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"There's nothing left": Beirut doctors say hospitals were so damaged by explosion, they had to turn away patients

Beirut port devastated by deadly blast
Beirut's main port devastated by deadly blast 02:07

The catastrophic explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, destroyed several hospitals in the port city, which has forced some to turn away patients and overwhelmed those that could take on victims, multiple heath care providers confirmed to CBS News. The blast killed at least 137 people and wounded thousands.

Saint George Hospital, located less than a mile from the explosion, was forced to treat patients in the street due to severe damage it sustained. Pamela Makhoul, who is a nurse at that hospital, told CBS News that all patients were evacuated to other hospitals after they received basic care.

"The situation is a disaster," she said Wednesday. "There's nothing left."

Makhoul, who said she spent the last 24 hours cleaning up the hospital, also said patients and fellow nurses died in the blast. The Order of Nurses in Lebanon, a nurses union, posted a statement on Facebook saying at least five nurses died on Tuesday.

A union spokesperson told CBS News that three hospitals were taken out of service because of the damage and that patients had to be transferred to other hospitals. They were unable to receive or help wounded, the spokesperson said. Two other hospitals were reportedly damaged but remained operational.

The damaged Wardieh hospital is pictured in the aftermath of Tuesday's blast that tore through Lebanon's capital. Getty

Salah Zeineldine, a doctor of pulmonary and critical care at the American University of Beirut Medical Center, the biggest hospital system in the city, said the hospital he works with had some damage, but was able to function and treat the hundreds of patients they received without having to turn any away.

He told CBS News he's never witnessed anything like Tuesday's tragedy in his career.

"Yesterday was not like any other day," Zeineldine said. "There was an element of chaos, even though we often have drills and simulations to respond to crises on time. I've dealt with lots of catastrophes, tragedies, big assassinations, and blasts with multiple casualties, but nothing even coming close to yesterday." 

Zeineldine said that the country was already weakened by a severe economic crisis as well as the COVID-19 pandemic. He said that up until now hospitals had sufficient supply to treat patients — but added that after the blast, hospitals might start to run short on equipment. 

"We fear that what was functioning yesterday won't function tomorrow," he said. "Last night's tragedy was one of the worse known to mankind, excluding wars."

 Bahman Hospital was forced to make a makeshift treating area for patients.  Hassan Cherry

Dr. Hassan Cherry told CBS News that Tuesday was his first day as a resident in the emergency room at Bahman Hospital, which is about four miles away from the explosion site. He said the emergency room typically only accommodates 20 patients, but the hospital was forced to make a makeshift treating area outside after receiving 200 people in three hours.

"May God save Lebanon." he said. "All my dreams is destroyed."

Lebanese officials said Tuesday's explosion was caused by 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer in agriculture and an explosive, that had been stored unsafely in a warehouse. Cherry said people in Beirut should go far from the city if possible.

"Nitrate gas is toxic," Cherry said, urging people to wear masks and wash their hands and face regularly. 

Before the blast, Lebanon was in the midst of an economic crisis rooted in decades of systemic corruption and poor governance by the political class that has been in power since the end of the civil war. These crises, combined with the pandemic, have forced the country into a spiral. Dr. Mohamad Jalloul, a doctor who works at the Rafic Hariri University Hospital — what he calls the country's "epicenter" of coronavirus patients — said he wants Lebanon's leadership to reflect on what's going on now.

"I'd hope this would ignite some sense of responsibility towards how dangerous this outbreak is going to affect Lebanon and how careless our government is towards helping hospitals receiving COVID[-19] patients," Jalloul told CBS News. "I don't think we can handle what's coming."

Natacha Larnaud contributed reporting. 

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