On a Calm Night, Suddenly, 'Everybody Was Running'
A Charmed Spot by the Red Sea, Transformed in 15 Gory Minutes

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 24, 2005

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt, July 23 -- It was a little after 1 a.m. when the sweltering summer day finally gave way to a breezy desert night, and the merchants of Egypt's premier Red Sea resort wrapped up business and headed for festive, 24-hour cafes.

Nasser Ali gathered the receipts at his tourist shop, Layali al-Hilmiya. Mohammed Eissa straightened the shelves in his stationery store. Sayyid Sayyid, cheerfully speaking broken English, finished cutting the hair of his last customer at Friends Coiffure.

In the 15 minutes that followed early Saturday, Sharm el-Sheikh, always a little more freewheeling and relaxed than the rest of Egypt, was transformed into an arcade of destruction as arbitrary as it was devastating. With three bombings, carefully coordinated under the cover of night, dozens of people were killed, many more were wounded, and businesses were wrecked. In the wake of grief, a city blessed by azure waters, some of the world's best coral reefs and the generosity of tourists, fell silent.

It began across the street from Ali, Eissa and Sayyid's workplaces.

"The building shook," Ali said. "I didn't know what it was. I asked God to make it anything except a bomb, but it was."

Detonated in a car parked in the middle of a street lined with jewelers, clothing and diving equipment stores, tourist traps, restaurants and cafes, the bomb carved a crater 10 feet wide and hurled debris 100 yards. All nearby windows were shattered and more than a dozen cars left charred, half mangled and singed white. Pools of blood mixed with grease and water.

"To the right, to the left, it was the same. Everywhere," said Samih Guindy, who worked across the street at his shop, Rodana Optics.

The bomb struck at a time when the streets of Sharm el-Sheikh's Old Market were teeming, most of the revelers Egyptians. Vendors were already in the cafes, sipping thick Turkish coffee and sweet tea and smoking water pipes.

There was a brief moment of silence after the blast; then, those who still could began to flee down the street, away from the smoke and fire.

"Everybody was running. Nobody could see anyone else. They were running into each other," Eissa recalled.

He described stumbling out of his shop to see a person whose stomach was torn open, his intestines spilling out. The man's right leg had been severed, cast aside. Nearby, Eissa's brother, 21-year-old Hani, lay on the curb, a gash across his face. Eissa wrapped his brother's arm over his shoulder and dragged him down the street to a taxi, which ferried them to Sharm el-Sheikh International Hospital.

Ali left his shop, littered with torn papyrus, plates of copper, tin and brass from the time of the pharaohs and boxes of inlaid mother-of-pearl that had been knocked off the shelves. Outside his door was a man whose arm had been blown off in the blast.

"It was awful," Ali recalled. He stopped and started weeping softly. "What could I do?" he asked.

Sayyid also witnessed the panorama of carnage.

"It's forbidden!" he blurted out later. "It's so, so, so forbidden!"

Down the street, immediately after the blast, Ali Sayid Said sat at his cash register, staring blankly at three shattered panes of glass at the front of his grocery store. His four employees had already run for cover. A group of six Italian tourists who were buying snacks dove to the floor, seeking shelter between shelves of Lipton tea and Nescafe on one side, shampoo, soap and toothpaste on the other.

Said ran into the street and hailed a car, which drove the Italians to safety.

"I could hear the screams, but I couldn't see the bodies," he said. "It's God's will, not mine," he added. "Only God knows." He repeated the phrase twice more. "Only God knows."

As Said was fetching a car, Mohammed Shugaa, a civil engineer, left his home and returned to the Tiran Center, a shopping mall in the Old Market that he had helped design. Lights dangled from its portico, and blood smeared the granite sidewalk by the entrance.

"It was hell here," he said. "The sky had turned yellow from the burning cars."

He sat at the Melody Restaurant down the street, watching as security forces cordoned the area and blaring ambulances ferried the wounded away. Scattered on the pavement were shoes, water bottles, broken pieces of water pipes, a charred leather belt, a piece of radiator, a tire and, oddly, an iron, perched upright on the curb.

Shugaa stayed till 7 a.m., when the yellow sky made way for dawn.

'It Was Terrifying'

A few miles away in Naama Bay, a seaside boulevard of hotels, restaurants and casinos, few people heard the first explosion. News came by cell phones, which started ringing frantically moments afterward.

George Albert, a 26-year-old tour guide, was sitting at a cafe when his rang. A friend told him what had happened, and as a precaution, he headed for the bay's main thoroughfare to go home.

As he stared ahead, the second explosion struck the Ghazala Gardens Hotel, pushing him back.

"I saw black smoke, which seemed to follow me," Albert said. "It was like a wave washing over me."

Ahmed Saleh, 27, had been parked across the street in his blue-and-white taxi. A hundred yards or so in front of him, he saw a brown car with a license plate from Taba, a resort farther north on the Israeli-Egyptian border. He said the car plowed through a barricade along the hotel's driveway, hitting two guards, and then barreled into the domed entrance near the reception area before detonating.

"It was terrifying," he said. "Glass, furniture, stuff you wouldn't believe flew into the sky. The windows just exploded."

The white facade of the hotel was sheared off, and part of the roof pancaked into the floor. Insulation dangled, and doors were torn from their hinges, propped at improbable angles. A charred palm tree stood over chunks of concrete and bricks strewn across the parking lot. Glass was sprayed hundreds of yards, littering everything in its path.

Some of the glass cut Saleh's left ear. He said he stayed with his car, eventually transporting six people to the hospital.

At the time of the blast, Khaled Kumati, the 39-year-old owner of the King Waheeb Perfume Palace, was walking near Albert, the tour guide.

At a cafe, friends had told him about the first explosion, and he, too, decided to head home. A minute later, he said, the Ghazala Gardens was destroyed, sending flames maybe six stories high. He stumbled backward, and like others, ran in the opposite direction, toward his shop and a parking lot where taxis waited.

"We were asking, 'What happened? What happened?' and five minutes later, we saw the other one," he said.

'Dead People Everywhere'

The third and final blast tore through the parking lot a short walk from the Moevenpick Hotel. Kumati said he saw flames arc over the Sheikh Abdullah supermarket, which faced the parking lot. The asphalt was strewn with bodies, their trails of blood still evident the next day. Discarded slippers, a crumbled black hat, soiled blankets and a bamboo chair with one leg missing littered the area.

The shock wave from the explosion bounced off the buildings, shattering windows blocks away. Some were convinced it was a third car bomb. Most believed the explosives had been hidden in a bag left behind.

Kumati said he was seized by fear, and like others, he hovered behind at the Tavern Bar.

"I was looking at people. I was suspicious of everyone. Who had a bag? Who had a bomb on his body? Do I go there? Is there a bomb there? Do I go here? I just stood there," Kumati said. "Everyone thought another car was going to explode," he said. "We were yelling, 'Be careful! Be careful!' "

Albert had stumbled by then. His right arm and right leg were cut. His stomach was gashed.

"I looked at my arms and legs and I tried to walk away," he said. "Then I fell into a nearby alley."

At first, no one would help him as he lay bleeding.

"The Egyptians were scared to come too close. They were swearing. Finally a drunk British man came to help me," he said. "The Egyptians were throwing cloth for the guy to help bandage me."

Kumati was more worried about his 29-year-old brother, Ali. After the blast, he had tried to call Ali, but the cell-phone network was overburdened, and he was unable to reach him.

"I didn't know where my brother was," he said. "I saw dead people everywhere."

Ali had closed his own perfume shop at a nearby hotel when he heard the blast. He knew it was near his brother's shop. When he got there, he saw the door had been shattered. All that remained was the handle.

"I thought he had died," Ali said. "When I saw the windows broken, I thought the bomb was at our shop."

Two minutes later, they saw each other near the Tavern Bar. Ali started slapping his head in joy and anguish.

"I couldn't believe he was still alive," he said of Kumati.

'Sharm el-Sheikh Is Dead'

Eighteen hours later, Kumati still had not slept. Uncertainty kept him awake.

"I traveled 600 kilometers from Cairo to Sharm el-Sheikh to work. Why, my friend? Tell me why! 600 kilometers," Kumati said. "It has no meaning at all. Who benefits from this? Tell me who benefits from this story, and tell me who loses."

"We lose," he said, offering his own answer. "The people lose."

Throughout the day Saturday, merchants diligently swept glass from the sidewalk. They picked up the pieces. They made piles of what was damaged and salvaged what was not. A sense of gloom about the future was matched only by grief over the night before. People speculated that it would take months, perhaps years, for Sharm el-Sheikh to reclaim what it had lost.

"I've seen everything I built destroyed in 15 minutes," said Shugaa, the civil engineer who stayed at the scene until dawn. "It's really ridiculous. We lost our work, we lost our shops, we lost our investment. It's a disaster."

Down the street, Guindy, the owner of Rodana Optics, looked at the glass that littered his shop two inches deep. A dozen pools of dried blood stained his sidewalk. His shirt was splotched with sweat on a searing day.

"Sharm el-Sheikh is dead for us," he said. "It was the dream of everyone to come here, and now there is no dream."

" Khalas ," he added. "It's over."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company