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Massive Explosion Devastates Thousands In Beirut

NOEL KING, HOST:

People in Beirut woke up to devastation today, if they'd slept at all. Video of yesterday's explosion shows this mushroom cloud rising high into the sky above a warehouse on the waterfront. Hadi Nasrallah lives in Beirut. He was in a taxi driving near the area where the explosion happened.

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HADI NASRALLAH: It was massive. It's like a volcano. So it was something that I never experienced in my life and the sound and the smoke and the very - the amount of kilometers it reached and how many people heard it - was the first time that ever happened in this country.

KING: The nearby neighborhood was leveled. Bulldozers had to clear the roads for firefighters and ambulances. Now, the Lebanese government is saying the blast was caused by explosives that were stored unsafely. In terms of injuries and casualties, this is still an incredibly fluid situation, with hospitals overwhelmed. At this point, more than 100 people have died, and thousands of other people are injured. One of them is Dion Nissenbaum's 4-year-old daughter. Dion is a reporter with The Wall Street Journal, and he's on the line with me now. Hi, Dion.

DION NISSENBAUM: Hi. Good morning.

KING: How are you, and how is your daughter?

NISSENBAUM: We're still in shock. My daughter is still in the hospital getting tests run. She got very deep lacerations in her leg and arm and abdomen that had to have sutures. She's still in shock. I also got lacerations. I'm still pulling glass from my head and had to be sutured up. But thank goodness we're all alive, as well as my wife, who's a doctor here with the Red Cross, who basically helped save my daughter's life.

KING: You - we've heard stories about hospitals being overwhelmed. Is - are there people to take care of your daughter? Are you concerned about shortages of medical staff?

NISSENBAUM: The hospital that she's at was overrun in the first hours. They kept bringing in critical patients in the first hours. There were - there was a little girl at the edge of my daughter's bed who had a shirt soaked in blood, while her father had bandages on his head. He was on the floor. Outside of the little area where my daughter and these two were was another girl who must have been 5 or 6 who was coding, was - basically, they were trying to save her life on a mat on the floor. The doctors did amazing work. The hospital itself was also hit by the blast, so there were shattered windows at the hospital, and they did have to turn people away because they were overrun with so many patients.

KING: Where were you when the explosion happened yesterday?

NISSENBAUM: I was at home with my daughter. She's 4 years old. And we live in the neighborhood Mar Mikhael, which is just maybe half-mile from the blast. I was giving - in the bathroom with my daughter, taking her to the bathroom when we heard the first blast. And it sounded a lot like a car bomb that I've heard in reporting in places like Kabul and even Istanbul - and went out into the living room to call my colleagues to find out what it was. And my daughter came running out naked into the living room to say, what was that?

And then the blast, the second blast - a much more powerful blast - just blew in the glass and the doors and everything in our house. And I just had to dive to the ground and use my body to shield her from as much of the glass and wood that was - just blew into our house and then blew back the other way somehow. It blew through our house, and then, like, ricocheted off the building behind us and tossed my computer and our sofa out into the front of the street. It was unlike any blast I've ever experienced.

KING: We're seeing credible reports - and it sounds like this is in line with what you're saying - we're seeing credible reports that half of Beirut was affected in some way by this, meaning half of Beirut was touched, either windows gone, buildings gone. What are you actually seeing today? Have you been out in the street at all?

NISSENBAUM: Yeah, I - our neighborhood was completely devastated. Everywhere that - I've had to basically walk everywhere. The hospital - everywhere between us and the hospital, which is probably a mile away, broken glass everywhere. I had to carry suitcases out of our neighborhood 'cause the street was just filled with cars that were completely abandoned and shattered and walked about a mile to downtown Beirut, and the entire route was just covered in cars and shattered glass. I've not seen a part of Beirut yet that's untouched. Certainly as far as west Beirut into Hamra, where I am now, there's shattered glass and devastation.

KING: Lebanon's president went on TV this morning. He called this a humanitarian crisis. He called this a catastrophe for the city of Beirut. From what you're seeing, with your reporter's mind, what are the biggest needs right now?

NISSENBAUM: I think they're still in the mode of trying to find any survivors that may be buried under the rubble in some of these neighborhoods. They need to treat everybody at the hospitals. You know, this is a country that is overrun by coronavirus and economic freefall, hyperinflation, and this is not what it needed. They've got to take care of the people and then try and figure out, I think, what happened.

KING: Wall Street Journal reporter Dion Nissenbaum, thank you so much for taking the time to speak to us. And you and your family are in our thoughts.

NISSENBAUM: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.