Ottawa's Lebanese community watches Beirut explosion in horror, from afar

The huge explosion near the port area of Beirut killed at least 100 people and injured thousands more on Tuesday.

Pandemic coupled with an economic crisis make sending aid to family and friends difficult

Stephanie Maghnam was shaken after receiving videos of the explosion in Beirut from family on the ground. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

Stephanie Maghnam first heard about the explosion in Lebanon's capital after her cousin texted her a video of the blast, which sent a tower of white smoke and a ball of fire into the air.

"It was just horrific," she said. "I've never seen a cloud of smoke — a mushroom. It [was] almost like I was looking at the atomic bomb being detonated." 

The huge explosion near the port area of Beirut killed at least 100 people and injured thousands more on Tuesday. The blast's shock wave shattered windows and caused apartment balconies to collapse.

Lebanon's interior minister said initial information showed highly explosive material, which had been seized years before and stored in the area, had blown up. 

Family members in Ottawa say they feel helpless as the pandemic and Lebanon's growing economic crisis make it difficult to send aid to loved ones in the country.

WATCH: Explosions at port in Lebanon's capital Tuesday afternoon

Witnesses described the scene as 'total chaos.' 1:13

Maghnam's cousin lives in the town of Bchamoun on a mountain overlooking Beirut's port. Even though the town is 10 kilometres away, their apartment was still seriously damaged by the blast, she said. 

"Most residential buildings in Lebanon are constructed with a lot of glass," said Maghnam.

The family, including two small children, is staying with relatives further in the mountains as they try to figure out their next steps. 

'I haven't seen anything like this'

Mohamad Rachidi, a recent graduate from the University of Ottawa, grew up in Lebanon during the 2006 war. He said he's seen some difficult things but had never seen "anything like this."

"The videos I'm receiving from my friends and family from Beirut are devastating, honestly," he said. 

People evacuate wounded after of a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020. (Hassan Ammar/The Associated Press)

When he heard the news of the explosion, Rachidi immediately stepped away from work to call his loved ones in the city.

"Thank god they were all fine," he said.

Some of his extended family suffered property damage, but he said that "doesn't matter compared to the health of my family and friends."

'A part of me exploded'

Comedian Nathalie Baroud was born in Lebanon but raised in Ottawa and now lives in Montreal. She said watching videos of the explosion caused her to have a physical reaction.

"I yelled out like someone punched me in the belly," she said. "I felt like a part of me exploded." 

She heard from family and friends in Beirut and learned they are all fine, she said. But Baroud worries, as the number of dead and wounded continue to rise, there might not be enough help on the ground. 

Maghnam said her father would have been one of those helpers had he not moved to Canada. He was a firefighter during the war in Lebanon and worked in the city's port area.  

She said he is devastated watching the fallout from the explosion from afar.

"He feels very helpless, like many Lebanese-Canadians do, that they're not able to help their loved ones right now."

Ottawa local Stephanie Maghnam’s cousin witnessed the explosion that devastated Beirut’s downtown core yesterday. Stephanie tells us how it felt to see the videos taken by her cousin, knowing she was so close to the blast. 9:31

with files from Thomson Reuters

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