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Birth and death at a Beirut hospital hit in blast a year ago

·5 min read

BEIRUT (AP) — Emmanuelle Khnaisser had been in labor all day, and now it was in the last stages. Her baby — her first — was crowning.

Five floors below, Jessica Bezdjian was just entering Beirut’s St. George Hospital. She was an hour early for her 12-hour shift as a nurse in the psychiatric ward.

Everything exploded.

On every floor in a single instant, windows burst. Doors flew off their hinges, ceilings collapsed, and equipment toppled. A wave of dust and pulverized glass surged through the wards and halls. In the darkness and chaos came the screams of bloodied patients, doctors and nurses.

On that day, Aug. 4, 2020, hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate improperly stored at a port warehouse blew up in one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history — 900 meters (yards) from St. George.

The blast tore through the Lebanese capital at 6:07 p.m., destroying entire neighborhoods and killing at least 214 people, including 22 at St. George Hospital.

A year later, many still struggle with the physical and psychological trauma. Some wrestle with the inexplicable loss of a loved one, some try to grasp what it means to have survived.

“It was the happiest moment in my life and the ugliest one at the same time,” said Edmond Khnaisser, Emmanuelle’s husband.

At around 5 a.m., Emmanuelle’s water broke. She was going into labor two weeks early. She and Edmond rushed to the hospital, where they were joined by family.

Together, they waited for baby George — as they already knew they would name him — to come into the world.

On the northern outskirts of Beirut, Chouchan Yeghiyan woke her youngest daughter, Jessica, at 4 p.m. to get ready. Jessica usually slept for much of the day since she was working overnight shifts. The 22-year-old loved her work and was saving money to pursue a master’s degree.

She ate and showered. Once her older sister Rosaline got home around 5:30 p.m., Jessica went downstairs and took the car.

She waved goodbye to her father, George Bezdjian, standing on the balcony.

“I wish I didn’t wake her up that day,” her mother said, tears running down her face.

At around 5:45 p.m., the baby’s head could be seen. Emmanuelle was wheeled into the operating room — just as the blast hit.

Ceiling tiles and window frames collapsed onto Emmanuelle, and glass showered her from the waist down. Her entire bed was jolted nearly a meter (yard) out of place. One doctor was thrown under the bed, another was hit by debris. Their blue and white uniforms were splattered with blood. The machine registering George’s heartbeat broke.

“I was in a state of shock. We had no idea what had happened,” Emmanuelle said.

Videos from Edmond’s cellphone document the panic. In one video, he is heard screaming, “Where is my wife? Stay where you are. Oh, Virgin Mary.”

The baby had pushed back inside her, and the delivery had to start from scratch. The doctors moved her bed into the emergency exit corridor, where there was less damage.

She was disoriented, didn’t know if her baby was alive. When, after a few tense moments, they heard his heartbeat, “I felt that there is a reason I should live for. I have to do all I can because I have a big responsibility for George to come to this life,” Emmanuelle recalled.

As she pushed, Emmanuelle heard people weeping and ambulance sirens blaring. Distraught people rushed by in and out of the emergency exit, searching for loved ones. As darkness fell, her doctors worked by the light of their cellphones.

At 7:18 p.m., the little boy with dark brown hair was born, 71 minutes after the blast.

“When they put him on my chest, I was feeling very guilty and told him ... ‘I’m sorry, my life, that you had to be born this way,’” Emmanuelle said, holding back her tears.

In one of Edmond’s videos, a nurse can be heard showing a crying baby George to his wife. “He is so beautiful,” the nurse tells her.

Usually when Jessica arrives at work, she sends her mother emojis of kisses or hearts. On this day, at 6:05 p.m., she sent an emoji of an angel. Two minutes later, her mother heard the powerful boom from 6 kilometers (4 miles) away.

Yeghiyan started screaming: “I feel something in my heart. Maybe the girl died.”

Her husband and their eldest daughter rushed to drive to the hospital. Frantic, Yeghiyan knocked on the neighbor’s door and asked him to take her. When they hit traffic, Yeghiyan jumped out of the car and stopped a motorcyclist. She climbed on the back, and he weaved his way through the jammed vehicles toward St. George.

The father and daughter got there first. They were told Jessica was in the emergency ward. They assumed she was there helping the wounded.

They recognized her from her shoes. She was lying on the floor, doctors giving her artificial ventilation and pressing on her chest.

Bezdjian saw the gaping wound on his daughter’s neck and her bag, soaked in blood.

“I took off my daughter’s shoes and started kissing her feet,” he recalled, his voice shaking. “I asked God, ‘In nine days I will be 60. Take my breath and give it to her.’”

Yeghiyan arrived and saw her daughter’s body. She fainted.

Jessica succumbed to her wounds around the same time George was born.

A year later, the family home echoes with Jessica’s absence. They aren’t well off — her father used to work as a tailor — and they used what Jessica had been saving to pay for her funeral.

Three days after the funeral, the family took Jessica’s dog, Foxy, a Pomeranian, to the cemetery. They watched as Foxy ran from one grave to another, then jumped on Jessica’s and started yowling. They marked Jessica’s 23rd birthday at the grave in November.

Emmanuelle and Edmond will celebrate George’s first birthday a few days after Aug. 4, out of respect for the blast’s victims.

One day, Emmanuelle said, she will tell him about his birth in the explosion.

“I will tell him how his birth was a ray of light amid all the darkness.”

Bassem Mroue And Fay Abuelgasim, The Associated Press

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