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A roar, an explosion, then a blank: A reporter's ordeal in the Beirut blast

Nabih Bulos, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

BEIRUT -- I don't know how I'm still here.

On Tuesday, 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate -- a common fertilizer that's also highly explosive (it's Islamic State's chemical of choice) -- blew up in Beirut's port. The blast, which ranks as one of the world's largest non-nuclear detonations, registered as a magnitude 3.3 earthquake and could be felt as far away as Cyprus.

I was less than 500 yards away, so really, I mean it literally: I don't know how I'm still here.

I remember doing mundane stuff before the chain of events that led to the explosion began: postponing a restaurant reservation, sketching out a story brewing in my mind, making plans for the weekend with my fiancee. Then I heard a roar, a rumbling crescendo that had my neighbors running out to the street, convinced that the long-expected Israeli attack on Lebanon had finally come.

I went outside onto my apartment's balcony, scanning the sky for jets before glimpsing fires eating away at the port. I tweeted a video of the rising plume of smoke, scrambled down the stairs and fired up my motorcycle, heading towards the port to take a closer look.

Then ... my memory goes dark. The next thing I can recall is the hell of coming to, after who-knows-how-many minutes of unconsciousness. My right eye was swelling shut, but I could register some people running, others screaming, still others lying bloodied and motionless on the ground. There was a carpet of glass, along with the crumpled husks of cars haphazardly strewn all over the road. The sky had turned a smoky sepia color, like an old-fashioned photograph.

 

The rest comes in disjointed flashes. I recall someone talking to me as they wrapped a bandage around my head, while I obsessed over finding my phones. When I did, I called my fiancee, who says she had to give me step-by-step instructions, as if to a child, on how to activate the location tracker so that she could come get me.

She arrived to find me with a trio of medics and another journalist. Apparently, we had a 10-minute screaming match about what to do with my motorcycle; I refused to abandon it, as good a sign as any that neither my stubbornness nor my irrational love for motorbikes were affected by the blast. Over and over, I kept asking if she was OK and telling her I had no idea how I got to where I was. Days later, I still don't know. It's a blank, like the words of a song you know you ought to remember but just can't.

I've since been playing Sherlock Holmes with my own life, trying to piece together what I did in the minutes before and the two hours after the blast. I've pored over pictures on my phone I don't recall taking, discussed what was said with friends I don't remember seeing. To an editor in London, I sent a slightly garbled message I don't remember composing:

I we're a video

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