Rochester, Minnesota, United States
|Hope in the catastrophe. Drawing by Najat Fadlallah.|
After several chaotic cycles of resuscitation attempts, the twenty-something-year-old woman was pronounced dead. This was less than half an hour after a massive blast shook the heart of Beirut, Lebanon on the eve of August 4, 2020. “I immediately looked around, devastated that I was about to break the horrible news to the young man who brought her here. To my surprise, the man standing impatiently waiting to know if the young woman made it was not her relative or friend. On the contrary, he was a complete stranger who happened to be at the site of the blast when everything collapsed. After realizing he had miraculously remained uninjured, he rushed in to try and save this complete stranger who was horribly wounded, despite the dangerous setting and his lack of first aid training.”
This was what a resident physician, Ghadir, cited as one of her most shocking and vivid memories of working in the emergency department of a Beirut hospital on that fateful night. This was not an isolated incident but one of many, which together compose a remarkable phenomenon in the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe.
On a relatively quiet Tuesday afternoon, an unexpected and massive explosion shook Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, resulting in more than 200 deaths and 7,500 injuries.1 Described as one of the largest known nonnuclear explosions, the blast left the city wounded on many levels. On an economic level, the losses were estimated at more than $3 billion.2 Politically, it exacerbated the unrest that had been ongoing since October 2019 and renewed demands for justice for the victims of this unbelievable crime.3 However, most horrific was what unraveled on a humanitarian level. As it tore through the city, the blast left a permanent scar in the hearts of the many Lebanese who stood in utter helplessness and disbelief as they watched their wounded city explode.
Because of the immensity of the blast and its associated destruction, there was a delay in the arrival of first aid teams to rescue survivors. The events that immediately followed the blast, however, are worth recognition. According to eyewitnesses, survivors, and hospital staff, much of the initial response to the catastrophe did not come from experts or trained groups, but rather from bystanders who were complete strangers. They rushed to help anyone they could find, despite their own confusion, fear, and uncertainty.
Mahdi was in his office on that afternoon when the ceiling crashed down over his head. Covered in blood, he rushed downstairs to the street before collapsing to the ground. The last thing he recalls was a young woman calling two other men, whom he does not know to this day. They used pieces of clothing to compress his open wounds, then rushed him to the hospital where he spent the next week in intensive care. Were it not for these kind and selfless strangers, Mahdi recalls, his chances of making it out alive would have been slim.
In the days and weeks that followed, similar stories emerged across Beirut. Many people credited complete strangers for their survival. These nameless strangers, who could have themselves been injured, risked their lives to help others. Everyone was a victim on that day, and despite the tragedy, the event united the Lebanese people and revealed their true character. Some of these strangers provided basic aid to the victims, taking off their shirts to compress open wounds, or trying to stabilize a fracture until an expert became available. Others went out of their way to transport victims by car or motorcycle to the nearest hospital, sometimes even staying to see if they survived and if their families found them.
These strangers did not seek glory or attention, and were not even doing their job. They were passing by or busy with routine tasks when the blast occurred. They all made a conscious decision to step in and help.
There have been many accounts of physicians or other healthcare workers going out of their way to help complete strangers.4 However, the truly impressive aspect of what happened in Beirut on that day is the selflessness of ordinary people, who despite being victims themselves risked their lives to help other people. It was on that day that people in Beirut demonstrated how solidarity and compassion can rise in the face of disaster.5
The wounded were not only individuals. The city itself was wounded, but somehow, in beautiful harmony amidst the catastrophe, the city came together. We may never really know how many lives were saved by strangers. But there are many who will forever be grateful for a kind stranger who helped, possibly saved a life, and then went back into being a stranger in the background.
- “Beirut Port BLAST Death Toll Rises to 190.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, August 30, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-lebanon-crisis-blast-casualties-idUSKBN25Q08H.
- Hussain, Noor Zainab, and Carolyn Cohn. “Insured Losses from Beirut Blast Seen around $3 Billion: Sources.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, August 7, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-lebanon-security-blast-insurance/insured-losses-from-beirut-blast-seen-around-3-billion-sources-idINKCN2532IF?edition-redirect=in.
- “Beirut Explosion: Anti-Government Protests Break out in City.” BBC News. BBC, August 7, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-53688975.
- Musgrave, Jacquline. “Risking It All to Save Strangers-Remembering Gisella Perl.” Hektoen International, June 15, 2021. https://hekint.org/2021/06/15/risking-it-all-to-save-strangers-remembering-gisella-perl/.
- Solnit, Rebecca. A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. US: Penguin Usa, 2020.
NAJAT FADLALLAH, MD, completed her medical education at the Lebanese American University School of Medicine, and is currently pursuing training in pediatric and adolescent medicine at the American University of Beirut Medical Center. Her interests include mental health, infant and toddler care, social medicine, and biomedical ethics.
JULIAN MAAMARI, MD, completed his medical education at the Lebanese American University School of Medicine, and is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at Mayo Clinic. He is interested in pursuing medical training in internal medicine and has a keen interest in infectious diseases and microbiology, and has several publications in the field.
ABEER HANI, MD, is Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and Neurology at the LAU School of Medicine. She completed her M.D. degree at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon, then pursued training in Pediatrics at AUB. At Duke University, she completed a fellowship in Child Neurology, followed by a fellowship in Clinical Neurophysiology, Epilepsy and Intraoperative Monitoring. She is an active researcher and has authored many publications and book chapters. Her current areas of research include epilepsy and developmental delays. She is also the Pediatrics Residency Program Director at LAU Medical Center.
Second prize winner of the Glory of Lebanon Contest, in collaboration with the Lebanese American University Gilbert and Rose-Marie Chagoury School of Medicine