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Beirut blast means more suffering for a country on the brink of collapse

Lebanon’s capital city is suffering the aftermath of a cataclysmic explosion that killed at least 135 people and injured 5,000. On Tuesday, a fire started at Beirut’s port -- followed by a detonation so powerful it sent a shockwave through the entire city. Hospitals already overwhelmed with coronavirus patients were flooded with bloodied bodies. Special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Our other major story is in Beirut, Lebanon, the aftermath of a cataclysmic explosion that killed at least 135 people and injured 5,000.

    Special correspondent Jane Ferguson reported for us for years from Beirut, and has tonight's report on a city shattered.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    It began with a fire at the port, and then an explosion so great, it created a mushroom cloud and a shockwave that roared through the entire city.

    On the city's streets, everyday life was shattered. A wedding photo shoot turns to disaster. And a priest performing mass runs for safety.

  • Woman:

    Oh, my God. Oh, my God.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Residents returning to their apartments found blasted-out windows and glass-covered streets.

    Seventy-two-year-old janitor Boulos Touma was standing outside his apartment when the explosion threw him back inside.

  • Boulos Touma (through translator):

    I saw my wife here covered in blood, hit on her head, on her ears. My wife has high blood pressure. Everyone was worrying about their own condition.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Beirut's hospitals, already overrun with coronavirus patients and partially destroyed, were flooded with the bloodied bodies of the walking wounded and those carried by others.

  • Seema Jilani:

    I just was shouting,"Is my daughter OK?" I got to my apartment, which was unrecognizable, with no door, and I saw my daughter at the beginning had two gashes on her leg, and was naked and wrapped in a towel, with my husband applying pressure.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Dr. Seema Jilani is an emergency room doctor from Texas working in Beirut. She spent the hospital ride singing to comfort her 4-year-old daughter.

  • Seema Jilani:

    I have worked in areas of conflict like Iraq and Afghanistan and in Gaza. What I saw yesterday was on the scale of that, if not more, in my particular personal experience. I have never experienced something like this. My ears are still ringing.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Lebanese security officials have said, nearly 3,000 tons of the fertilizer ammonium nitrate was stored in the port. It's highly explosive and can be used for making improvised bombs.

    It had been there for six years, after being confiscated from a ship, a level of mismanagement hard to comprehend.

    Today, Lebanese President Michel Aoun visited the blast site. In a speech later in the day, Aoun promised justice.

  • Michel Aoun (through translator):

    We are determined to investigate and reveal what happened as soon as possible, to hand out punishment to those responsible.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The port is a lifeline for a city and a country already in the grip of an economic collapse, the result of years of corrupt leadership. The large white buildings here, half-destroyed, are grain silos, holding the country's precious supplies of wheat, needed to provide subsidized bread to millions.

    Lebanon's people have been struggling to buy food in the midst of currency collapse and hyperinflation. Now, in a country where 50 percent of the population have slipped beneath the poverty line, the loss of grain supplies only adds to this catastrophe.

    Panicked families are still desperately trying to find missing loved ones. This Instagram account holds painful pleas for any information. Many of these people worked at the port. An entire team of firefighters that rushed to the initial blaze is missing.

    For Dr. Jilani, she's grateful she has her daughter back in her arms, safe.

  • Seema Jilani:

    The main thing is, she is out of the hospital, she is stable, she is not needing oxygen, and she is back to her feisty self. So, the moments that you used to curse as a mother, those moments of tantrums, are joyful now, when you hear your child's cry. It is a joy now.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The Lebanese people, so often described as resilient, have no choice but to live through yet another tragedy, and try to mend their homes and their lives.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jane Ferguson.

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