damage. The doors from their house blew into our doors, and back into that house."

Charafeddine says the blast left him stunned while others jumped, hid, or ran to safety.

"I looked at my friend and realized, what the f— just happened?" he says.

His gut instinct was to leave his building, so he did, and on the streets, he saw people covered in blood as they headed for Al Roum Hospital.

"Everybody was screaming. There was an old woman that walked out and she was crying," he says, noting that because of the time of day at which the explosion occurred, many women were home waiting for their husbands to return from work. "Her daughter carried her out and she was bleeding to death... I don't know what happened to her."

Photo provided by Hussein Charafeddine
Hussein Charafeddine
Photo provided by Hussein Charafeddine
Hussein Charafeddine

The BBC reported that the explosion happened next to the port's grain silos, which provide food for many of the city's two million residents. Beirut's Gov. Marwan Abboud reportedly said that roughly 300,000 of the city's residents will be temporarily homeless because of the explosion, costing the Lebanese capital somewhere between $10-15 billion.

Charafeddine says he tried to begin cleaning the damage inside his home later that evening, but still "breathing in shards of glass" seven hours later, he realized he was "completely out of it."

He packed all he could into one suitcase and left to stay at a friend's home in Zahleh, a village about an hour east of the city.

Charafeddine's neighborhood is "unrecognizable," he says about the area, where thousands of residents lived and went out to clubs at night. "They are completely destroyed."