Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 29 October 2020

Crane operator describes miraculous survival at Beirut blast site

Rayan Abou Dergham had just started the shift at Beirut port when he was knocked unconscious and awoke to find himself in what looked like a warzone

'It was an unbelievable nightmare … I cannot forget it as long as I live. I cannot keep it away from my head as it keeps haunting me even in my sleep,' says Rayan Abou Dergham, who was working at Beirut port on the day of the blast. Courtesy Rayan Abou Dergham
'It was an unbelievable nightmare … I cannot forget it as long as I live. I cannot keep it away from my head as it keeps haunting me even in my sleep,' says Rayan Abou Dergham, who was working at Beirut port on the day of the blast. Courtesy Rayan Abou Dergham

A month on from the Beirut blast, Rayan Abou Dergham is still awed by his miraculous survival after being blown upside down in the crane he was operating that day.

Positioned at Beirut Port’s wharf number 16, where he operates the 11th gantry crane, Mr Abou Dergham was inside the cockpit and 60 metres above ground level when the impact of the explosion blew him out of his seat and knocked him unconscious.

“Until now I keep getting flashbacks and cannot get it out of my head. I do not know how I survived … I keep seeing how everything overturned when the blast flew me upside down as the crane moved back and forth,” the 46-year-old, who has been deemed a "living martyr" by family and friends. told The National.

Rayan Abou Dergham takes a selfie at Beirut port where he worked as a crane operator just before the blast. Courtesy Rayan Abou Dergham
Rayan Abou Dergham takes a selfie at Beirut port where he worked as a crane operator just before the blast. Courtesy Rayan Abou Dergham

Mr Abou Dergham, a father of two who hails from Kfarhim village 34 kilometres outside Beirut, had worked for years as a gantry crane operator at the Beirut Container Terminal Consortium company inside Beirut Port. That day, on August 4, he had just started his evening shift.

As he climbed into the cockpit at 5.50pm, a few minutes before the blast, he saw a fire and swirls of thick greyish smoke engulfing the area of Warehouse 12 about 150 metres away.

The operator, whose shift starts at 6pm sharp, was mesmerised by the smoke. He then used his phone to take photos of the scene, where fireworks had begun to crackle around the warehouse.

'It was an unbelievable nightmare … I cannot forget it as long as I live. I cannot keep it away from my head as it keeps haunting me even in my sleep,' says Rayan Abou Dergham, who was working at Beirut port on the day of the blast. Courtesy Rayan Abou Dergham
'It was an unbelievable nightmare … I cannot forget it as long as I live. I cannot keep it away from my head as it keeps haunting me even in my sleep,' says Rayan Abou Dergham, who was working at Beirut port on the day of the blast. Courtesy Rayan Abou Dergham

“At five minutes past 6, I do not know what happened. The first explosion blew up and the ground shook underneath me as if the crane was dancing and about to crumble. The second and stronger explosion blew up and I couldn’t see anything”

Mr Abou Dergham was blown back by the force and knocked unconscious for several seconds. When he regained his consciousness, chaos reigned around the cabin.

“I didn’t realise what happened. Rubble and debris were flying all over the place. I tried to stand up on my feet but I couldn’t,” says Mr Abou Dergham, who had only clicked two photos before the blast.

For several minutes he stayed still, feeling dizzy, and disoriented, his ears deafened by the noise of the explosion before he found a bottle of water that helped revive his senses.

Through the open window, he could see what looked like a war zone, a scene that reminded him of the Lebanese Civil War.

Amid the flying debris and burning cars, Mr Abou Dergham noticed dead and injured people lying on the ground. Warehouse 12 was completely destroyed.

“It was an unbelievable nightmare … I cannot forget it as long as I live. I cannot keep it away from my head as it keeps haunting me even in my sleep,” he says.

Realising he needed to move, the 46-year-old gathered his strength and climbed down from the cabin after finding the emergency elevator broken.

When he reached ground level he learnt that three co-workers had been killed.

Shocked that he had survived, he found his car, which was still intact unlike tens of others because he’d left the windows slightly open, allowing the heat to pass through.

“Paramedics were busy attending other heavily wounded persons and I thought I could drive myself to the nearest hospital. I was injured because of flying glass and had inhaled toxic smoke during the 15 minutes I stayed in the cockpit trying to regain my consciousness and powers,” he said.

“I jumped into my car and drove on my own although I was not feeling safe to do so. I had a headache and body ache and couldn’t hear properly or concentrate. It was a risk that I had to take to save myself,” Mr Abou Dergham recalls.

Rayan Abou Dergham had just started his shift as a crane operator at Beirut Port when the blast on August 4 threw him upside down in the cabin and knocked him unconscious. When he woke, the scene looked like a war zone, he told The National. Courtesy Rayan Abou Dergham
Rayan Abou Dergham had just started his shift as a crane operator at Beirut Port when the blast on August 4 threw him upside down in the cabin and knocked him unconscious. When he woke, the scene looked like a war zone, he told The National. Courtesy Rayan Abou Dergham

But with many hospitals damaged or already overwhelmed by patients injured in the blast, he couldn’t find one to admit him. Even the hospital in his village outside the city was full, many of its 200 beds occupied by victims of the explosion.

On the way there, he fainted every few kilometres and had to keep reviving himself during the journey, which took about three hours.

Eventually he found a private doctor who prescribed medication, but his symptoms persisted. “My first night at home I couldn’t sleep because of my earache and headache … I felt very sick and tired. Some solution leaked out of my ears at night.”

The next day the doctor admitted him to hospital. “I was diagnosed with brain concussion, had liquid congestion behind my eardrums and my sinuses got inflamed. My lungs were also inflamed due to smoke inhalation."

Mr Abou Dergham says he suffered "nervousness and nonstop headaches" even now.

"Sometimes I suffer of disorientation and lack of concentration.”

Mr Abou Dergham has to pay regular visits to a neurologist and is presently under a six-month medication.

But a month on, he says he could not be more grateful to God for his miraculous survival so close to the site of the blast.

“I cannot stop remembering or seeing horrendous flashbacks of what happened and how I survived.”

Updated: September 8, 2020 02:05 PM

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