Mission impossible: The last fire fight of Beirut’s Platoon Five
Remembering the brave 10 in their final moments and reflecting on the impact of their loss
“Look at us firefighters going to put out a fire,” Charbel Karam told his 2-year-old daughter on the phone while riding in an ambulance to the port of Beirut.
At 5:54 p.m. on August 4, the Karantina Fire Station in Beirut, Lebanon, received a call to immediately dispatch a team to extinguish a fire in one of the warehouses at the main port of the city on the Mediterranean Sea. Karam, 37, and eight colleagues from Platoon Five, along with Paramedic Sarah Fares, 27, got into a fire truck and an ambulance and headed toward the port, which was only a short 2.5 km ride away.
While on the phone with his daughter, Karam was passed by the fire truck, with his brother-in-law behind the steering wheel.
“Do you see how fast your uncle is going?” Karam asked his daughter. For him, Platoon Five was literally family: Both his brother-in-law and his wife’s cousin served in the same unit. Whenever possible, they went out together, and so they did on August 4.
“Hang up so I can catch up with him,” Karam said.
Those were the last words she would ever hear from her father.
“This was something much bigger”
When Platoon Five arrived at the port, the experienced firefighters immediately sensed that they were facing more than an ordinary fire. This was not wheat burning, as they had been told before heading to the port. This was something much bigger, much more dangerous, and they would not be able to handle it on their own.
They parked the fire truck in front of Warehouse No. 12 and called back to their station in Karantina to ask for backup – a phone call that would ultimately save many lives.
After the team at the port briefly considered how to tackle the immense blaze, Rami Kaaki from Platoon Five and two other men approached the locked door of Warehouse No. 12 and tried to break it open with a pry bar. Meanwhile, back at the fire station in Karantina, their colleagues, alerted by the call, rushed down from the common rooms on top of the building to the garage with the fire trucks to head to the port for support.
At 6:08 p.m., disaster struck.
Warehouse No. 12 did not house fireworks, nor wheat, nor any other common goods one might expect in an ordinary storage facility in the middle of a commercial port right next to the bustling city center. Warehouse No. 12, where the men of Platoon Five were desperately looking for a way to get in, housed 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a chemical substance that can be used to produce fertilizer – or bombs. It is the same material that Timothy McVeigh used to blow up Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995. Many of the improvised explosive devices used against U.S. troops in Afghanistan contained ammonium nitrate, and some of the biggest industrial accidents in history were caused by accidental explosions of large quantities of ammonium nitrate.
This deadly pile had been sitting in Warehouse No. 12 at Beirut Port for more than six years. The exact details of how and why it was brought there, why it remained there for all those years, who knew about it and who failed to take proper action to remove will be subject to an in-depth investigation that has just begun.
“This is Lebanon’s 9/11”
6:08. The time stamp has been burnt into Beirut’s collective memory. This is Lebanon’s 9/11, only not brought upon the country by foreign terrorists but by domestic failure.
The moment of destruction has been well documented. Because the fire that broke out in or next to the warehouse needed 14 minutes to fully ignite the explosive stockpile, plenty of footage of the actual explosion exists. The white mushroom cloud that engulfed Beirut port and the massive shockwave that resulted were captured by cell phone video by dozens of citizens, close by and from afar, not all of whom survived. The sound of the explosion could be heard and felt as far away as Cyprus, 200 kilometers across the Mediterranean Sea. In Beirut, within a radius of 10 kilometers, windows shattered. Closer to the detonation, walls and even entire buildings collapsed.
At 6:08, the top floor of the Karantina Fire Station where the firefighters hang out while waiting to be called to duty, was almost empty, thanks to the call received from the port a few minutes earlier. Had the men who just moments ago were resting on the iron beds with simple mattresses still been up there, many of them would have died under the myriad pieces of glass and stone whirling around, cutting and burying mercilessly anything that gets in the way. The floor was devastated. Down in the garage, where the firefighters were getting ready to follow their colleagues to the port, they were shielded at least from the worst impact of the blast.
The head of the Karantina Fire Station, Raymond Farah, who had unknowingly sent his Platoon to the “port of death,” as they now call it, rushed to the scene of the explosion even before the smoke and dust had settled in his severely damaged headquarter. Since all the vehicles at the fire station were buried in debris and dust, he stopped a motorbike passing by and asked for a ride to the port.
Nothing had prepared him for the Ground Zero he would find where just a few minutes prior Beirut’s busy port processed the many imported goods the country relies upon – up to 80% of the food consumed in Lebanon come from abroad.
The fire truck – gone.
The ambulance – vanished.
Platoon Five – blown to pieces so small it took days to identify enough DNA to provide the families with something they could bury.
A video filmed by Paramedic Sarah Fares offered the world a glimpse of her very last moments. As she was filming from behind her colleagues who were bravely walking toward the warehouse of doom, one could see the smoke expand, then a big bang occurred, a scream, everything turns black – and then silence. Platoon Five was gone. Annihilated in the biggest non-nuclear explosion in modern history, if not ever.
“Broken hearts weep over their losses”
An hour to the north and up the mountains, in the little village of Qartaba, no windows shattered, and no walls collapsed. But inside the beautiful traditional stone houses typical for the region, broken hearts weep over their losses.
A huge canvas with a picture of three firefighters – Karam and Najeeb and Charbel Hitti – was hung on the wall next to the old Maronite Church in the heart of the village once it was clear that the sons of the village that served in Platoon Five were not coming back. The photograph looks like it was taken at a wedding, all three men wear dark blue tuxedos and bow ties.
Inside the church, the three coffins with the little remains of the three young men that could be found stand lined up next to each other, wrapped in the distinctive Lebanese flag with red and white stripes and the green cedar in the center.
For the funeral service, the church was filled until the last seat, additional plastic chairs had to be brought in to accommodate the crowd of mourners, many of them wearing a mask as prevention against COVID-19, which has been ravaging the country in addition to all the other crises going on.
“Many have relived their traumas”
Similar scenes occur about 100 km to the south, in the coastal town of Damour, home to Joe Bou Saab from Platoon Five.
Damour, nestled into the rolling hills above the Mediterranean Sea, overlooking banana plantations and the main highway to the south, has seen its own share of destruction. Not in this explosion but at the onset of the Lebanese Civil War, when in 1976 it was one of the first embattled villages in a long and bloody conflict. Almost all houses in Damour were destroyed, which is why today the town mainly consists of non-descript concrete houses.
The St. Elias Church, though, in the heart of Damour was rebuilt with the traditional white stone blocks, with a high ceiling and a cemetery facing the mountains. Many of the people attending the Saab’s funeral have relived their traumas from the civil war in the days since the explosion at the port. Haunting memories they had buried deep inside crawled back to the surface, causing sleepless nights and desperation over the fact that even in times of peace, families are not spared from losing their loved ones through destructive forces stronger than anything they have seen in almost 20 years of war.
While the young men of the town carried Saab’s coffin on their shoulders through the streets of Damour, shouting out their anger over the senseless loss of life, the older citizens watched in silence, remembering the many young lives this town had lost before.
“The brave 10 who tried to save Beirut”
Weddings were called off – like the one of Sarah Fares, which was planned for June 2021.
Children will grow up without ever seeing their father – like the second child that the wife of Rami Kaaki is expecting.
The two little girls of Charbel Karam will have photographs of when they were babies with their dad – but from now on, their life journey must happen without him.
The 10 members of Platoon Five were not the only victims of the blast. At least 180 people died in the explosion, and 58 are still missing. Almost 300.000 people have lost their homes. But Sarah Fares, Charbel Karam, Najeeb Hitti, Charbel Hitti, Joe Bou Saab, Joe Noun, Elias Khouzami, Ralph Mallahi, Mathal Hawa and Rami Kaaki will always be remembers as the brave 10 who tried to save Beirut, even though it meant they could not be saved.