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Beirut explosion: Blast destroyed Australian couple’s hotel

Australian Omair Jheir (pictured) was lucky to survive the blast only 500 metres from his home

A newlywed Australian couple living 500 metres from the Beirut port that exploded with the force of a small nuclear bomb have given harrowing accounts of the death and destruction they faced – and their desperate battle for survival.   

Omair Jheir, from Sydney, was relaxing at his apartment in the Lebanese capital when more than 2,750 tonnes of highly explosive ammonium nitrate – the main ingredient in fertiliser bombs – detonated.

‘The sheer magnitude of it was more powerful than anything I have ever experienced. I was thrown against the wall, bruising my ribs, and my house just collapsed around us,’ Mr Jheir told The Daily Telegraph. 

The 41-year-old – who owns a hotel, restaurant and coffee shop close to the port – frantically tried to find medical help as he walked over dead bodies and watched buildings collapse around him.   

‘My friends, my neighbours, my customers, they were just ripped apart. There was blood gushing out of their faces. There were people on the floor dead. It was devastating,’ he said.

‘I was not wearing shoes and there was glass everywhere. My feet were cut to ribbons as I walked down the street.’ 

Mr Jheir created a makeshift bandage out of sheets to protect his feet before he and a friend went in search of a hospital. 

Newlyweds Omair Jheir and Hala Okeil had their lives torn apart after the explosion ripped through the city of Beirut on Wednesday morning AEST

Newlyweds Omair Jheir and Hala Okeil had their lives torn apart after the explosion ripped through the city of Beirut on Wednesday morning AEST

Red and orange clouds of smoke billow into the sky from the massive explosion that has left at least 100 people dead

Red and orange clouds of smoke billow into the sky from the massive explosion that has left at least 100 people dead 

But the nearest medical centre was flattened – and the next three were already overwhelmed by patients. 

He was finally able to get help after presenting to a fifth facility, then drove two hours north where he was admitted to a hospital in Tripoli.

Mr Jheir suffered serious abrasions to his face and body, as well as a broken arm.  

His three businesses on Gemmayze Street were completely destroyed. 

His yoga instructor wife Hala Okeili was lucky to avoid the worst of the blast.

‘I was reaching home when [the port exploded]. I was lucky to be two minutes away,’ Ms Okeili said.  

The couple's apartment was completely destroyed when the blast ripped through the city on Wednesday morning AEST

The couple’s apartment was completely destroyed when the blast ripped through the city on Wednesday morning AEST

Shattered glass and overturned furniture littered the floor of the couple's Beirut home following the disaster

 Shattered glass and overturned furniture littered the floor of the couple’s Beirut home following the disaster

The couple lost everything including their hotel, coffee shop, restaurant and yoga studio

The couple lost everything including their hotel, coffee shop, restaurant and yoga studio

‘In five minutes, I lost my home and everything in it, I almost lost my husband. Thank God he survived the… massive destruction,’ she wrote.

‘The yoga studio is extremely damaged, my cat who means the world to me is missing.

‘The entire street we live in is down to ashes… many have died… Our lives as we know it are gone. What more is left!?’

The Australian hotel owner's new wife Hala Okeili managed to escape the worst of the blast

The Australian hotel owner’s new wife Hala Okeili managed to escape the worst of the blast

The pair had only returned to Lebanon a month ago after a dream wedding in Sydney

The pair had only returned to Lebanon a month ago after a dream wedding in Sydney

In a tearful video online she added: ‘Thank God we’re alive. Thank God my husband is alive. Thank God the helper that works with us is alive.

‘Our house is gone. The studio destroyed. But we’re alive.

‘It’s really tough times, so thank you for all your solidarity.

‘God be with those who lost their lives. God be with their parents.’ 

The pair had only returned to Lebanon a month ago after a dream wedding in Sydney.

Photos from the day show the happy couple smiling as they shared the moment with friends in front of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. 

'Thank god we're alive. Thank god my husband is alive. Thank god the helper that works with us is alive,' she wept

‘Thank god we’re alive. Thank god my husband is alive. Thank god the helper that works with us is alive,’ she wept

A drone captures the devastation wrought by the explosion, including a watery crater (bottom left) where the warehouse containing the explosive chemicals previously stood

A man reacts at the scene of an explosion at the port in Lebanon's capital Beirut on August 4

A man reacts at the scene of an explosion at the port in Lebanon’s capital Beirut on August 4

At least one Australian was killed in the explosion which has claimed 100 lives and injured 4000 more. The death toll is expected to rise.   

The blast at a warehouse district at the port, where 2750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate had been stored, rocked the city early on Wednesday AEST.

Reports suggest the chemical, used in fertilisers and bombs, had been stored for six years at the port without safety measures and may have been set off by welding work.

Witnesses reported windows being shattered and buildings damaged 10km from the blast area.

Shattered buildings litter the skyline in the seaport of Beirut after the tragic blast

Shattered buildings litter the skyline in the seaport of Beirut after the tragic blast 

People run in the aftermath of a massive explosion

People run in the aftermath of a massive explosion

An injured man waits for help at the explosion scene that hit the seaport

An injured man waits for help at the explosion scene that hit the seaport

Cars and buildings were torn apart during the blast

Cars and buildings were torn apart during the blast

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the Australian embassy in the Lebanese capital had been ‘significantly impacted’ but staff escaped without major injuries.

‘It’s my deep regret to inform you that one Australian has been killed in this horrific blast,’ he told Nine Network.

Mr Morrison said there were usually about 20,000 Australians in the Lebanese capital but he was unsure how many had returned to Australia because of the coronavirus pandemic.

‘Our hearts really go out to our Lebanese Australian community,’ the prime minister said.

‘I know there will be many prayers in the churches and the mosques in Australia but given the COVID restrictions, I would just urge the appropriate response.’

Foreign Minister Marise Payne said the embassy had considerable damage from the blast.

Army soldiers evacuate injured people

Army soldiers evacuate injured people

An injured worker walks at the explosion scene that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon

An injured worker walks at the explosion scene that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon

‘About 95 per cent of the windows and front of the chancery of the embassy have been blown out,’ she told ABC radio.

‘Staff have been affected by a number of glass injuries. Fortunately, they are relatively minor and they have all been treated.’

She announced on Wednesday evening that In response to the disaster Australia would direct $2 million in humanitarian support to Lebanon to help with the recovery.

The funding will consist of $1 million each to trusted aid partners, the World Food Program and the Red Cross movement, to help ensure food, medical care and essential items were provided to those affected by the tragedy.

‘Australia and Lebanon have a strong relationship built on extensive community ties, with more than 230,000 Australians having Lebanese heritage. This tragedy will affect many people in both countries,’ Ms Payne said.

Fires were still burning at the destroyed port on Wednesday morning as the full extent of the devastation – in a country that was already in the midst of an economic crisis – was laid bare

Wounded people are treated at a hospital following the explosion, which has left hundreds of casualties in Beirut last night

Wounded people are treated at a hospital following the explosion, which has left hundreds of casualties in Beirut last night

A drone picture shows the scene of an explosion that struck the port in Beirut yesterday and has caused devastation in the capital

A drone picture shows the scene of an explosion that struck the port in Beirut yesterday and has caused devastation in the capital

‘Tragically, one Australian has been confirmed killed. We send our sincere condolences to family members and friends.’

Labor leader Anthony Albanese expressed his profound sympathy for those impacted.

Human Rights Watch researcher Aya Majzoub, who lives 4km from the scene of the explosion, described it as a ‘humanitarian catastrophe’.

‘Entire neighbourhoods have been reduced to rubble. People’s cars have been crushed under the weight of the rubble.

‘People are still trapped in their homes or under buildings that have collapsed.’

She said hospitals were overwhelmed, had to treat patients in parking lots and were running out of medical supplies.

A destroyed silo is seen amid the rubble and debris following yesterday's blast at the port of Lebanon's capital Beirut

A destroyed silo is seen amid the rubble and debris following yesterday’s blast at the port of Lebanon’s capital Beirut

Young Lebanese women wearing protective masks and gloves stand amid the rubble in Beirut's Gimmayzeh commercial district which was heavily damaged after the explosion tore through Lebanon's capital

Young Lebanese women wearing protective masks and gloves stand amid the rubble in Beirut’s Gimmayzeh commercial district which was heavily damaged after the explosion tore through Lebanon’s capital

An injured man covered in blood is seen in Beirut following the explosion in Beirut on Tuesday

An injured man covered in blood is seen in Beirut following the explosion in Beirut on Tuesday

The Lebanese Muslim Association said there was a dire need for international assistance.

‘Today is a test of our humanity,’ association president Samier Dandan said.

‘We call on all people of goodwill to stand together in solidarity.’

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said the embassy was making urgent inquiries of local authorities to establish the full extent of the impact of the incident on Australians.

It said all Australian embassy staff had been accounted for.

Australians who need consular assistance after the Beirut explosion can call (+61) 2 6261 3305 (outside Australia) or 1300 555 135 (inside Australia).

Dramatic footage shows smoke billowing from the port area shortly before an enormous fireball explodes into the sky and blankets the city in a thick mushroom cloud

Dramatic footage on social media shows people screaming as an enormous blast rocks the waterside area of Lebanon's capital city

Dramatic footage shows smoke billowing from the port area shortly before an enormous fireball explodes into the sky and blankets the city in a thick mushroom cloud

It lay waste to the immediate surrounding buildings, where firefighters were still battling flames this evening, and even wreaked havoc on districts miles away from the blast site

It lay waste to the immediate surrounding buildings, where firefighters were still battling flames this evening, and even wreaked havoc on districts miles away from the blast site

Ammonium nitrate – the terrorist’s bomb ingredient 

Ammonium nitrate – identified as the cause of the deadly explosion in Beirut – is an odourless crystalline substance used as a fertilizer that has been behind many industrial explosions and terrorist attacks over the decades. 

Two tonnes of it was used to create the bomb in the 1995 Oklahoma City attack that destroyed a federal building, leaving 168 people dead, and it has been widely used by the Taliban in improvised devices.

Experts say a fire in Beirut started after a spark from a welder likely ignited the highly reactive chemical, causing a blast the equivalent to three million kilotons of TNT, killing at least 100 people and leaving thousands more injured.

There were 2,750 tonnes of the hazardous chemical held in the warehouse at the time of the explosion – which measured as the equivalent of a 3.5 earthquake. 

Death and injury from the explosion would have come in a number of phases, according to Dr David Caldicott from the Australian National University. 

‘Primary injuries are blast-related, as a consequence of the overpressure wave interacting with the hollow space in victims; lung injuries are often survived, but subsequently fatal, and bowel injuries are common.

‘Secondary injuries are caused by flying debris; effectively environmental shrapnel.

‘Tertiary injuries are as a consequence of being thrown by the blast, and quaternary injuries by other features such as inhalation.’ 

When combined with fuel oils, ammonium nitrate creates a potent explosive widely used in the construction industry, but also by insurgent groups to create bombs.

As well as the Oklahoma City bomb in the US, it has been used in a number of IRA attacks on the UK. 

These include the Bishopsgate attack in April 1993 that left 40 injured and a 40ft wide crater, and a 3,300lb bomb in Manchester in June 1996 that left 2000 injured but no deaths due to a phone warning an hour before the blast. 

In agriculture, ammonium nitrate fertiliser is applied in granule form and quickly dissolves under moisture, allowing nitrogen to be released into the soil.

However, under normal storage conditions and without very high heat, it is difficult to ignite ammonium nitrate, Jimmie Oxley, a chemistry professor at the University of Rhode Island, said.

‘If you look at the video (of the Beirut explosion), you saw the black smoke, you saw the red smoke – that was an incomplete reaction,’ she said.

‘I am assuming that there was a small explosion that instigated the reaction of the ammonium nitrate – whether that small explosion was an accident or something on purpose I haven’t heard yet.’

That’s because ammonium nitrate is an oxidiser – it intensifies combustion and allows other substances to ignite more readily, but is not itself very combustible.

For these reasons, there are generally very strict rules about where it can be stored: for example, it must be kept away from fuels and sources of heat.

In fact, many countries in the European Union require that calcium carbonate to be added to ammonium nitrate to create calcium ammonium nitrate, which is safer.

In the United States, regulations were tightened significantly after the Oklahoma City attack, with inspections required if more than 2,000lbs of it are stored in one place.  

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk


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