A Lebanese nurse is being hailed as a national heroine after rescuing three newborns from the debris and walking them five kilometres to safety after the Beirut port explosion destroyed her hospital on Tuesday.
Pamela Zeinoun was working on the fourth floor of the St George Hospital University Medical Centre in central Beirut's Rmeil when the impact of the blast flung her out of the room she was in and into the adjacent neonatal intensive care unit.
Describing the aftermath to The National, Ms Zeinoun said ceilings collapsed, rooms were strewn with rubble and equipment and furniture thrown to the floor.
“I was not able to go back in because all the doors were closed. I went to another door on the floor and saw many colleagues who were bleeding from injuries on their hands, heads and backs. We were very scared and could not understand what had really happened until then,” she said.
“I called doctors for help. One of the doctors grabbed a baby and I was able to grab a twin brother and sister and another baby.”
She said a father who was visiting his newborn daughter helped to lift up steel shelves that had fallen on the incubators so that she could pull the three babies out.
The hospital is barely half a kilometre from Beirut port and bore the full impact of the massive explosion that damaged half of the Lebanese capital, killed at least 158 people and wounded more 6,000.
Four of the hospital’s nursing staff lost their lives, as well as 12 patients and a visitor. More than 100 doctors, residents, nurses and administrative staff suffered injuries ranging from mild to critical, according to the hospital’s website.
Ms Zeinoun said she couldn't explain how she managed to remain calm amid the chaos, saying only that her focus on getting the babies to a safe place overtook any concerns about her own well-being.
But with the elevators out of order, she and the doctors first had to carefully climb down four flights of stairs while carrying the newborns.
“I couldn’t feel my feet while climbing down the slippery stairs. I was scared of slipping, or any of the babies slipping, or me falling on them. I did not want to lose any of them and wanted to get them to safety,” Ms Zeinoun said.
“All emergency exits were blocked and so we had to dig our way out. We reached the ground … the scene was horrible. Doctors and nurses were on the floor and patients were running in fright. We couldn’t do anything,” she said.
The hospital’s staff are trained to quickly go to the emergency room in such situations, but when they got there it looked nothing like an ER because of all the damage from the blast, Ms Zeinoun said
Resident doctors were stitching patients’ wounds on the floor and using compression bandages to stop bleeding. There were no medical materials to work with, she said.
Amid the confusion, and still clutching the three newborns, she stopped to answer the emergency room phone, a moment that was captured by the photojournalist Bilal Jawich.
Ms Zeinoun carried the newborns into the street, looking for a place to take them. A doctor named Nadim Hajal helped her by taking one of the infants.
A nearby hospital could not admit the babies because it had also been destroyed.
“We walked across the streets of Achrafieh area with the babies in our hands … I asked bystanders, who volunteered to help, to give us their shirts to keep the babies safe. The three newborns are under 2 kilograms each and I had to cover them up and keep them warm otherwise they wouldn’t live.
“We walked around five kilometres until we found a car that could help us take the babies to a hospital a bit outside Beirut,” she said.
Looking back on her actions, Ms Zeinoun said she was driven by fear of losing the babies.
“I was too scared. The reason behind all what I did was to get the trio to safety. I would not have been able to stand the situation had I lost any of them. During all this, my main concern was to keep them breathing and unharmed.”