A former UK university student who filmed the horrific mushroom-cloud footage of the Beirut blast has described how he was blasted off his balcony and feared he was about to die.
Abdallah Rashidi captured terrifying footage which was viewed by millions after the explosion in the Lebanese capital which has killed at least 163 people.
Like other witnesses, Rashidi started filming when he saw the warehouse on fire at Beirut’s port – seconds before the blast.
‘When you see the blast slowly approaching you, you think you’re dead,’ he said. ‘People didn’t believe the video actually happened when I sent it. It looks like it’s from a movie really, it’s completely unimaginable. Part of me is still in denial.’
Rashidi, 26, was drinking coffee on his balcony in the Sodeco neighbourhood when he noticed the fire at the harbour.
Despite being several miles away, Abdallah said it was very visible and he began filming on his phone.
He even saw the doomed firefighters going in to try and find the source of the blaze. ‘I saw fire trucks attending and putting out the fire,’ he said.
Then he felt a huge boom and a cloud of debris began to surge towards him. ‘This huge force just came out of the fire,’ he said.
‘It was slowly expanding, and I just froze. In my head I was just thinking, it’s going to hit me.
‘You could see buildings getting pulled apart and crumbling. Thoughts flashing through my mind – will it hit me? Will I die?’.
Abdallah’s coffee mug shattered, and he was flung several yards back from his balcony into his flat.
‘At first I thought I was dreaming, I couldn’t believe it was happening,’ he said. ‘I thought I had died, I couldn’t understand what was going on.
‘There was this white flash, and I heard people screaming.’
He sent the now infamous video to friends on WhatsApp before it found its way online.
According to the health ministry, at least 163 people were killed in Lebanon’s worst peacetime disaster, while 6,000 more were wounded.
However, Abdallah and his father Fouad, 54, who was also in his flat napping, were uninjured.
They immediately fled fearing the block would collapse, and drove to the family home south of the city.
‘We thought the apartment block could crumble, we were acting on instinct,’ he remembers.
‘We thought it was the start of a war with the rumours. I blanked out some of my memory.’
The blast is thought to have been caused by a stockpile of ammonium nitrate which had been left unsecured at the port for several years.
The August 4 explosion, which drew comparisons with the Hiroshima atom bomb 75 years ago, even changed the shape of Beirut’s Mediterranean coastline.
Many in Lebanon see the blast as a symbol of corruption and incompetence among the country’s elite, and protests have broken out in the wake of the disaster.
Abdallah remembers returning to Beirut the next day to a scene out of a horror movie.
‘What you see on TV is nothing compared to what you see in person,’ he said. ‘You can see body parts everywhere, cars on their roofs with people dead inside.
‘Seeing all the body parts on the ground was so overwhelming. ‘You could see people looking for their families and just seeing body parts scattered everywhere.’
Breaking down as he described the devastation, he said: ‘Beirut is a very diverse city, you have Muslims, Christians, Westerners, all living together.
‘Churches and mosques are right next to each other, which is wonderful. It’s not called the Paris of the Middle East for nothing.
‘It has vibrant areas with cafes, incredible food and amazing nightlife.’
The masters student grew up in the Lebanese capital, but always dreamed of becoming an English teacher.
He spent around a year-and-a-half in the UK, studying a masters in English language and linguistics at Coventry. He also taught English to refugees in Britain.
Rashidi left the UK last year and worked for Coventry University as an English lecturer at its new campus in New Cairo, Egypt.
He moved back to Beirut at the start of the pandemic, and is finishing the thesis for his master’s degree.
‘I want to share awareness, I want people to donate, I want people to help in whatever way they can,’ he said.
‘The Lebanese people have really suffered enough. ‘We were in the middle of an economic crisis, there was political corruption going on.
‘Beirut has been destroyed and built again seven times, this looks like it will be the eighth.
‘That is a testament to how tough and resilient the people of Lebanon are.
‘In the end, everyone needs help, we thrive on human connection. Please, see us and help us, break the barriers of politics and religion and just help your fellow man. Donate, volunteer, do whatever you can.’