'THE BLAST WAS SOMETHING THAT YOU NEEDED TO HEAR TO UNDERSTAND. IT WAS LIKE 100 JUMBO ENGINES GOING OFF'

He was barely 200 metres away from the bomb blast which claimed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's life.

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Published: Fri 18 Feb 2005, 5:02 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 6:11 PM

John Campbell's escape was miraculous, to say the least, and one that he won't forget in a lifetime. Here is a chilling eye-witness account of the carnage that tore Beirut apart

The ferocity of it all was stunning. One moment, it was a picture post-card, idyllic setting. Mellow afternoon sunlight suffused the street. Balmy air breezed in from the snow-capped mountains across the Marina. Trees gently swayed under the shadows of tall buildings. Undulating waves from the blue sea lapped against the small sandy beach. A few cars cruised about. A few stragglers sauntered along without a hint of hurry. One moment life held a promise of things to come.

The next moment, it was a dance of death and destruction. Bodies lay scattered. Blood ran in rivulets from severed limbs. Wrecked cars burst into flames or lay tossed in charred mass of mangled steel. The whole area looked as it visited by a thunderstorm of glass shards. Smoke billowed from a deafening explosion, rising over the city, darkening the skies, the city's upbeat mood and, with it, the dreams and, possibly the hopes of a nation.

The barbarity of it all was staggering, especially for John Campbell (name changed on request), an executive from Dubai who was in Beirut on the afternoon of February 14. John Campbell, who had flown to Beirut on February 13 for a one-day conference, unwittingly became a horrified spectator and, a lucky survivor, of the darkly defining moment in Lebanon's modern history. He was 200 metres away from the massive explosion that killed Lebanon's former Prime Minister Rafik Al Hariri and 12 others and injured over 100 people.

The Australian executive narrated the chilling first person account of his unplanned tryst with carnage in this exclusive report to City Times, also supplying the photos that he snapped of the devastated area of the assassination. "I was staying in the Intercontinental Phoenicia, Beirut's most luxurious hotel. Ah, the sheer beauty of Beirut! It just seemed to be the perfect day in the perfect city. I took many pictures of the city, of the Marina, the mountains, from my balcony to show to my wife. I also took one photo at 10 in the morning, which I thought was symbolic of Beirut, showing some of the older buildings in the Marina area including the St George Hotel." This was probably the last photo of the exact area that two hours later became the epicentre of the murderous explosion.

John's meeting was at 1 'o' clock at a nearby venue, a walking distance. So he left the hotel at quarter to one along with a colleague and crossed the road outside the Phoenicia. As they came to the curb, they saw on their right a car approaching on the road. They could have waited for the car to pass and then crossed the road to take a turn around the corner building, which was the way to their venue. Something prompted them to lope across the road just ahead of the car — an unwitting split-second decision that was to save their lives, as it moved them out of the direct path of the devastation that ensued within seconds. "I'll never be able to figure out why we made that decision." As they turned the building corner, they had a glimpse of a lady standing some distance away in front of the park.

They walked a few steps and then it happened — the blast. "The blast was something that you needed to hear to understand. It was like 100 Jumbo engines going off. The earth shook, as if it was an earthquake. I felt the sensation that the air was being sucked out of my lungs. We were thrown by the shockwaves about six feet away, between two parked cars. A shower of broken glass pieces rained on us. We were covered in dust. The air was filled with the smell of cordite. My immediate reaction was to look up. I thought a plane had hit the building and it was coming down on top of us. And in my mind, I thought; that's it; it's all over for me."

John and his colleague picked themselves up and moved around the building. John had hurt his ankle. They saw a cloud of smoke, from the Marina area, barely 200 metres away. Pieces of metal from shattered cars were strewn around. Covered in dust and glass particles, people were bleeding from their noses, from wounds caused by the shattered glass. Just 30 meters away, a person was bleeding badly. Further down the road, people were shouting, yelling in Arabic.

Others were sitting on the ground, stunned. Many were sobbing, weeping uncontrollably. The lady they last saw lay sprawled near the park, her head soaked in blood. Later, he noticed that she was the first person taken away by ambulance men. There was bedlam and confusion and pandemonium, and tons and tons of shattered glass everywhere. "The glass everywhere looked like someone had thrown ice or sugar candy on the floor."

Nobody knew what it was all about — the explosion. John first thought it was a truck bomb directed against the bank. He

didn't go past the park, towards the explosion area, fearing a second explosion. So, they started walking back to the hotel. They didn't know that the stupendous explosion came from 300 kgs of explosive, that it had left a 10-metre wide crater just a few strides down the road from them, that it had killed about a dozen people, that among them was the country's former prime minister, that it wrecked 20 cars, that it had plunged the nation into severe crisis. They came to know all this only later when they switched on the TV.

"I was advised to go back to Dubai. So, I collected my suitcase, filled with glass pieces and started for the airport, still in my dusty suit. As the taxi wound its way through, I felt like I was leaving an embattled city. Army personnel were in full force everywhere. Security was tightened around the airport, which itself was thronging with people desperate to get out, apprehensive that it may be the beginning of more bloodshed. I don't profess to understand the politics of Beirut, but any city that has devastation like this, is going to take a long time for people to recover. And yet, I realise that we need to go back, to show that we are willing to come there, to invest and to spend time there. I mean...Beirut is a beautiful city and they are incredible people. And in order to get Beirut going again, we need to continue to build the infrastructure, we need to continue to show interest in doing business there. And if we don't, the people who did this have won."

John Campbell can still hear the bomb, the like of which he had never experienced before. Later when he was flying back to Dubai, before handing over his coat to the steward, he checked its pocket and found a piece of glass, and gave it to the Emirates steward. "This is your lucky day," the steward told him. "The whole day I was feeling that perhaps I was unlucky, because I had come so close to such a disaster. But on reflection, I realised the steward was right. It was my lucky day!"


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