Restless Lebanon family awaits three missing firefighter 'heroes'

Restless Lebanon family awaits three missing firefighter 'heroes'
Three members of the same family, all of which firefighters called to the scene, have been missing since the deadly port blast rocked Beirut last week.
4 min read
All three firefighters are members of the same family [Getty]
Three firefighters. One Lebanese family. The same restless wait. Rita Hitti has not slept a wink since the Beirut port blast, when her firefighting son, nephew and son-in-law went missing. 

"In one piece or several, we want our sons back," she told AFP from the Hitti family's home in the mountain town of Qartaba, north of Beirut.

"We have been waiting for the remains for six days," she added, dark circles under her eyes.

Najib Hitti, 27, Charbel Hitti, 22 and Charbel Karam, 37, all relatives, left together in one firetruck to douse a port blaze believed to have sparked the August 4 mega-blast that killed 160 people and wounded at least 6,000 others across town. 

They were among the first rescuers at the scene. They have not been heard of since. 

Near the entrance to their Qartaba home, the three men are praised as "heroes" in a huge banner unfurled over a wall.  

The double exposure shot shows them in the foreground dressed sharply in suits. 

In the background, the blast's now-infamous pink plume rises above their heads as they try to douse a fire.

An eerie calm filled the stone-arched living room, where dozens of relatives and neighbours gathered around Rita, the mother of Najib Hitti.

Read also: Between tragedy and hope: Survivor's guilt in the Arab diaspora

The women were mum, the men whispered between themselves, the young shuffled in and out of the room, quietly.

Karlen, Rita's daughter, looked among the most sombre, with her husband Charbel Karam, brother Najib and cousin Charbel all missing.

Sitting next to her mother on the couch, she fought back tears and did not say a single word.

'I know their smell'

The Hittis' hopes of seeing their loved ones alive have dimmed since the army on Sunday said it had concluded search and rescue operations with little to no hope of finding survivors.

The health ministry has said the number of missing stands at less than 20, while the army announced it had lifted five corpses from beneath the rubble. 

A large blaze was still ripping through the blast site when the Hittis and other relatives of port employees dashed to the disaster zone to check on their loved ones.

But they were stopped by security forces.

"I told them I would know my boys from their smell," Rita said she told an officer who barred her from the site.

"Let me enter to search for them and when I whiff their smell I will know where they are," the mother said she pleaded.

Ever since, her hopes have gradually dwindled, but her anger is boiling. 

Lebanese authorities have pledged a swift investigation but the exact cause of the blast remains unclear.

Authorities say it was triggered by a fire of unknown origin that broke out in a port warehouse where a huge pile of highly volatile ammonium nitrate fertiliser had been left unsecured for years.

Whatever the cause of the fire was, the popular consensus is that the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of officials in charge of the port as well those who have ruled Lebanon country for decades.

"We gave them heroes and they returned them to us as 'martyrs'," Rita said, scoffing at the label officials have used to brand blast casualties. 

"What martyrs? What were they protecting? The noxious things (authorities) were hiding in the port?" she asked rhetorically.

"They are martyrs of treachery."

DNA tests

George, father of Charbel Hitti, also rushed to the blast site to look for his son and relatives after the explosion.

"I started to scream their names: Najib, Charbel... I was like a mad man," he told AFP.

"We waited until 6 in the morning the next day for clues to what happened," he said.

"In the end, I started crying."

He did manage, however, to get one piece of information from a port security official close to the family who was at the scene of the blaze when the firefighting team first arrived on August 4.

Read also: Lebanese ex-porn star and activist Mia Khalifa auctions off infamous glasses for Beirut blast victims

The security official had told him that the firefighters were trying to break open the door to the ammonium nitrate warehouse because they could not find the keys before the explosion ripped the whole place apart.

A week has since passed and George said hopes of finding the three men alive have faded.

Assuming they are dead, George said he now wants one thing: "We just want DNA test results that are compatible with those of Charbel, Najib and Charbel," he said.

"Imagine. This is everything we now wish for."

Agencies contributed to this report.

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