British Columbia

'I'm in shock,' says Vancouver man who was on Zoom call with family in Lebanon during explosion

Charbel Elia's family, despite being 70 kilometers away from Beirut's port where the massive blast took place, could still hear and feel the impact.

Vancouver's Lebanese-Canadian community harness their social media networks after Tuesday's deadly blast

Charbel Elia was on a Zoom call with his mother and sister when an explosion hit Beirut Tuesday. (Shawn Foss/CBC)

Charbel Elia of Vancouver was on his weekly Zoom call with his mother and sister in Lebanon, recounting his weekend camping trip, when he saw a look of horror cross his mom's face. 

"I heard my mom scream [and] my sister scream," Elia said. His family lives 70 kilometres away from Beirut, but were still able to hear and feel the massive explosion that rocked the capital Tuesday shortly after 6 p.m. local time (around 8 a.m. PT).

The blast in the city's port shattered windows and levelled buildings, crushed cars and sent up plumes of smoke. At least 78 people are dead and nearly 4,000 injured.  Lebanon's interior minister said initial information indicated highly explosive material stored near the waterfront had blown up.

"It's been a very, very emotional day. I'm in shock," said Elia. 

While Elia's mother and sister are unharmed, his cousins who live downtown had their homes destroyed. He has not heard from his best friend, a doctor who lives near the blast's epicentre.

"He has not been answering any of us. I don't know if he's very, very busy at the hospital," he said. "I'm just looking on the internet to see if he's among the missing people."

Tuesday's explosion caused widespread damage and numerous fatalities in the Lebanese capital:

Widespread damage in aftermath of massive Beirut explosion

3 years ago
Duration 1:06
The blast cut a huge swath of destruction stretching several kilometres away from the waterfront.

Elia was among many Lebanese-Canadians frantically taking to social media and WhatsApp to make sure family and friends are safe.

Ghinwa Yassine of Vancouver spent the morning texting and talking to her Beirut-based family via their WhatsApp group.

"The whole morning was shock. It was crying, not being able to understand the gravity of it," Yassine said. 

Her relatives are safe, although their home had its windows blown in by the force of the explosion. 

"Everything was just completely shattered," she said. 

Ghinwa Yassine (second from the left) and her siblings in Beirut, in a family photo. (Submitted by Ghinwa Yassine)

Tara Achkar, who also lives in Vancouver and has immediate family in Beirut, said she was grateful her family was safe even though their home was also destroyed by the blast.

She pointed to social media as one solace during a difficult morning.

"There are a lot of support systems on social media where groups that are formed to help locate people and help connect with people who are missing," she said."A lot of people tried to help each other."

Tuesday's explosion comes at a difficult time for the Middle Eastern country. 

Lebanon is on the brink of financial collapse, facing rapidly increasing inflation, soaring unemployment and poverty, made worse by the coronavirus pandemic.

Charbel Elia's cousins live in downtown Beirut. This is their home after a massive blast hit the Lebanese capital on Tuesday. (Submitted by Charbel Elia )

Achkar said it was hard to see all of this happening from a distance. 

"Pandemic, inflation, corruption in the country, the whole revolution, and now this. It's like — oof. It's too much. That's enough," Achkar said. 

"There's a lot of frustration [and] a lot of guilt for not being there."

Elia, who usually goes back to Lebanon twice a year, says though the people of Beirut are famed for their resilience, things feel particularly bleak right now. 

"My friends, my cousins are going back to sleep in shattered homes during a pandemic with a collapsing economy," he said. 

 "It's so heavy. I wish I could tell you how heavy that is."

With files from Thomson Reuters

With files from Meera Bains, On The Coast