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The stunning moments when Beirut’s blasts upended individual lives, captured on video by chance

Dramatic video out of Beirut on Aug. 4 showed an initial blast, followed by a larger one that sent flames into the air and a mushroom cloud of red smoke. (Video: The Washington Post)

The priest faces the altar, then slowly begins to turn, a thurible swinging from his right hand.

Then the church appears to shake, and the light that illuminates a cross on the wall cuts out. The priest continues to chant, glancing aside only once. Then a second blast strikes, and he flees as the walls of his church crumble around him.

The terrifying scene, caught by a camera recording the Mass, is one of many videos that have reached a wide audience on social media documenting the moment when ordinary life in Beirut was plunged into chaos by explosions that killed more than 100 people and injured more than 3,000 others.

Video captured on Aug. 4 shows the moment when explosions interrupted a priest in the middle of mass in Beirut. (Video: Reuters)

Beirut blast death toll rises to 100 with more fatalities feared

The blasts shook Lebanon’s capital city at about 6 p.m. local time, sending waves of panic across the country as a mushroom cloud of red smoke billowed into the sky. Although much remains unknown about the circumstances surrounding the blasts, Prime Minister Hassan Diab said they were linked to 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate stored at the port where the explosions originated.

Although The Washington Post was unable to immediately verify the authenticity of the videos, the explosions and their aftermath appear to have been filmed from many angles across the city, and the few moments between the two eruptions gave observers time to pull out their phones and capture smoke filling the sky — unaware that a larger blast was impending.

They recorded from hotels and restaurants, apartment buildings and balconies, unwittingly capturing in real time the destruction in a city already reeling from a devastating economic crisis and the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Video captured on Aug. 4 shows the moments before a bride’s wedding pictures were interrupted by the explosions in Beirut. (Video: Mahmoud Nakib via Storyful)

Some people captured footage — like that of the priest — in the course of their ordinary lives, with no thought toward documenting disaster. In one video viewed more than 2 million times on Twitter, a beaming bride stands outside, her hand on her hip as she shows off her white wedding dress. The camera pans to the ground, where a bouquet of flowers was gently placed by her feet. Then the explosion shakes the ground, and the train of her dress goes flying into the air as the videographer runs for shelter, capturing a glimpse of the bride fleeing in the background.

Other videos shared on social media, captured by what appear to be security cameras inside Beirut apartment buildings, showed panicked adults trying to shield children from the blasts.

In one, a woman drops her vacuum and rushes to scoop a small child into her arms as the windows around them shatter. In another, a man cradles a small boy in his arms and looks about for safety, before diving under a table.

“Look at how that house is burning,” a child standing inches from a wall of glass windows can be heard saying in another video recorded from inside an apartment, as a woman sits with other children on the couch nearby. Then the windows shatter, sending the child tumbling to the ground as the woman tries to shelter the others before they all flee from the room.

Soon, the city’s hospitals would be so overwhelmed that corpses would be sent straight to the morgues. Hundreds of thousands of people would be displaced from their homes. Rescue workers would comb the streets with flashlights, asking anyone trapped to call out for help. Beirut’s governor would survey the scene of the explosion and break down in tears on TV.

And a sense of disbelief would prevail as the sun rose in Beirut on Wednesday morning, casting light on the extent of the damage as residents and rescue workers sifted through the rubble, still searching for belongings and survivors.

Linah Mohammad contributed to this report.