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TV veteran BRENT SADLER sends a dramatic despatch from his Beirut home

The fireball was like no other I’ve ever seen or felt before, and I have seen my fair share. At its centre, a huge, intense red ball of flame that spewed smoke, ash and debris high into Beirut’s late afternoon sky, like an angry volcano.

In a millisecond, a seismic eruption tore through the city, wreaking death and destruction.

The explosion was so vast it was heard across the Mediterranean in Cyprus, 160 miles away, like a small non-nuclear version of Little Boy, the atomic device dropped on Hiroshima almost 75 years ago to the day.

And like a nuke, Lebanon’s fireball was shaped into a mushroom, before the terrifying aftershock split from the epicentre to engulf a million people.

Buildings collapsed like cardboard. Trees bent and snapped. Cars were tossed in the air like toys and a hailstorm of deadly broken glass rained down on the hapless city.

As the sky turned dark with smoke over the devastated Beirut port, streets were littered with the dead and bloodied faces of innocent victims.

As I write, it is the day after one of the biggest-ever explosions to hit a capital city.

More bodies were pulled from the rubble as calls grew for an independent international inquiry into the cause of the blast.

Church bells, which rang until the early hours of the morning, fell silent on a day of national mourning as prayers and priests did their best for the living and the dead from a doomsday event that spared no religion in Lebanon’s fractious and volatile sectarian mix.

At the time of the blast I was writing a book about my time at ITN and CNN. At our home in downtown Beirut, the 8th floor balcony windows were open.

My wife Jelena and her mother were on the terrace when we heard a noise which sounded like a sonic boom, often heard when Israeli warplanes break the sound barrier over the capital, a violation of Lebanon’s sovereignty yet something happening more and more frequently of late.

Ten to 15 seconds later we saw the fireball rising above rooftops, less than a mile away, while the aftershock travelled at subsonic speed. When it hit us, we saw everything in slow motion.

A pair of sliding windows in our living room, each weighing around 100kg, were blown off their tracks and flew across the room like feathers, such was the fearsome power of the explosion.

Thankfully the glass didn’t shatter and we survived with a few bumps and scrapes.

But friends are in hospital, some are missing and many have lost their homes.

If anyone wanted to inflict a defeat on the country, already on its knees in the midst of an economic crisis and close to bankruptcy, this could have been a way to do it.

For now, though, the main theory is an accident. Official incompetence, negligence and ignorance are all high on the list of explanations.

Similar to a nuclear explosion, then came the fall-out.

The first reaction was a fear of toxic fumes from almost 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate stored at the port facility.

The second focused on the recriminations. Ammonium nitrate can be used to make bombs, a terrorists’ go-to weapon. But why was a vast stockpile of explosive material there in the first place, not far from residential areas?

The president, Michel Aoun, a close political ally of Hezbollah, has called for an urgent investigation.

His government is backed by the armed, militant terror group – not all in Lebanon will have much faith in it, especially those who oppose Hezbollah’s stranglehold over the country.

It may not have been an Israeli air-strike, as was widely suspected at first, but it certainly felt like one as we ran down the internal fire escape stairs, dogs in hand, to take shelter in the underground parking garage.

We saw that every metal elevator door on the way down was buckled and ceilings had collapsed – nothing was spared.

Hezbollah’s leadership called for national unity, while Lebanese prime minister Hassan Diab promised that whoever was responsible for storing the ammonium nitrate would face the full weight of the law. But it is seen as a hollow threat in the eyes of many here.

Some 15 years ago, Lebanon’s five-time prime minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated alongside 21 others in a two-ton truck bomb attack on his armoured convoy in downtown Beirut.

Tomorrow, the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon, set up to investigate those killings and bring the perpetrators to justice, is expected to deliver verdicts against four members of Hezbollah who were tried in absentia.

Lebanon was bracing for trouble ahead of those verdicts, but nothing of this magnitude. It is now begging for help. The port installations are destroyed along with huge quantities of vital wheat which were stored in concrete grain silos.

The famed shopping district of Hamra is in ruins, few have escaped the firestorm up to a radius of several miles. There isn’t enough glass in the country to repair all the damaged property and coronavirus is running rampant.

Hospitals are overflowing with casualties and a two-week state of emergency has been imposed on the capital.

For those of us who’ve lived, worked and survived through Lebanon’s tumultuous wars, invasions, car bombs, assassinations, kidnappings and litany of lost opportunities, the country faces the kind of vacuum that a loss of trust in responsible and effective leadership brings, especially after such a violent event.

And when there’s a vacuum in the Middle East, it can get a lot worse before it gets better.

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